Apr 28, 2013

Richard Pryor's America

                   [This essay appears in the new box set No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert]

It is not uncommon in this rapidly expansive digital age, with so many media outlets available, for some would-be entertainer to emerge on the scene demanding their Warhol time.  Fifteen minutes is about all they get though, as their fleeting flirtation with fame passes before the blink of a blood-shot eye.  Famous for being famous has unfortunately become a reality these days. The type of fame that once emerged as a result of impeccable skills mixed with sweat equity often seems to be a relic of a bygone era now.  There are no shortcuts to greatness however.  This desired destination is only reached after putting in much work.  One hit wonders need not apply.  It takes years for this.  Dues must be paid.  
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor’s tenure as a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, and unabashed American icon stretches from the 1960s to his death in 2005.  The 60s were his formative years, while the 80s represented his ascent to movie star status in Hollywood. Yet the 70s were his decade.  He owned it.  Having absorbed the lessons of the 60s, while cashing in on his hard work during the 80s, it was in the 70s that he made his most lasting mark. 
The 1970s were a magical time in the history of American popular culture.  In the decade set between the counter-cultural 1960s and the newly conservative 1980s, the 70s offered a decade of free spirited expression unrivaled in modern times.  Central to this vibrant decade was the emergence of a new black cultural style motivated by the shifting social and political currents in this enlightened era immediately following the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. 
In the last days of the dominance of the three major broadcast networks, television ratings were ruled by black situation comedies like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. The mini-series Roots inserted the problematic racial history of slavery and American society into the prime time mainstream when it premi√®red in 1977.  In music, stalwarts like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder created sounds rooted in both the black church and the black protest tradition, while expanding the American musical palette in ways both profound and proficient.  This sense of genius would be equally matched in the sporting arena, as a transcendent athlete like Muhammad Ali set about changing the game. Following on the heels of Melvin Van Peebles’ black power classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) Hollywood embarked on an era that would come to be known as “Blaxploitation,” where the sights and sounds of the streets represented gritty urban fare previously absent on the vaunted silver screen. 
Black entertainers and performers had emerged from the ash heap of a segregated racial past to command attention on the main stage of American life in the 1970s.  The demands of a newly liberated populace would not be suppressed.  Blackness was on the march and authenticity was its theme.  As the dust settled and the clouds moved away a new voice could be heard in the distance. That voice would grow louder and louder.  No longer exiled in the foreign land of unspoken black frustration, that voice had moved from margin to center.  The voice in question belonged to none other than the great Richard Pryor. 
Pryor’s live performances and his stand-up comedy albums, catalogued in this collection, along with his numerous film and television appearances define his creative output during this time.  But it was the brilliantly provocative and outspoken albums that functioned more like graduate seminars of the streets, providing us with the foundation upon which all else would be built.  Representing the best of the oral tradition, Pryor used the comedy stage as both a bully pulpit and a chopping block.  Nothing was sacred, nothing deemed off limits.  Pryor scrutinized his own personal shortcomings as much as he dissected the racial hypocrisy that had defined this nation for so long.  If it is true that the same things that make you laugh will make you cry then Pryor’s comedy turned tears into unmitigated hilarity. Things once considered infuriating now prompted belly laughs.  Topics that had previously only been spoken of in private were suddenly circulating in an open forum.
When Richard Pryor emerged in the 1960s, moving from a series of low budget industrial Midwestern gigs to New York’s celebrated Caf√© Wha? he was a joker, not yet a comedian. Trying to find his own voice, he, for a time, opted to use Bill Cosby’s instead.  But one can only imitate someone else for so long before the appropriation becomes a burden.  Cosby’s college-educated humor was certainly helpful in integrating both the comedy stage and the television dial, but Cosby’s user friendly approach would not work for Pryor.  Though Cosby was knocking down previously segregated doors with rapid precision, Pryor couldn’t yet walk through these doors because he was still wearing Cosby’s ill-fitting hand-me-downs while trying to attend what was in essence a formal gathering.  Pryor simply needed more schooling.
When Pryor arrived in Berkeley, the Mecca of the counter-culture in the late 60s, he was there to get his degree, but his degree would not come from the University of California, instead it would be conferred by the academy of the underground.  Mingling amongst the creative and intellectual black vanguard of the Bay Area, Pryor, counting Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton among his new friends, immersed himself in the speeches of Malcolm X, with Marvin Gaye’s colossal What’s Going On serving as his soundtrack. 
Evidence of Pryor’s coming to consciousness during this time can be heard in a previously unreleased radio interview that originally aired on Berkeley’s KPFA/KPFB in 1971, now available in this collection. Sounding especially somber, and particularly disturbed by the infamous murder of black prisoners at the hands of the state in Attica, Pryor begins the interview by saying that it’s really “hard to be funny” in the aftermath of such a notorious event and concludes that what happened at Attica “ain’t cool.” 
There is nothing funny about what he’s saying though.  It’s actually quite real.  Pryor’s own frustration with American racial politics can be heard loud and clear, without a laugh track in site.  In the parlance of the 70s, Pryor here is as serious as a heart attack.  The deep conviction that can be detected in Pryor’s voice speaks to the transition that he had undergone while contemplating life in Berkeley. When he emerged from this self-imposed exile, he was a new man.  He had discovered gold underneath the trash.  The old imitator of Cosby had been laid to rest.  In his place the newly discovered Richard Pryor would emerge.
Pryor’s sojourn in Berkeley had revealed to him that his best assets lie in his own colorful upbringing.  The voices inside Richard’s head were the ghosts of ghettoes past.  The comedian went to the dark side of American life so as to introduce the nation to the long lost underground characters who populated the nefarious confines of a Dickensian urban environment seldom seen by the outside world.  The brothels, juke joints, street corners, dope dens, and the jailhouses that had defined Richard’s own life became familiar landmarks in his newly energized comedy.  Pimps, winos, and dope fiends now had a voice. Serving as their agent, Richard was going to make sure that everyone heard what these people had to say. 
Take for example, Pryor’s detailed description of “the backroom where the Negroes shoot craps,” on “Crap Game,” included here, which originally appeared on Craps (After Hours).  Complete with sound effects, Pryor describes the motley crew that inhabits this colorful underworld space; the old man who observes the crap game but never bets, two white “hillbillies” trying to acquire the services of black prostitutes, Big Black Bertha with her 280-pound “sculptured ass”, the Uncle Tom ebony and awkward ivory cop tandem looking for the elusive Jesse, Raymond who “ain’t seen nobody since 1922,” and the aptly titled Cool Breeze, who needs his money “like a hog needs slop.”
Not only did Pryor bring a new class of ghetto inhabitants to the party with him, but he brought their unique take on language to bear as well.  Pryor worked with the precision of a linguist when he articulated the sounds of the urban streets.  His liberal deployment of what by the time of the OJ Simpson trial in the 90s would be known as the “n word” provoked some, while embarrassing others.  Yet Richard was not simply in search of shock value, he was using the word “nigger” like a surgeon wielding a scalpel as he went about dissecting the rhetorical heritage of a nation’s ugly racial past, while demonstrating the liberating properties of unfettered free speech in the process. 
Prior to Pryor, the “nigger” was a passive, helpless victim of white verbal abuse. Pryor would turn this hapless victim of racism into an empowered representation of a newly defiant black urban identity, an identity that merged an aggressive disdain for bullshit with an impassioned performance of enlightened indifference. In the process, he had transformed the “nigger” into a “nigga;” though it would take a new generation of rappers to fully recognize what Pryor had unearthed in his groundbreaking urban research.  It is this reconsideration of a word like nigga by the hip hop generation that truly demonstrates Pryor’s lasting influence.  The impact had moved from one generation to the next, here offering evidence of Pryor’s profound cultural contribution long after he had initially made his presence felt. 
In the 1970s people were experimenting with a range of new social freedoms, previously denied them.  In the age of Deep Throat (1972), Plato’s Retreat, and suburban key parties like those portrayed in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, Pryor’s open and frank discussions about sex provided an X-rated voice-over commentary that was directly in line with the mood of the times.  In the decade after the introduction of the birth control pill and in the lead up to and aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Pryor’s comically explicit reflections on his own wildly abundant sex life helped solidify that the personal was indeed political. With Pryor nothing was off limits, no matter how embarrassing.  The awkwardness of personal intimacy co-existed alongside the at times sheer absurdity of it.  Again, Pryor put words to a topic that was challenging this Puritanical society at its very core.
