Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

Sacramento’s comedians have an e-mail list where we trade jokes and career advice, post gigs or talk smack. Being comedians, we mostly talk smack. This week we’ve been posting heartfelt ruminations on the life, career and art of Richard Pryor, who, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, died from a heart attack last Saturday at age 65.

“That a slum-dwelling kid with a prostitute mother can make it with nothing but conviction and a microphone, then the USA is a place to be,” Sacramento comedian Tapan Trivedi e-mailed from India, where he is visiting family. “He taught me to do what I like on stage.” Trivedi described Indian television reporting Pryor’s death, showing video clips without any audio in order to maintain decency standards.

“Pryor was never dirty,” wrote Rick Pulido, another local comedian. “He spoke like he was raised; he told us what he witnessed.”

Best known for pushing the envelope of what could be said onstage further than any other comedian with the possible exception of Lenny Bruce, Pryor armed himself with more incendiary material than “fuck,” “shit” and “nigger.” He brought every aspect of his life to the stage. For most, catching on fire while smoking cocaine would be a career-ender. Not for Pryor. He was in front of an audience joking about it as soon as his burns healed. Once, without warning in the middle of a routine, he re-enacted a drug-induced heart attack. It was a brave bit in its own right, but braver because he didn’t end the show with it. Like Houdini shackling himself and then slipping free of the chains, Pryor brought the audience from stunned silence back to laughter.

He also blazed trails on the racial front, reaching a level of success and power in Hollywood previously unheard of for a black entertainer. Pryor was able to pen his own deals and accordingly turned in a string of films including the hilarious Stir Crazy, the best of several projects pairing him with Gene Wilder. Like Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory before him, Pryor allowed Americans to laugh while working through their racial tensions.

“He blew open the doors,” wrote Del Van Dyke, who has trained many Sacramento comics. Shane Murphy, well-known for organizing local comedy benefit shows to aid sick kids, victims of natural disasters and whoever else needs a hand, also said goodbye to his comedy hero: “He spoke the truth up there without trying to make himself look good, and he somehow, like an alchemist, turned his worst tragedies and heart breaks into comedy gold. Richard and Jennifer Pryor even took the time to send encouraging e-mails to an obscure, bald, local comic in Sacramento, one of the greatest thrills I’ve ever received. I never got the honor of meeting you, Rich, but you were the best of us, and I miss you.”