Saturday, December 08, 2007

Feast of Saint Richard

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Richard. It would have been Richard Pryor's 67th birthday this week. It would not be a controversial claim to say that no one shaped comedy in the second half of the 20th century like Richard Pryor. Starting in the vein of Bill Cosby, Pryor developed into the comedian who would inherit Lenny Bruce's place as the voice that would tell us what we knew but didn't think we would hear. But unlike Bruce's unrelenting hard edge, determined to make sure you always remained off-balance, Pryor always -- even at his most shocking -- always had a humane touch. Whether it was self-reflection or through the voices of his characters like Mudbone, there was always a sense of empathy, even in his most pointed critiques.

As society itself wrestled with its own problems in the 60s, Pryor brought them out in a way that was clever and clear, forcing white people to understand that they could not remain in their perspective and giving voice to truism the black community had been trying to introduce into the conversation for a long time. Along with Dick Gregory, he consciously introduced the word "nigger" into his act. It was a political move. The word had so long been used as a weapon against African-Americans, the hope of Pryor and Gregory was that by appropriating the word themselves, they could blunt the weapon. By using it in a way that was clearly not intended to denigrate, they could blunt its force, perhaps not beating the sword into a plowshare, but at least rendering it something other than a weapon. After traveling to Africa, a trip that was transformative for him, Pryor changed his mind and explained why he would no longer use the word.

His stand-up was masterful, but he was also influential as a writer, writing for the sit-coms Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, and co-wrote one of the all time funniest movies ever, Blazing Saddles.

His addiction to cocaine nearly took him several times, setting himself on fire while freebasing being the most spectacular of them. But ultimately it was MS that got him, something he said God gave him to save his life. It's hard to believe it's been two years now.

A few lines from the man:

I'm not addicted to cocaine... I just like the way it smells.

It's been a struggle for me because I had a chance to be white and refused.

I'd like to die like my father died... My father died fucking. My father was 57 when he died. The woman was 18. My father came and went at the same time.

Thank you, Saint Richard. Happy birthday from Comedists everywhere up there to Comedy heaven.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve