The stand-ups of today are still feeling the shockwaves of Richard Pryor’s impact on the artform. The late comedian, writer and actor was, like his contemporaries Lily Tomlin and George Carlin, a key figure in moving the medium beyond the setup/punchline delivery into more freeform storytelling that left ample room for improvisation and allowing material to evolve naturally. And he was the kind of comic mind that found joy in comedy that appealed to both our intelligence and our basest instincts. That’s why an early album like Craps (After Hours) can feature tracks like “President Nixon” and “Religion” alongside “Snappin’ Pussy” and “Fartin’.”
What girds all of Pryor’s work, no matter how frivolous, is his understanding of what he represented to his audience. This was a black man who survived unfathomable abuse and horrors growing up, an addiction to cocaine as an adult and the casual and blatant racism in America. When he had a microphone in his hand and an audience in front of him, he stood tall, fully appreciating both the role he played in bringing an evening of joy to people and how he was able to take the power away from all his demons and societal ills by laughing at them.
The abuse that was meted out on Pryor by his maternal grandmother clearly left some deep psychological wounds. That didn’t stop him from picking at the scabs to connect with those folks in the audience who were also dealt out some harsh punishment growing up.
A comic comparing the difference between black people and white people has become the go-to reference for hacky material. It was Pryor, though, that laid the foundation for these bits in the ‘70s, and when he did it, they were raw and hilarious. And, as outlandish as they often got, his compare/contrast comedy rang consistently true.
His trip back to the Motherland was an affecting one for Pryor, which he expresses beautifully in this long bit from his 1982 concert film. Before he gets there, he takes us with him into the jungle and beyond, poking fun at his own fears and biases along the way.
Taken from one of the many unofficial albums of Pryor’s stand-up, this sharp feature stands confidently next to Lenny Bruce’s most loving yet exasperated explorations of organized religion and its frequent hypocrisies.
Pryor’s ability to reckon with, appreciate and laugh at the dark side of life is on display here. Played out like a profane outtake from one of Bob Newhart’s acclaimed comedy albums, this bit celebrates the temporary fearlessness of winos by imagining one encountering and then dismissing the most famous vampire around.
The political underpinnings of this bit of absurdism were unspoken but potent as Pryor taps into a cavalcade of voices to tell the tale of a blacksmith working in the antebellum South. The uncomfortable laughter it elicits from some of the crowd alone is worth a listen.
There wasn’t a whole lot of enlightenment that happened when Pryor decided to try LSD for the first (and presumably last) time. It did, however, leave him with a brilliant stand-up bit that finds him relating a little too much to the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
The political comedy Pryor trucked usually dealt with the racial divides that are still hurting our world. In this instance, he goes right for the jugular, using his face-to-face meeting with then-President Reagan as a leaping point into a discussion of the absurdity of nuclear combat and the Cold War.
One of the most harrowing events of Pryor’s life happened in 1980 when, after spending days freebasing cocaine, he covered his torso in rum and set himself on fire. It was a moment of reckoning for him but one in which he found wells of dark humor to pull from. As fearless as it gets.
Growing up as he did in a brothel outside Chicago, Pryor spent his formative years around plenty of bawdy, shady and chemically-altered people. What they left him with were a pure appreciation for sprawling storytelling that, even when it didn’t make much sense, would still leave him crying from laughter. Pryor filtered those experiences through Mudfoot, his beloved wino character who told discursive, dirty and strangely poignant stories like this crazy tale of hexed feet, monkeys and a bowl full of piss.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.