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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin