Arts

Why I ❤️ Richard Pryor

The late, great Richard Pryor would have been 75 today. Debra-Jane Appleby tells us why he’s the god-daddy of alternative comedy.

Richard Pryor performingI can’t remember the exact time I became aware of Richard Pryor; it may have been 1976’s Silver Streak, probably on the TV. But I definitely remember the first time I wanted to find out more about him and see more of his stuff. Stir Crazy (1980), again with Gene Wilder, was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen at the pictures. I was 13 and had just (re)discovered Monty Python, entering my teens on the back of a childhood stuffed with Galton and Simpson and Perry and Croft sitcoms, enriched by weekly doses of Porridge and The Goodies and all served up with the cream topping that was The Morecambe & Wise Show.

Already a comedy super-fan, my education had all been British to this point and relatively traditional. We had the odd American sitcom – Taxi and the seminal M*A*S*H stand out – but American comedy to a kid in the 70s meant movies: Woody Allen movies, Mel Brooks movies, Burt Reynolds movies.

As Gus Gorman in Superman III.

As Gus Gorman in Superman III.

Stir Crazy is fantastic: hilarious, simple yet clever, with some great slapstick – and Pryor steals the show. It hit just as I was mining the local library for comedy LPs, records, what you kiddies call “Vinyl, yah”. Python, the Goons, Dave Allen, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding, Max Boyce.

Alternative comedy was bubbling under in London but for provincial Yorkshire The Young Ones was still two years away from our screens and Ben Elton’s spangly-suited Saturday Live was four years away. These folk singers turned comedians were the only antithesis to the frilly-shirted mother-in-law haters of The Comedians.

This all meant the likes of Richard Pryor sank into the background as just another great film actor, occasionally surfacing to steal the show in a movie, most notably in Superman III.

And then the alternatives arrived with a bang and standup was suddenly the rage. Ben Elton et al were taking the stage and airwaves by storm and as the 90s arrived I was fully hooked on the art of standup. Especially American standup with Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Denis Leary, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. My comedy horizons were broadening.

It was at this point, in my hunger for any comedy CD, that I came across the albums Richard Pryor had made in the 70s. Wow! It was the equivalent of a heavy metal fan discovering the blues. The influence of your influences. Here was a guy who 20 years previously was blowing audiences out of their seats with the same kind of unfiltered, painfully personal, hilarious truth bombs I thought my generation, the alternative comics, had invented.

When something shakes up your belief system like that you need to know about it. When you love Iron Maiden and AC/DC, jazz and the blues are old man music until your guitar hero mentions Muddy Waters and you listen to it and from then on can hear nothing else. It’s the DNA of everything that followed.

Listening to Pryor’s Wanted: Live in Concert is listening to modern standup in its fully fledged form. For its time, it must have been truly shocking, even if it’s not so much these days – like watching The Exorcist now and wondering why people wanted it banned and someone had a heart attack in the cinema. But for a comedy audience in the early 70s more used to The Johnny Carson Show and clean-cut comedians, this sort of unrestricted free speech must have been a gut punch: that close examination of black lives, of drugs, of the dark excesses of a celebrity lifestyle, not to mention politically charged policing and institutional racism.

“Here was a guy who 20 years previously was blowing audiences out of their seats with the same kind of unfiltered, painfully personal, hilarious truth bombs I thought my generation, the alternative comics, had invented.”

Pryor’s constant use of a certain epithet, even in the title of one of his award-winning albums, set out this early agenda of telling it like it is. He lifted the rock of real life and exposed its iniquities and horrors for laughs, with characters like Mudbone and the tales of growing up in his grandmother’s brothel.

Stylistically he anthropomorphised simple objects – latterly even giving voice to his own heart attack – using his talent for characters and mimicry to brilliant effect. The ‘bits’ were mini-sketches with many characters uniquely voiced. His clipped, middle-class, white man’s ‘voice’ was used liberally to play out the privilege and status games between the races for his predominantly mixed audiences.

He was once quoted saying that he owed everything to Lenny Bruce, re-listening to his album over and over, building on that legacy to bring his own truth into his standup. Along with his contemporary George Carlin, Pryor ditched being a ‘clean’ circuit comic, his personal Damascene moment meaning he instead chose to spread reality through comedy.

With Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.

With Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.

What I believe ultimately sets Richard Pryor aside from the others is that, beneath everything – the supreme confidence, the performance skills, the writing – there is always a vulnerability in his eyes and honesty in his voice. There’s a calm at the centre of the storm without the anger of Hicks or the cynicism of Carlin. You can almost see the little boy, beaten and afraid, living in Momma’s whorehouse and using jokes to avoid the neighbourhood gangs.

Fast forward to 2005, when, at the start of my journey from comedy fan to comedy practitioner, I did my first solo Edinburgh show. I’d only been doing standup for 18 months and had been lucky enough to win a couple of awards. My show followed another Edinburgh newbie, although she had a bit more experience and pedigree than I did. We didn’t speak much but did a couple of ancillary gigs together and commented on the day’s show as we passed in the dank cellar venue. I never had the courage to ask her about her dad. After all, she was Rain Pryor and I bet everyone asked her that.

@dj_appleby

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Written by Debra-Jane Appelby

Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.