Comedian Lenny Henry: 'Richard Pryor will always be my hero'

Ahead of a new documentary on the groundbreaking funny man, Lenny Henry tells how he idolised – and copied – the star

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The Independent Culture

At West Bromwich Albion (from 1977 to 1984), when Cyrille Regis used to kick a ball about there, the crowd used to sing, to the tune of "Guantanamera" by the Sandpipers: "One Cyrille Regis – there's only one Cyrille Regis, one Cyrille Reeegiiis, there's only one Cyrille Reeegiiis," etc. I know, I know – it's no West Side Story but it kept the hooligans from kicking the crap out of each other during games.

Richard Pryor commands a similar kind of fan-worship – when you watch Omit the Logic, Storyville's new BBC Four documentary about the globally famous funny man you'll catch on quickly that he was a one-off, there was no one like him, and there hasn't been any one remotely as funny as him since.

The documentary tells Pryor's life story via colleagues such as Bob Newhart, Paul Mooney (Pryor's mostly uncredited co-writer), Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, as well as agents, managers and collaborators. They have unique access to rarely seen material which makes the show a must-see for die-hard fans and anyone with an interested in what it took to reach the heights of comedy back in the day.

Richard Pryor became my true north in the mid to late Seventies, but it was a difficult marriage to pull off; there was he, storming ahead in his career, having been the toast of the Ed Sullivan and the Tonight shows – gaining and then spectacularly blowing a residency in Vegas; and here was me, a teenager and stuck in the Black and White effing Minstrel Show!

I was doing impressions of Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, Windsor Davies from It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Tommy Cooper – "I walked into a bar – I said 'ouch' – it was an iron bar…"

There's nothing wrong with any of that – but when you compare that material to what Pryor was doing every night… I felt (in comedic terms) like a lowly single-celled organism at the dawn of time whereas he (in my head) was already on two feet, discovering fire, the wheel and the Cadillac simultaneously. His humour was unapologetically black, rude, political, ultra-smart and sexy. His style was as fluid and demonstrative as Chaplin or Jacques Tati at their best. His voice, like Tommy Cooper's, was funny too – Pryor (like Cooper) could get a big laugh just by saying "good evening".

I never saw him perform till his concert film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert came out in 1979 and I was blown away. All I'd heard were his albums such as Wanted: Live in Concert, ...Is It Something I Said?, That Nigger's Crazy, Bicentennial Nigger, etc. I knew every routine off by heart and would regale my friends with snippets of material.

I was in love with his voice and the fearlessness of the work. I didn't like his constant use of the word motherfucker or the repetition of the N-word, but I knew (or at least had an idea) that his appropriation of ghetto slang rooted him in a world with which he was totally familiar – these characterisations like the wino, the junkie, the pimp, the pusher, and the bad-ass ("Kill me? If you come any closer I'll bite your dick") were all ghetto archetypes that Pryor had researched and absorbed via osmosis… he was down with it, and his comedy kept it on the real side..

The concert film contains now-classic material that every comedian, black, white, Puerto Rican or alien, chooses to emulate at some point in their career. Like the stuff about his dad at his wife's funeral on the coldest day of the year, yelling to the preacher: "If it gets any colder, you're gonna have to bury the bitch by itself –s'cold out here – git to the part about the dirt!"; and his many heart attacks – "suddenly I heard something in my chest say: 'Don't breathe no more! Didn't I tell you not to breathe?!'"

There's his pet monkey running up a TV executive's arm and sticking his penis in the man's ear: "Thanks a lot Rich – you won't be making any more movies at Warner Brothers that's for goddamn sure… you wanna get this monkey's dick outta my ear?" And the story about hunting with his father in the woods – his father fears a snake and lets off many shotgun blasts into the ground. "Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Whatever it is, the motherfucker dead if he crawlin'!"

Pryor always trod a fine line between humanity and the profane. He could be crude – some might even say racist – but in my mind his skill was in taking everything to do with the African-American experience and breaking down barriers of communication. His shows were packed with white people who loved Pryor's comments about their lifestyles and their treatment of blacks and vice versa.

