HE'S BAAAAD, AND THAT'S good, and that's why the thought of comedian Richard Pryor lying on airfoam "egg crates" in a California hospitals, recovering from third-degree burns over half of his body, touches the emotions of millions of us fans as much as does his scathing humor.
Pryor is special to a lot of people, whites included, but he's particularly loved by young blacks. He is that rare jewel of a comedian who has taken the ordinary stuff of black lives and put it on center stage, very often in graphic and scalding street language. He is willing to go too far, to dare convention and shock by openly ridiculing sexual and racial taboos. Nothing is off limits. Yet, his characters and characterizations are familiar, straight from the pool halls, barber shops and beauty salons, out of the storefront churches and off the streets of our lives. b
He talks about black preachers who know God personally -- one of whom he says first met God outside a little hotel in Baltimore while eating a tuna fish sandwich in 1929. "I heard this voice call unto me . . . and the voice said, 'Psst," and I walked up to the voice and I said, 'What?' and the voice got magnificent and holy and resounded and the voice said, 'Gimme some of that samitch." Every since that day I been able to heal 'cause I didn't get up off that samitch. I said, 'If you're God, make your own damn samitch. I ain't messin' with you, don't mess with me. It's rough out here, God.'"
There's Mudbone, an old man from Tupelo, Miss., who dipped snuff and sat in front of the barbeque pit in Pryor's home town and spit and told fascinating stories that taught Pryor about life. "You learn something when you listen to old people. They ain't all fools," Pryor says. "You don't get to be old being no fool. A lot of young wise men are dead as a---, ain't they?"
Pryor appeals to young blacks because he's been able to publicly thumb his nose at the white system and become a millionaire in the process. Muhammad Ali used to be viewed in much the same way. In Pryor's portrayals of winos, pimps and preachers, in his scathing spiels on sex, dope, politics, the difference between black and white lifestyles, and in his outlandish images (Richard Nixon is an Uncle Tom), Pryor is a black comic laureate.
Like the late Lenny Bruce, he is more than a comedian; he is a phonomenon.
On the surface, his lewd street talk is sometimes shocking. But its substance often touches a raw nerve in many blacks.
When the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in this country, he spotted the system's ability to pit one minority group against another and vocalized blacks' concerns that they would compete for jobs with the new arrivals.
"Bring 'em over. Bring all of 'em over. Niggers don't mind," he says sacrcastically. "They didn't ask us -- we're the ones that got to give the jobs up for them."
He jokes about the big sales pitch to get people to adopt Vietnamese orphans, but then says, "I'm for orphans, now. Don't get me wrong. I like orphans. But they got 10 million [black orphans] here that need to be adopted."
Though sometimes crass and sometines racist in the view of some, Pryor expresses what is felt by many blacks, including those in the middle class who only get their troubles off their chests when they're away from the their offices downtown.
Richard Pryor -- is a flawed hero. He seems to have a death wish -- his self-indulgence, his dallying with drugs. His life is like that of a tightrope walker who takes six drinks before going out to perform.
His troubles include several scrapes with the police. In 1978, he got mad and shot at a car that belonged to friends of his wife, then rammed it with his Mercedes. He's already had a heart attack and he's still not 40. i
His most recent tragic mishap appears to stem from an ongoing battle with cocaine use, about which he once joked: "I snorted cocaine for about 15 years, with my dumb a--. I must have snorted up Peru. I could have bought Peru . . . I could have just gave them the money up front and had me a piece of property. I started out snortin' little tiny pinches. I said, 'I know I ain't goin to get hooked." Not from no coke. You can't get hooked. My friends been snortin' for 15 years, they ain't hooked."
On June 9, flames engulfed Pryor's body while he was at his California home. Police said that the ether Pryor was using to make "free base," a high-powered derivative of street-sold cocaine, exploded in his face. Pryor's attorney, David Franklin, said the fire started when Pryor's cigarette ignited rum he was drinking from a glass.
Last year, Pryor acknowledged in a television interview with Barbara Walters that he "loves" drugs. "I do, I really do. But I can't do them a lot because it messes up my life and every time I get in trouble," he said.
Now he is in, trouble, again. But, typical Pryor fashion, he is likely to make another million dollars if he survives by making this tragic experience the basis of a new album. After he shot out the car in 1978, he cracked jokes about it for months and kept people laughing -- including himself, all the way to the bank.
You have to wonder if the same attributes that make him a good comedian -- the ability to make fun of tragic -- are destroying Richard Pryor's life -- and crumbling any kind of image he could provide for the youngsters who idolize him.
Richard, brother, you're my main man. But come on, brother, get yourself together. Please.