Richard Pryor, one of stand-up comedy’s most revered and imitated figures, passed away Saturday, December 10, after suffering a massive heart attack at just 65 years old. As he often described in his live routines, Pryor was born in Peoria, Ill., the child of a prostitute and pimp. He was raised by his grandmother, who operated the family brothel, and was on his own by age 16.
Synonymous with adjectives like “outlandish” and “controversial,” Pryor’s comedy wasn’t always defined by his prodigious use of the four-letter word. His early material focused on his bizarre upbringing, hinting at the rawness of later routines.
After becoming disheartened by the frequent homogenization of his material, Pryor gave up the spotlight in 1970 and honed a routine of shorter, much raunchier bits in tiny back alley clubs. Albums like That Nigger’s Crazy, Craps (After Midnight), and Is It Something I Said? followed and solidified Pryor’s new reputation as a performer not afraid to go beyond comedy’s norms. He wasn’t the first black comic to use the dreaded “n-word” (Redd Foxx and others preceded him), but he was one of the first to distinguish between “nigger” and “nigga,” a designation that resurfaced in the hip-hop and gangster rap cultures of recent years.
Whereas Pryor’s stand-up allowed him to appear as lascivious as humanly possible, his subsequent movie career, largely, did not, and such films as Bustin’ Loose and The Toy forced him to once again compromise his standards. He was offered the lead in Mel Brooks‘ Blazing Saddles (which he helped to write), alongside longtime friend Gene Wilder, but drug addiction and erratic behavior cost him the part.
As a comedian, Pryor was perpetually ahead of his time. His short-lived skit comedy show lasted only one season but provided the template for In Living Color and, especially, the recent cable hit Chapelle’s Show, which retained the services of chief Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney. Pryor’s pre-cable 1975 appearance on Saturday Night Live was the first to be presented with a seven-second delay in case the host decided to drop any ad-libbed expletives.
After he suffered serious burns while freebasing cocaine in 1980 (which he later admitted was a suicide attempt), many didn’t expect Pryor to survive the very public incident, much less return to the stage to discuss it. But his unrestrained honesty and newfound sense of mortality, expressed in the film and album Live on the Sunset Strip, won him the respect of a new generation of fans.
Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1980s and eventually dropped out of the public eye. He made the occasional television and film appearance, but bad health kept him from ever forging a full-on comeback. Earlier this year, the complete run of The Richard Pryor Show was finally released on DVD and, recently, Comedy Central named Pryor its Number One Stand-Up comic of all time, followed by George Carlin and Lenny Bruce.
It’s tough to shed many tears for a man who cheated death numerous times and didn’t expect himself to live past the age of 40, much less become a senior citizen. Even so, Richard Pryor’s comedy will always stand out for examining both the darkest and most hopeful aspects of human nature.
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