Friends mourn Richard Pryor, 'an angel and a demon'

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The Independent US

"Blunt, blue and brilliant," was how the Los Angeles Times summarised him in its tribute. His wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, called him "an angel and a demon; a real piece of work".

Tributes poured in from comedians and television executives who either knew him or simply marvelled at his ability to be at the cutting edge of comedy but still find a mass audience. He made it acceptable to swear and address incendiary social issues, starting with race. He broke with the mould of a comedian telling jokes, launching into long monologues that have since become the mainstay of stand-up performers everywhere.

Like so many others since, he used his own turbulent life - the multiple marriages, the drug habit, the run-ins with the law and one particularly dark moment when he set himself on fire - as the stuff of laughter. The comic actor Steve Martin said: "By expressing his heart, anger and joy, Richard Pryor took comedy to its highest form."

Pryor had suffered a long and painful decline, starting when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1980s. Just as he had become a major box-office draw, he was forced to scale back his performing. By the early 1990s, he had to give it up altogether.

But for 20 glorious years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, he turned comedic conventions upside down and left audiences reeling with laughter - whether in comedy clubs, at home in front of the television, or listening to one of his celebrated live-performance albums.

"Pryor was the first to bring the mordant humour of the American ghetto into the mainstream," said Marc Cooper, an LA journalist who remembers seeing him perform as early as 1967. "More importantly, Pryor was just fabulously funny, a magnificent story teller and a hilarious impersonator." The head of Black Entertainment Television, Reginald Hudlin, called him "a culturally transcendent hero". Hudlin told the LA Times: "I've been trying to figure out the analogies to what Richard Pryor meant, and the closest I can come to is Miles Davis. There's music before Miles Davis, and there's music after Miles Davis. And Richard Pryor is that same kind of person."

Pryor was born in the archetypal middle American town of Peoria, Illinois, except that his mother was a prostitute and his grandmother was the keeper of his mother's brothel. Until the mid-1960s, he operated within the conventions of the anodyne humour allowed to black performers, but then slowly broke out and found his true voice.

He was never less than sensational on stage, although he was often hopped up on drugs and suffered bruising lows when their effects wore off. He co-wrote the Mel Brooks cowboy spoof Blazing Saddles, and became a popular host of the television comedy show Saturday Night Live, then enjoying its heyday.

In his personal life, he burned through six marriages, had seven children, was arrested for income tax evasion, and, in one notorious incident, crashed into a car occupied by friends of his wife and pumped it full of bullets from a pistol. "He had a dark side that could strike out and be volatile at any moment," his widow said. "He was a handful, and a wonderful handful, and a heartbreaker and the love of my life."

Pryor's convictions

* Marriage is really tough because you have to deal with feelings... and lawyers.

* I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now, relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car, I knew they weren't coming after me!

* When you ain't got no money, you gotta get an attitude.

* I never met anybody who said, when they were a kid, I wanna grow up and be a critic.

* I'd like to make you laugh for about 10 minutes, though I'm gonna be on for an hour.

* There's a thin line between 'to laugh with' and 'to laugh at'.

* There are two billion chinese people livin' in China. That's how you know someone's doing some serious fucking...

* I met Reagan at the White House - motherfucker looked at me like I owed him money

* Niggers be holding them dicks too, jack. Some white people be going, 'Why do you guys hold your things?' Say, you done TOOK everything else, motherfucker.

* Sprinkle my ashes in about two pounds of cocaine. Snort me up!