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R i C H a R D  P R Y o R

Everybody knows at least one story about Richard Pryor, and it's usually this one. In the early eighties, the comedian had an accident at home while freebasing - using a naked flame to
purify cocaine and so intensify it's effects. Pryor's pipe exploded and turned him into a human torch. Burning from head to toe, he ran out of his house in Los Angeles and ran down the street, begging cops and passersby to shoot him (confusingly, he was also said to have shouted, "If I stop, I'll die"). They didn't. Pryor ended up in hospital and a seemingly endless purgatory of skin grafts and physical therapy.

  This is the most repeated version of the night when Pryor says he turned himself into a "human barbeque". It's also not the truth. Pryor had a hard time accepting what really happened on June 9, 1980. At first he told Doctors at Sherman Oaks Hospital Burns Center that his freebase pipe had blown up on him. Later that year, he expanded on the incident for Ebony magazine, telling them he'd been awake for five days, freebasing for the first three, that he'd run out of drugs and knocked over the bottle of rum that fuelled his pipe. The alcohol had ignited, Pryor claimed, when he and a friend lit cigarettes.

It was years before Pryor admitted that he had doused himself with brandy and tried to commit suicide by immolation.  His lifelong addiction to cocaine had left him at an unbearable pitch of paranoia; wives number three and four had left him; and he thought his then-accountant David Franklin was embezzling from him (on the morning of June 9, Pryor had gone to the bank in a cocaine stupor and tried, unsuccessfully, to withdraw all of his money). His best stand-up comedy was behind him and his movie career was a sad joke that got in the way of the real business of his life, which was freebase.

"I am very embarassed about that right now," Pryor said in 1995. "I wish I said right away what it was. The truth of it haunted me. It ate away at me. It wasn't no accident: I tried to kill myself and it didn't work."

When it didn't work, Pryor responded in the only way he knew. Incredibly, he turned his personal apocalypse into a comedy routine. Pryor's reputation was already built on sick humour, on dredging informed laughter from the worst and saddest aspects of black America. The freebase incident just
enhanced his unrivalled status as the Bard of Self-Destruction "Catching fire is inspiring," he would say on stage. "They should use it in the Olympics, cos I did the 100 yard dash in about 4.6 seconds. And you know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way.  They don't fuck around. They get the fuck out of your way.  Except for one old drunk who's sitting there going, 'Hey buddy, can I get a light? Come on, pal. A little off the sleeve?'"

Less incredibly, Richard Pryor was back on the freebase within three weeks of leaving hospital. By the end of the eighties, he had racked up five ex-wives (one he married twice); jail time for assault, tax evasion and possesion of narcotics; countless affairs (including blaxploitation queen Pam Grier
and Superman 3 co-star Margot Kidder); and undefeated cocaine and alcohol habits (he only entered rehab in 1993). His stand-up movie, 1983's Richard Pryor Here and Now, would also be his last stand-up film. By 1986, he had felt the onset of multiple sclerosis that now confines him to his bungalow in Encino, California. He'd had a heart attack in 1977, in the arms of a prostitute; his second, in 1991, required a quadruple bypass operation. By 1993, Pryor was back in stand-up at the Comedy Store in LA. The only difference was, he couldn't stand up any more.

"God got mad at me because I tried to kill myself," went a routine delivered in a slowed down, pain tempered version of his old scatter gun, multi-timbral delivery. "God said, 'No, you are not going to die. But I'm going to fuck you up.' I said, 'Wait, God! I don't understand.' He said, 'It's part of my plan.' I said, 'Fuck your plan.'"

"Look up in the sky! Is it a bat? Is it a crow? No, it's Super Nigger! Yes, friends, Super Nigger. Faster than a bowl of chitlins. Able to jump tall slums with a sigle bound. With his X-ray vision, he can see through anything except whitey."  'Super Nigger', from the 1977 stand-up album 'Who Me? I'm Not Him'

A lot of people tend to miss the point of Richard Pryor. They see him as a movie star and a rotten, cheap, defeated one at that.  Paired with Gene Wilder in a series of dismal caper movies, he'd mug at the camera in a patented arch-doofus persona. In especially bad movies like The Toy (1982), a 'comedy' in which Pryor plays a penniless writer degraded as a 'playmate' for Jackie Gleason's spoilt-brat son, it verged on the racially offensive.

