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Richard Pryor: A comedian who told it like it is

Published Dec 15, 2005 11:31 PM

Richard Pryor, recognized as one of the greatest comedians to take the stage, died from a heart attack on Dec. 10. He was only 65 years old and had suffered with multiple sclerosis for 20 years.

Richard Pryor in 1977.

In all the news articles that have appeared surrounding the comedian’s death, Pryor’s history of drug addiction along with other troubles is dredged up along with interspersed acknow ledgment of the comedian’s unique talent. Though everything that Pryor did and said and every mistake made by him were part of who he was, there was no need to addle articles with tales of mistakes or addiction. His life was always an open book and he never shied away from it.

Very simply put, Richard Pryor was ingenious. He was the embodiment of the struggle of Black people for justice in the United States. Like Paul Robeson, with his booming baritone voice; or John Coltrane’s abstract jazz improvisation that soared, breaking form, almost imprinting the clouds; or hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, whose life ended too soon, exclaiming the many degradations of being Black in North American society but who left an indelible mark on the consciousness of so many young Black males—Richard Pryor was able to communicate the Black struggle for self-determination with humor devoid of being self-effacing. Comedian Chris Rock stated, “Richard Pryor was the Rosa Parks of comedy.”

Pryor was born in Peoria, Ill., in 1940 in a brothel owned by his grandmother. He started stand-up comedy as a teenager. He began to find himself and his act in the late 1960s, and by the early to mid-1970s he was in full stride. His act began to reflect his frustrations, and those of Black people in general, as he remarked on racist police brutality and the Black community’s distrust of the police, which can never be rectified. He commented on the Vietnam War as well and on Richard Nixon, remarking, “If you can pardon Nixon, you can pardon anybody.”

Pryor didn’t tell jokes. He told stories about unforgettable characters, many of whom he grew up with, that lingered in the mind. He was great at it and drew endless laughter, but the stories could just as easily make a person cry. His talent was that he would make people double over laughing until tears welled up in their eyes and, even while being entertaining, at the same time make observations from a Black perspective.

Richard Pryor will be remembered for his groundbreaking material and how it sprang from outrage and hurt and combined both entertainment and social commentary. He will forever be remembered as one of a number of Black artists who brilliantly expressed the anger and determination of an oppressed people through culture.