My first appearance on [talent show] New Faces was memorable because Tony Hatch, the panellist everyone loved to hate (he wrote "Downtown", "Don't Sleep in the Subway", and the theme for Crossroads) told me that I wouldn't do impressions for ever and that I should cultivate my storytelling skills by listening to Bill Cosby.

I did as I was told, but soon grew tired of Cosby's grating authoritarian tone and his perfect memory where everything from his Philadelphian childhood was deemed suitable for his recounting on stage. Pryor's material was edgier, sharper, more out there.

In the mid-Eighties I was channelling Pryor. I wore a pink suit on stage in a homage to Steve Martin but my comedy/joke stylings were pure Pryor. I did an old Jamaican called Deakus (a direct homage to Pryor's Mudbone). I did a hip /superfly DJ /ragamuffin called Delbert Wilkins (a tribute to any of Pryor's hip young dudes, particularly the guy who steals a Martian spaceship: "How much for the pet-role – 52 million a gallon ? Fuck this machine…") and, just like Pryor, I did a preacher – the Reverend Nathaniel Westminster ("but you can call me Nat West"). It all seemed fairly innocent then, but now I sense a desperate need to be accepted as credible and black and relevant at a time when there was no one doing this kind of material. Borrowing Pryor's ideas didn't seem like a big transgressive move to me because I wasn't stealing jokes or voices, I was emulating his characters and using his routines as a template for my own.

Of course the wheels came off the chariot when I went to NYC at the behest of The South Bank Show – Melvyn Bragg and Andy Harries wanted to tell the story of my career so far and then take me on a jaunt to New York to see if the Americans got the joke. The first night at Catch a Rising Star was a wake-up call of asteroid-sized proportions. I took to the stage and immediately dried – all the material I was about to do – all of it – had been written for a UK Richard Pryor-style comic: stories about childhood, parents, school etc. The only problem was this audience had seen Richard Pryor all their lives and would, unlike the UK audience, recognise the source material.

I stammered through my opening set and, greeted by a glum silence, fled from there. Andy Harries was very philosophical about the whole thing and told Kim Fuller (my co-writer) and me to get our shit together because we were filming on Friday and it had to be good.

So Kim and I sat down and almost started again, with new jokes about being black, British and in New York ("yes, there are black people in Britain – we're called 'the accused' – plus the blues singer and Theophilus P Wildebeeste. The Preacher stayed because the jokes were good.

The material went down well and I received a much-needed standing ovation which was caught on camera. However I was taught a great lesson that week: it's fine to hero-worship your comedy heroes, but you don't do yourself any favours by copying them.

Pryor was a master at creating comedy from the chaos of his life. I didn't want to share the comings and goings of my life to the extent that he did and besides, no one's life could be as colourful as Pryor's; he was raised in his grandmother's brothel, his mother was a whore, he had an abusive father, there was the experimentation with dope, coke, acid, freebasing and, as an (almost) grand finale, setting himself on fire in a suicide attempt that went (thank the gods) wrong. He made a joke about it just afterwards: "I was dipping my cookie in some low-fat milk and the shit exploded." If you want to hear Pryor at his best, watch or take a listen to the segment from Live on the Sunset Strip when he describes his skin being gently scrubbed of scar tissue by an incredibly kind nurse. It's one of the most harrowing pieces of comedic narrative you will ever hear.

His daughter Rain Pryor writes beautifully in her book, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me. She tells us that it was during an attempt on his life – an attempt that failed once Richard was aflame and running at speed (he ran a mile and a half whilst on fire!) down the street – that he started to pray and ask forgiveness …he wanted to live. I know I want to live, I've always had a strong sense of self-preservation – a love of life. I never ever wanted to go through a mass of trials and tribulations (as my mother used to call it) to find out that actually life is worth living. Everything shows me that every day. So I'll have to find another way to find comedy material to perform… and leave the documentary/realist approach to geniuses like Richard Pryor and his ilk.

He remains my hero, and his many inheritors – Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Bill Hicks and many more – have all said that they owe a debt to Pryor's jive-talkin', street walkin', ghetto superstar personae. But he will always and forever be (everybody sing!) the only "one Richard Pryor, there's only one Richard Pryor, one Richard Pryyyorrr..."

'Storyville: Omit the Logic' is on tomorrow at 10pm on BBC Four