The scenes and films that have been memorable for Pryor have worked when they transport a little of Pryor's stand-up worldview  into the movies- the vision of a terrified inadequete trying and failing to live up to the Mack Daddy standards required to survive in black man's America - and stand-up was where Pryor ruled. People never understood it because Pryor's live albums and concert movies were too hardcore for mainstream recognition. There was too much filth, chauvinism and depravity in them, too many bitches, motherfuckers, pussies and niggers for many people to understand, let alone tolerate. Few of us knew that he co-scripted Blazing Saddles (1974), the sharpest, cruellest Mel Brooks movie (the farting scene is pure Pryor); or that he lost the chance to co-star in it to Cleavon Little; or that he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for Blue Collar in 1978.

To young black America, however, Pryor's stand-up was blaxploitation punk rock: a sick carnival of whores, winos, sex, drugs and terror with the unmistakable ring of truth.   Kids would be beaten for listening to his relativly tame 'party albums' in the '60's; by the mid-seventies, the black consciousness movement had allowed Pryor to take his raw, pyrotechnic street comedy to places that predecessors Redd Foxx or Dick Gregory could never access.

He was, for a time, the biggest black star in America. His work in the 'black' world of stand-up made him desirable in the 'white' world of movies, and he moved freely between the two. For California Suite (1978), Pryor was offered twice the fee that his friend and one-time idol Bill Cosby got (embarrassed, he split the difference with the comic). Even for the witless Superman 3, which he made after his human barbecue, Pryor got $4 million - a million dollars more than Christopher Reeve.

Pryor's insane, rivettingly physical style triggered the fantasies of two generations of black comics including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, the Wayans brothers and even Spike Lee.   Murphy called Pryor "better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone". Keenan Wayans simply accepts that "Pryor started everything. He's Yoda." Pryor also inspired a slew of white comics: you can hear him debased in Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, the 'wigger' pantheon, and reworked into white trash fury by Bill Hicks. In Pryor's liberal use of 'nigger'- a word so loaded that most Americans can't bring themselves to say 'the N-word'- you can hear all the pride and self hatred of hip hop.

Pryor gives the universal comedy of panic a grounding in a world that's horribly real, and only ever described in music and comedy. It's all laid out on the prophetic cover of his 1975 album '...Is it something I said?'. In the photograph Pryor is tied to a stake with branches at his feet. Shadowy figures in monks' habits approach with torches. You can't see what colour their faces are, but you don't need to. Pryor has on his Oh-my-god-how-am-I-going-to-get-out-of-this face. It's funny, but it's an inch away from being terrifying.

Pryor's bodyguard-come-personal trainer, Rashon Kahn, who was with him on the night of the fireball, recalled a conversation between the comedian and Marvin Gaye. "They talked about the expectations they had because of their fame.  And how nobody took them seriously," Kahn said. "Marvin Gaye had sung 'What's going on' in terms of 'Let's address it', and people were like, 'That's a nice song.' Richard would do, 'They're still siccing dogs on us,' and people didn't see the brutality. They were laughing at his impression of running away from a dog. Nobody gave a shit."

"We had a curfew in my neighbourhood. Niggers home by eleven. Negroes by midnight." From the autobiography Pryor Convictions And Other Life Sentences (Heinemann, 1995)

Richard Pryor's own life sounds like a Richard Pryor skit. The reason is, they're one and the same. Dysfunctional is not in it: Pryor witnessed and was subjected to so much mental and physical cruelty that comedy was his only realistic career option, bar domestic murder. Comedians are fond of describing their talent as a defence mechanism. In Pryor's case it was a defence against violence and vicitimisation in a community that had almost nothing.