Another social taboo that Pryor tackled in his 70s comedy involved dissecting his own prodigious drug use.  This emerged at a time when Richard Nixon was declaring a so-called “war on drugs” that lingers on to this day.  As underworld drugs stared to flood the urban landscape and as many Vietnam vets returned home with their own debilitating drug habits, Pryor wore his drug usage like a badge of honor.  It was his choice to get high and he wanted the world to know that this was an act of liberty not to be confused with an uncontrollable addiction.  Pryor had the money and access to “cop” as much dope as he wanted, choosing to live in the nether world where being high was the password for admittance to this secret society.  Yet he willingly talked about his penchant for an elevated mind state in spite of the destruction that such activities could have on one’s life.  In this regard, Pryor was like Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday, before him, indulging in a sort of method acting performance that offered equals parts creative genius and self-destructive tendencies. Burning the candle at both ends allowed Pryor a unique vantage point from which to observe and comment on a picture of America that was not always pretty to look at.  The greatest performers often give as much of themselves as they do their art.  Pryor was no different in this regard.  He got high on cocaine, while his listeners in turn got high on him.
There was something radical about Pryor’s very being during this time.  In an era when black people were supposed to be transitioning into the mainstream, as demonstrated by the numerous first-time black mayors who were being elected in major cities during the 70s, Richard took it back to the streets.  Pryor embraced the streets over politics and the pulpit, though his mocking renditions of the black preacher still prompt uncontrollable laughter.  Standing a healthy distance from the masses, observing the action through a mind-altered scope, Pryor was able to speak truth to power through his embodiment of this indifferent street persona.  He gave life to the clandestine locales exclusive to those to prefer the darkness of night to the light of day. 
Yet as Pryor introduced America to the ghetto streets his own success in the entertainment industry began to challenge his connections to these very roots.  Pryor had survived life in the nation’s underbelly.  The question had become whether or not he would survive the roller coaster ride of success in white America that his incredible comedic skills had afforded him.  Making it out of the ghetto was one thing.   Surviving the unexpected drama of fame was another thing entirely.  The man who had risen to the top by deconstructing America, now had to exist in the America that he had deconstructed. 
Pryor’s mantra through all of this is best summed up on a track in this collection entitled “I Don’t Give a Fuck.”  Echoing the sentiment embedded in his friend Miles Davis’ classic “So What,” Pryor relishes having come to a point in his life where the anger he once felt so deeply had been replaced by evolved feelings of extreme indifference. The reality is however that Pryor never really “gave a fuck,” as it were.  It was his indifference to the dictates of the status quo that had always made him so important. If he had given a fuck, in his life and in his work, then he certainly would not have been as funny nor as revolutionary as he turned out to be. As an audience we would have all been deprived of his ability to channel that anger into conscious reflective comedy.  Thank you for the sacrifice Richard.
The material contained in this box set covers the breadth and depth of Pryor’s illustrious career as a stand-up comedian. The collected comedy is representative of an entire body of work. This is no one hit wonder we’re talking about.  The opportunity to accumulate a body of work was certainly not a given for a black man when Pryor started out in the entertainment industry. In many ways the very existence of the material assembled here demonstrates his massive success. Richard Pryor was a major American artist and the voluminous nature of this material implies just that.  
In studying a career worth of work, one gets the opportunity to experience a long journey, one that stretches from obscurity to superstardom.  Noticing the developments along the way can provide as much fulfillment as reaching the destination.  One gets to listen to the ideas as they take shape, the characters as they develop, and the bits as they become perfected over time.  This box set represents what one might call “The Richard Pryor Experience.”  One should indulge this experience to the fullest, as it is a uniquely American experience.   Thanks to the numerous changes that have reshaped American since Richard first emerged on the scene one shouldn’t expect such an experience to unfurl again.   Richard was an American original and originals are of course one of a kind.