Why you should care

Because the very difficult work of living never seemed this tragicomic before.

As moments of great transformation go, this one came in a shock of light and, eventually, total illumination. The 27-year-old comedian Richard Pryor walked onstage at the Aladdin Hotel in the still largely segregated Las Vegas of 1967. The audience was packed, and included swells like the city’s arguable patron saint, Dean Martin.

His 4-year-old routine had been good enough to get him on benchmark shows of the day — Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson — trading on gently observational humor in the tradition of Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory and Nipsey Russell. But something had changed for Pryor, and that something was the scabrous comedian Lenny Bruce, who had died the year before from a drug overdose.

Looking out at the audience, Pryor told what is possibly the best non-joke of his career: He asked simply, “What the fuck am I doing here?” As he turned and walked off the stage, what could have been career suicide was instead a transformative moment. After having listened to Bruce’s record again and again, Pryor had come to agree that comedy “wasn’t about telling jokes. It was about telling the truth.”

Pryor was the ultimate uninsulated wire.

And Pryor’s truths — from growing up in an Illinois whorehouse, the son of a pimp and a prostitute and the grandson of an abusive, brothel-owning grandmother, to his contretemps with the same America he had walked out on — weighed a ton. But seizing on them propelled him well beyond anywhere Bruce had a chance to go.

“Pryor was a more powerful artist than Lenny Bruce, ultimately,” says Scott Saul, an associate professor of English at UC-Berkeley and the author of Becoming Richard Pryor. Whereas Bruce’s primary concern was with social critique, hypocrisy and the way people danced around the truth, Pryor was the ultimate uninsulated wire. With his attachment to characters, Saul says, Pryor “was immersed in the jazz-centered approach and uncertain process of acting.”

Which might explain some of the persistent demons that dogged him off the stage, from drugs to multiple marriages and attendant divorces. It might even explain the genius behind Pryor’s 1974 album, That Nigger’s Crazy — which would bring him the first of his five Grammys. What it doesn’t explain is what the hell was happening with his latter-day slide into movies that were uninspired and uninspiring — like Superman III andThe Toy, among others way too painful to mention here.

The run of lackluster films came after his much-publicized suicide attempt while freebasing cocaine, as well as the death of his grandmother, who had raised him — an event that “unmoored him and after which he was never quite the same,” Saul says. In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, followed by heart problems in the ’90s, which limited his ability to perform his physical comedy; he died in 2005, at age 65. Now, 10 years later, Lee Daniels is planning a biopic of Pryor.

Pryor left behind six biological children, five different wives, and generations of A-list comedians and actors, from Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock to Louis CK and Dave Chappelle, who owe him a large debt of gratitude. “I grew up listening to and memorizing Richard Pryor’s albums,” says comedian Quentin Heggs, from New York. “He turned life’s realities and tragedies into heartfelt comedy, blending real life with the absurd.”

Onstage and off, Pryor lived his life in a space bereft of safe corners, and from this very electric place, he lit up the world for a short time. Just like this.

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