Richard Pryor was his own Nero. He fiddled while he burned.
That is to say, he made virtuoso comedy out of his own misery, sadness and, yes, his own burning. On June 9, 1980, when freebasing cocaine went wrong, the comedian ran screaming down the street outside his house -- literally on fire. One thing he learned from that experience, he told his audience later, "when you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way."
Quips like that were signature Pryor. He made music out of all the terrible things that happened to him (or the things he did to others), like that burning incident (which he later acknowledged was a deranged suicide attempt rather than an accident), growing up black in Peoria, Ill., getting wrongly arrested, getting rightly arrested (for tax evasion, assault and drug possession), or a wife leaving because he beat her. Then there was his career-long addiction to cocaine and other drugs, and finally , the multiple sclerosis diagnosed in 1986 that all but muted him.
It's especially sad that Pryor doesn't get to make a joke about his own demise. He died early yesterday of cardiac arrest in Los Angeles. He was 65. On that Pryor violin -- his comedic sensibility -- there were three offensive words, beginning with M, N and P. Two were vulgarisms and the N-word was a racial epithet. But thanks to his delivery, they became grace notes. At one concert, he simply repeated the M-word, over and over, using different inflections each time and bringing down the house. Those words were the language of his early life in Peoria, and there was no way he could evoke his life onstage without using them -- any more than Shakespeare could have avoided those rhyming couplets.
For Pryor, it wasn't just about being funny, it was about doing it right, doing it his way, in his language. And if foul language was part of it, then foul language was going to have to be spit into the microphone. He instinctively knew this -- as he said in his autobiography "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences" -- in September 1967 when he stepped onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas and to a sellout, mainstream audience said, "What the [bleep] am I doing here?" and left.
From then on, he became Richard Pryor, a man who was not afraid to be himself and made his experiences universal.
He was more than a two-bit cusser, much more so than the chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing entertainers now who use the N-word with such profligacy. For Pryor, the word meant "black like me and millions of others who'll never get on this stage," and his use of it may have done more than Muhammad Ali, Stevie Wonder or Bill Cosby ever did with their great careers to break down racial barriers in mainstream America.
He didn't just break down barriers, he influenced generations of other comedians, black and white, including Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Richard Belzer and Dave Chappelle. He used the N-word to confront racism with the buffer of humor. He said he wanted to take the sting out of that word, "as if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness."
As a gifted storyteller, his hilarious anecdotes -- ranging from crude and frank to deeply surreal (including an encounter between a black wino and an alien) -- brought everyone into his life and the life of black America.
He spoke about being a junkie, about being poor, about police harassment, about racism -- institutional and personal. The sci-fi movie "Logan's Run," he once said in that screechy, high-pitched timbre, had no black people in it, which meant "white folks ain't planning for us to be here. That's why we gotta make movies, and we be in the future. But we gotta make some really hip movies. We done made enough movies about pimps, because white folks already know about pimpin'. 'Cause we the biggest hos they got."
He made a lot of movies, too, more than 30 feature films, and many of them completely forgettable such as "Brewster's Millions" and "Car Wash" and "California Suite." But he demonstrated his acting ability in such roles as the piano player in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues," in the 1978 "Blue Collar" and in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" (1976).
He also developed an engaging screen partnership with Gene Wilder in such films as "Silver Streak" (1976), "Which Way Is Up?" (1977) and the 1980 "Stir Crazy." (He also wrote some funny sections in "Blazing Saddles," including the baked beans scene.) But he did his finest work onstage with a microphone in front of him -- as seen and heard in such concert movies and recordings as "That Nigger's Crazy" (1974), "Bicentennial Nigger" (1976), "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert" (1979) and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" (1982).
"You all know how black humor started?" he asked on his "Bicentennial" album. "It started in slave ships. Cat was always over there rowing. Dude say, 'What you laughin' about?' Said, 'Yesterday I was a king.' "
He officially renounced the N-word after a trip to Africa where, as he related in his autobiography, he watched the Africans in his hotel lobby in wonder. "The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride. . . . There are no niggers here."
A few years later, he declared there were none at all.
"Now we are free, and that brings about a responsibility," he said at a commemoration for Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington. "We are free to starve to death . . . If you do better your condition, don't forget to look over your shoulder, reach out your hands and pull someone else along with you!"
By the time he won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center, he could only listen to the tributes from so many comics who had followed him.
Damon Wayans told the audience, "I wanted to be just like him, except for the drug habit, the failed marriages, the temper and the guns." Pryor, who believed that God had given him his talent and, just as formidably, had given him his disease, is now facing his maker.
But if anyone's got a chance of forgiveness by raising an almighty roar, it's gotta be him.
Maybe he could tell the Big Man the story of when his mother gave him $20 for an errand and he lost it. Sitting down on the sidewalk, he began crying. When a stranger asked him what was wrong, young Richard told the story. The stranger was so touched, Pryor said, he gave him the money. After a pause -- allowing the audience to feel the poignancy -- Pryor concluded with this: "[bleep], I was out there every day," playing the same scam.
If anyone has a shot at getting God to laugh, it has to be Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, who once said, if it wasn't for comedy, "I could be in Peoria parking cars."