He was born on December 1, 1940 and brought up in whorehouses run by grandmother Marie and mother Gertrude in the black ghetto of Peroria, Illinois. His mother had him christened Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas - Lennox was one of his aunt's pimps. Richard's earliest memory concerns one Christmas morning when his grown-up cousin Martha wandered up to his crib and vomited on him ("Bless her heart. She was drunk," he recalls mistily).

He was beaten incessantly, witnessed stabbings and shootings, and once walked in on his mother having sex with a white man. On another occasion, a white man greeted Richard at the door of the family house with, "Hello young man. Is your mother at home? I would like a blowjob."

Later, Richard saw Gertrude tear open his father Buck's scrotum with her bare fingernails. The reason: he had hit her.  "My father ran down the street to 313 (Richard's grandmother's place) hollering, 'Mama! Mama!'" Pryor wrote in adulthood.   "His shorts were all red with blood."

Buck, a boxing champion, recovered - a fact he was to confirm in later life by sleeping with his son's first wife. Some time later, he threw his son out of the house for beating a whore incorrectly. Not for beating her; for beating her the wrong way.

It wasn't just family who stoked Pryor's rage and confusion.  When he was six, a teenage neighbour called Bubba forced Richard to fellate him. Richard barely understood that he had been abused, but the experience cranked up his already intense fear that his life would continue to deliver cruelties for no reason at all. "Could I have run away? Could I have bitten his dick off? It put me in the lowest place I've ever been. I thought: This cannot be happening. This cannot be life."

Almost 40 years later, in 1986, Pryor returned to Peoria to direct the autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, and heard that Bubba was looking for him. He was siezed by an irrational fear that his molester would force him to repeat his ordeal. Instead, Bubba brought in his own son, telling Pryor that the boy was a big fan. The comedian- who had beaten his wives, shot out the tyres of wife number four's car with a .357 Magnum, and battered Yaphet Kotto with a chair on the set of Blue Collar - was too freaked to respond. He signed an autograph for the boy.

Pryor had been a strong pupil but he was expelled from school at 14 for punching a science teacher. So he stole, did odd jobs, served in the army in Germany, was discharged for stabbing a white GI with a switchblade and "settled into the most popular career path among uneducated young black men: unemployment." He also begun to play the piano at a club in Peoria, but realised that the audience preferred his jokes.

Pryor built a reputation around Chicago, Buffalo and Cleveland with twinkling, Cosby-like humour; by 1963 he was doing stand-up in Greenwich Villiage, New York. Woody Allen told Pryor to watch him and learn something, but when a hooker in Baltimore played him a Lenny Bruce album, it altered the
direction of his life. "I thought, if this is comedy, what the fuck am I doing? Lenny Bruce said that comedy is not about telling jokes, it's about telling the truth. That's what my comedy is about: telling the truth."

By the mid-sixties, Pryor had ceased his gentle mockery of ghetto life and began giving angry voice to the pimps, pushers and prostitutes in his head. His skits revolved around the comic horror of life in Peoria. He also begun to read Malcom X, and by the '70's, was sharing time, women and cocaine with the similarly self-destructive Miles Davis and Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Onstage he begun to drill the word 'nigger' into his audience's minds. "I'm Richard Pryor," he would say. "I'm a nigger." In 1977 he called his fourth, most political stand-up album 'Bicentennial Nigger'- crude, ugly, but the perfect way to piss on America's self-congratulatory bonfire.

Yet the more lucrative the film career that followed became, the more it was a shadow of his stand-up. On the strength of his role in Lady Sings The Blues (1972), Mel Brooks called him in on the idea of a comedy Western with a black lead; Pryor brought an unprecedented anarchic spirit to Blazing Saddles' script but lost the role to Cleavon Little. The movie became a softer, frat-boy version of what Pryor could have helped it become.

His presence made something of the nothing that was Silver Streak (1976), but the serio-comic roles given to the likes of Robin Williams - a Pryor disciple - never came his way. His reputation preceded him in a time before the cult excess and therapy, that now sustains Hollywood.

