Mel Brooks, who collaborated with Richard Pryor on Blazing Saddles, famously quipped, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.” It reminds me of a meme which goes something like: “You can tell if you’re getting old when you fall down in a public place if people rush to help you or laugh at you.” Another famous saying goes: “Comedy is just tragedy plus time.”
I’m not sure if certain events will ever be really funny. You can’t joke about The Challenger explosion, 9/11, school shootings, Catholic church child abuse scandal and a lot of things without the right edge. Many comics have done it, but many of them got booed and jeered. That’s because they’re laughing at others misfortunes and not their own.
I recall a friend of mine got sick one time in class. He politely went to her desk while she was speaking with another student to ask to go to the restroom because he wasn’t feeling well. He ended up vomiting on her. After the initial shock, she stood up and took her sweater vest off and started to laugh as she told another student to go check on him. Then, we all started laughing.
My friend got better as he just had a stomach bug. But I tell everyone else in the class was doing everything to avoid laughing until the teacher did. It’s the same way people will recount bad moments in their lives and laugh about it. It’s better to laugh instead of crying.
Richard Pryor, who died on Dec. 10 in 2005, lived a harsh life. His mother was a prostitute. His grandmother ran a brothel. He endured physical abuse by his father. He had to choose between his grandmother and mother on who he wanted to live with. He even talked about his father was inconsiderate at his stepmother’s funeral because it was during a cold winter in the Midwest. “Get to the part with the dirt,” he said his father said.
Pryor’s early career in comedy was mostly for white audiences playing a type of modern-day minstrel role upholding stereotypes that he got fed uo and walked off stage before he was set to perform. He found an edge later in the late 1960s and 1970s that many people found dangerous. Even though he was co-writer on Saddles, Brooks had wanted him to play the lead role of Sheriff Bart. However, Warner Brothers refused.
By 1973, Pryor was abusing alcohol and drugs. One of his partners recalls him getting so mad about losing out on acting in Saddles that he shot an expensive aquarium he had. Pryor’s personal life was full of relationships and affairs. Since he died, it’s come out that Pryor may have had sex with Marlon Brando. He has admitted to having a relationship with a transgender woman. He was married seven times to five women, two of those were Flynn Belaine from 1986 to 1987 and from 1990 to 1991. He was also married to Jennifer Lee from 1981 to 1982 and then again in 2001 until his death.
Pryor’s life was such a mess that he decided to transfer all his problems in his comedy. Listening to Pryor’s albums and watching his 1979 concert film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, it looks like he was just naturally good at being on stage in front of an audience. Live in Concert is considered the Holy Grail of concert movie what every comic seeks but can’t obtain.
While I like Live in Concert, it’s Pryor’s second concert movie, Live on Sunset Strip, that Pryor takes things to a new level. The film was the result of a two-night event Pryor did in 1981 after recovering from his burn injuries. As it’s been reported, Pryor wasn’t in form on the first night and even apologized to the audience as he turned and walked out as they offered support and words of encouragement. The next night, they say he killed it and that’s most of what’s in the movie.
You can see a difference between Pryor in both films. Like a soldier who’s returned from war, Pryor looks and behaves differently on the stage. In Live in Concert, he was performing as if he was going to live to be 109 and there was no care in the world. This was as he was recovering from a heart attack at 37.
In Live on Sunset Strip, you can tell the audience is laughing more out of support. But there are some great moments as Pryor recalls a trip he made to Africa. He talks about offering a ride to a bushman who didn’t just have odor, he had “oh-dear!” And then, he shares how he realized that he wasn’t going to be using the “N-word” anymore. He had been using it a lot in his comedy albums and even had it in the title of one.
After doing a Mudbone bit, he launches into his descent into drug addiction as he was freebasing cocaine and drinking alcohol. Substance abuse isn’t funny, but as Pryor talks about it more and more, you realize it’s therapetic as he recalls how the freebasing pipe became another appendage. And like the bushman, he wasn’t practicing good hygiene as he says, “Funk became my shadow.”
Unfortunately, Pryor doesn’t really get to exactly what happened in 1980 when he had to be rushed to the hospital after setting himself on fire. He would later tell in interviews that he did it as a suicide attempt. In his 1986 semi-autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life is Calling, he more or less re-enacts some of the material he told in the Sunset Strip concert but without the humor. In the end, the character of Dancer pours liquor on himself and sets himself on fire.
But Pryor didn’t need to say in the Sunset Strip concert. Some things don’t need to be said. It wasn’t a free-basing accident. Once he starts talking about his drug addiction, you can pretty much connect the dots. As Pryor recounts the awful moments and we laugh, it reminds me of a scene in Born on the Fourth of July where Tom Cruise and Frank Whaley play two childhood friends who both grew up together and went to fight in Vietnam. They recount stories of horror and laugh. But beneath their laughter is pain.
Comedians can always talk politics or current events, but a lot of times they just sound the same. The comics that stand out find their own voice. Sam Kinison who died from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1992 used to joke about a previous relationship that he was greatly affected by. No one else could tell that joke. George Carlin, who was seen as Pryor’s contemporary, had his own set of jokes no one else could say. No one could perform on stage like Robin Williams. And no one could be Bill Hicks, even though Denis Leary, Bill Burr and Bill Maher have tried.
I think why Eddie Murphy, who was inspired by Pryor, did the right thing by giving up stand-up. Murphy is funny, but he always seemed to be better a performer. What Murphy was able to do was to talk about his childhood and we could connect with him. Who hasn’t had their mother make them a big meatburger on square Wonder Bread?
After this, Pryor did another concert movie, Here and Now, but it wasn’t as good as Sunset Strip. Part of the problem is the audience in New Orleans is a little rowdy and Pryor isn’t on his best game even though it’s worth watching one.
His film career mostly in the 1980s had him playing the same type of character. In Living Color did a skit where Damon Wayans plays Pryor freaking out during the middle of the night while going in the kitchen to get a snack. It was called Scared for no Reason. Most of his roles in movies like Stir Crazy, Bustin’ Loose, The Toy and even Superman III had him doing this type of caricature.
Unfortunately, as the 1990s came on, Pryor revealed after rumors spread that he had HIV/AIDS for his weight loss that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He didn’t appear in many movies. He did Another You in 1991 with Gene Wilder, his last movie. It wasn’t the best for either. In 1997, he appeared in a small role as a car repair manager in Lost Highway directed by David Lynch. This would be his last movie as he was having to use a motorized cart to get around. And you can also tell he has a slurred speech which is common with people suffering from MS.
In between these movies, rumors spread that he had died. He would often have to appear on TV interviews to assure people he hadn’t died. It also became a joke as a special documentary about him released in 2003 was called I Ain’t Dead Yet.
Sadly, he would died just two years later. But his legacy lives on. Stand-up comics all owe Pryor something. As the Catskill comedians like Henny Youngman and Jackie Mason were losing their audiences as people were growing up and times were changing, Pryor and Carlin were able to find the voices that Americans needed to hear at the time.