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Comedians I Love: Richard Pryor

Categories: Comedians,Comedy Shows
Posted: May 3, 2012

I’m going to profile my favorite comedians — the men and women who inspired me to start my career as a 15-year-old and continue to influence me — from time to time. I’m starting this series with the one, the only Richard Pryor. Before he passed away in 2005, he created a vast body of work in stand up, on TV, in films and on albums. I’ve already written glowingly about his ‘bromance’ with Gene Wilder, my second favorite in movie history.
Seeing Pryor play off his opposite — at least on the outside — in the very pale skinned, wild haired Gene Wilder was comic magic. Through much of his work, he challenged and underscored racial tension, ideals and stereotypes, finding humor where few before him were brave enough to tread.
His short-lived The Richard Pryor Show starred Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, Tim Reid and Sandra Bernhardt among others. Lasting only four episodes, it produced the prescient clip below. Playing the first African-American President 31 years before Barack Obama was elected to the White House, Pryor answers political questions with a wound-tight deadpan that unravels with each passing query. Whether championing the merits of sending black people to space or naming Huey P. Newton director of the FBI, Pryor exposes how different the United States might be under African-American leadership.
My favorite moment may be when the reporter from the Mississippi Herald identifies himself before posing a question, and Pryor demands, “Sit down.” He has no intention of dealing with someone from a state known for its lynchings and charged racial atmosphere. The joke is so simple and well-timed, you cannot help but laugh. The clip is even more powerful in retrospect. Just imagine Pryor as the 40th President instead of Ronald Reagan. They could not be further apart.

Richard Pryor was also known for his racy language — as evidenced in the NSFW clip below — but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who was better at telling a joke. He was a masterful storyteller with a rapid-fire delivery and live-wire body before he was slowed by multiple sclerosis. Look at how much he’s worked up a sweat in this clip. He put everything he had into the bit about boxing — whether lamenting going up against Muhammad Ali or “boxing them dudes who look like they just killed their parents.” Try not to laugh as he hits the microphone against his forehand. It’s impossible.

Or take this sweet clip about kids lying. It’s reminiscent of Bill Cosby, but there’s something even more cutting in Pryor’s delivery. He’s charming as a small child trying to lie his way out of getting in trouble. The running part is genius — something we’ve all done as kids while trying to skirt the truth.

In his special, Richard Pryor: Live on the Comic Strip, he recounts going to the Arizona state penitentiary to shoot Stir Crazy. He explains, “It’s strange. It’s about 80% black people. And what’s strange about that is that there are no black people in Arizona.” Watch the NSFW clip and learn about Triple Mike. And how Gene Wilder liked to befriend the men in the pen.

Richard Pryor left a wonderfully comic legacy. An Emmy and multiple Grammy Award winner, he received the first ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. In addition to the clips, check out his films, particularly Silver Streak, California Suite, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy and Bustin’ Loose. Or listen to one of his dozen albums. You cannot go wrong.
About a year ago, I was honored that Richard Pryor, Jr., son of the legendary comedian, was in the audience at my weekly comedy show — Ted Greenberg’s The Complete Performer. It was an privilege to meet him since my respect for his father’s gifts could not be any bigger.

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