In 1977, he expertly offended the movie world by going into a rant onstage at a gay rights benefit concert in LA. What, he wanted to know, were all these 'Hollywood faggots' doing for black people? Nothing, so fuck you all. "Richard lost jobs, was blackballed and everything because people thought he was too hard to deal with, or incorrigible, or out of control," said Lily Tomlin, a longtime Pryor associate. "But today, people's careers are built on drug use or rehab."

Pryor's cocaine-induced self-doubts begun to cripple him. He tried to pull out of an NBC TV series, agreeing to do four specials instead. The network seemed glad not to have to make an entire series, for Pryor's material had gone beyond the poltical to the bizzare. Freebasing constantly, Pryor the
comedian saw out the seventies as an occasional guest on the John Belushi-era Saturday Night Live. The closer his skits got to the knuckle, the more his movies grew tamer and lamer- and the more he made from them- but he had abandoned any sense of quality control.

The fire in 1980 all but destroyed what ambition remained in him. By 1982, Pryor had cut back on stand-up to make movies like The Toy, Superman 3 and Brewster's Millions (1985), the only picture he made sober and one he now says he can't bear to watch. "I'm sorry, but they offered us the money," he said later. "I was a pig. I got greedy. It's very hard to turn down X million dollars."

Hollywood wised up. Pryor's price as a movie star plummeted.  Even in his stand-up there was no place in Reagan's America for a black with a smart mouth- not that Pryor was in a fit state to fill that role. Like Larry Flynt, Pryor sat out the late-eighties in the bedroom of his mansion, freebasing while supposed friends and business associates drained his money. In the seventies, Pryor had been the James Brown of comedy; in the eighties he was lucky to be counted as the black Leslie Nielsen.  Depressingly, the word used most often for the sudden, cruel and absoloute deflation of Richard Pryor's career in the eighties is 'flame-out'.

"I have been to the mountain top too, and what did I see? More white people with guns." From the finale of 'Richard Pryor Live and Smokin', recorded in 1971.

Now, as befits the 12 step, AA sponsored nineties, Pryor lives a little at a time. The heart operation has put a stop to his ceaseless womanising ("The only women who visit me now are the ones you have to pay," he said in 1993). He gave up cocaine after the MS was diagnosed because his doctors said it would kill him, but drank heavily until a few years ago when Ringo Starr flew him to a drying-out clinic in Arizona. "I didn't want to go," he said. "But what can you do when a Beatle turns
up at your house?" Pryor even gave up using the word 'nigger' after a revelatory trip to Africa in the late-eighties - which is akin to most people giving up the use of the word 'the'.

In the past 18 months he has also made tentative steps to re-establish himself as a screen actor- first with a miniscule role in the gangster pastiche Trigger Happy and recently as an avuncular garage owner in David Lynch's Lost Highway. "Richard Pryor is a great guy," stated the director. "I saw him in a show. He was talking about his life, and I said, 'I really want to work with him.'"

More important than the exposoure of such a cameo, though, was the oppurtunity it gave Pryor to show that, despite the decades of substance abuse and the onset of crushing disease, his mind is still very much intact.

"He did the scripted scenes," recalls Lynch. "Then I put him on the phone in the office of the garage and let him go for nine minutes. A fragment of that is in the film, he was amazing."

Ironically, it is one of the most abused of his five ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, who now looks after him in the guise of platonic personal assistant. Lee returned to Pryor's Encino home in 1994 primiarily to silence the comedian's endless, heartbrokn apologies for all the times he beat her. She found him down to 115 pounds, smoking three packs a day, and hiding behind the bedroom door with his Magnum in a house which was in hideous disrepair. She describes Pryor "starving to death on an IV" while staff charged him $500 a time to take him out of the house.

Lee moved him to a bungalow and later pushed him into his brief attempt at sit-down stand-up, now forgotten as his condition worsens. Her reasons for helping Pryor seem honourable, considering he used to call her his "white honky bitch."

"Richard is so isolated from the human race," she says.  "When you're with him, you feel the kind of solitude you don't even feel when your by yourself."

