News Column

Pryor changed the face of comedy [Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)]

December 1, 2013


Richard Pryor's early life set the stage for him as a storyteller, and his reward was the attention and laughter he earned from elementary school onward. Growing up in Peoria, Ill., provided many of the experiences that paved the groundwork for his comic genius and also gave birth to his demons.

Nine years after Pryor's death, David Henry and Joe Henry, authors of "Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him," interviewed numerous people who knew the comedian. The results are gripping tales of exceptionally high and low times, surrounding a man who felt more at ease speaking to an audience of 2,000 than he did one-on-one.

In the first chapters of this well-written biography, we learn that Pryor's mother was a prostitute, his grandmother ran a whorehouse and his father owned a pool hall. Pryor learned the characteristics and speech patterns of winos, junkies, pimps, preachers and other inner-city characters. However, unlike the storytellers before him, Pryor shared these characters outside of the black community. This changed the face of comedy. He entertained and shocked fans across ethnic lines with his raunchy language, controversial subject matter and use of the N-word.

In New York during the 1960s, his act was running concurrently with other great comedians, such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. He spent part of the '70s in Oakland when the Black Panthers were stunning the world with their Black Power rhetoric and bearing arms. His return to the stage in Los Angeles reflected those years, and it was then he found his niche, pushing black humor into new realm that no longer demanded the use of punch lines, doing what some called theft-proof comedy that laid bare his soul.

His acting break came in the film "Lady Sings the Blues," starring Diana Ross. He became the most successful black comic actor, hired to spice up films with his gift for spontaneity. The more money he made, the more difficult became his mood swings, and the more he tested Hollywood studios' patience.

Eventually, it was multiple sclerosis that ended his stand-up and acting career. However, even before then it was smoking base cocaine that brought out his demons and caused him to set himself on fire. That drug that took control of him - the man whom Cornel West described as the most free black man of the 20th century.

CHARLES SHEA LEMONE is an author who lives in Ferrum.

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