Today MS and his weak heart confine Richard Pryor to a wheelchair. He is adamant that the drugs had nothing to do with either ailment, and recalls what his doctor said when he was released from hospital after his bypass operation.  "Mr. Pryor," the doctor said, "you should cut down on the cigarettes."

(The preceding was taken from an excellent article which appeared in the British film magazine, Neon.)

Some other classic Pryor movies moments include 1975's Carwash appearing alongside comedians George Carlin and Franklin Ajaye. He also appeared in 1989's Harlem Nights, which was produced, written and directed by Eddie Murphy and brought together three generations of black comedians in Murphy, Pryor and Redd Foxx. In 1997 Pryor also paid tribute to Sam Kinison, appearing in a documentary of the late comedian's life.

However, Pryor's most forgotten classic may very well be 1986's Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling which he wrote and directed. Pryor plays the lead character Jo Jo Dancer, who's character and life is based on that of Pryor. The autobiographical film features both powerful and comedic scenes of his life before the fireball incident and his life following. Included here are a few transcripts from the film. First is the opening scene, with Jo Jo Dancer doing stand-up, followed by the film closing on Dancer following his recovery giving a mock eulogy of his life.


You know, I asked myself man, I said, 'Jo Jo, what in the fuck is wrong with you? Why can't you enjoy life?' And, I-I found out, I've always felt different. You know what I'm sayin'?  I just never felt like I belonged, like I wasn't the same as everybody else. And everybody feels that way right? Everybody feels there's somethin' in us- we're different. What in the fuck is it? We can be alike, but we're different.

I can remember back to when I was like, three years old, I was in a crib, this is one of my first memories. I was in a crib holding on to the railins', about three, right. And I remember looking up and my cousin came into the room. Ethel, she was beautiful and I'm happy to see her and she came walking over to me and I'm there waiting for some love and affection and Ethel threw up on me.

(Audience laughs)

Well when you're three you say, 'Well, that's maybe... I... I don't know, but there's somethin' ain't right.' You know you go, 'somethin wrong. I don't think this is the way it's supposed to be.' But you don't know you're three, you say, "Well maybe.., Mommy ain't never threw up on me.  Ah, Pa pissed on me once. But this bitch just threw up on me.' Right and you're standin' there and ya lookin', 'ahha-hahhah-ohhoh,' and she looked at me and I say, 'Oh she's gonna wipe it off.' And she threw up again. And I'm covered in throw-up from head to toe. And I'm 'uhh-ahh' tryin' to get some relationship goin', and I didn't know how to say, 'Bitch, what the fuck is wrong with you?'


We are gathered here today to say farewell to a man who lived a full life - Jo Jo Dancer. We say good-bye to Jo Jo who tore his ass on the freeway of life. He embodied of alcohol and drugs, the boy was a mess. He ran through life like shit run through a goose and now he rest here with a smile on his face. I guess that's a smile and I hope that's his face, you sure that ain't his ass? Well it look like his ass. No, that's his face, OK. And Jo Jo, though he lived life to the fullest, he did not hesitate to help others. Oh no. You see, he embalmed himself, yes he did. He embalmed himself with alcohol. Yes he was 470 proof when we put him in here, whats left of him. And he preserved himself with cocaine. If you dug out his nose now, everybody in this room would get high. And we have telegrams from people that loved him and I will read one now, it's from his ex-wife. Yes she did.

'You black motherfucker. At last you are at the place I wished you to be. May the maggots eat out your ass and dance on your eyelids. Sincerly Shirley.'

As you can tell she is distraught. She is real upset.

Most people in life lead with their chins, because that's the way life is, demands, that you lead with your chin. But not Jo Jo, he lead with his nuts. If his nuts was not in a vice he wasn't happy. You had to crank 'em up and Jo Jo was happy. We have other telegrams, over a thousand from friends of his, people he owed money too, wishin' him well in hell. Wishin' him a good time in hell. For Jo Jo Dancer fucked up. Not only did he die, he died with their money in his pocket. Ain't nothin' worse than a man dead and he got your money. It makes you wanna dig him up and kill him again. Amen. Amen.


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