Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

It was more than a quarter-century ago. I was writing for the old Tucson Magazine, and I had used my rather nebulous and unimpressive "credentials" to finagle my way onto the shooting set of Stir Crazy, which was filming downtown at the Valley National Bank building. (I'm not really sure what that bank is called this week.)

I was standing right near Sidney Poitier, who was directing the movie, and I gave him the "Hey, how you doin'?" nod. But then The Man walked up, and I got stupid all of a sudden. It was Richard Freakin' Pryor, the man who had described my childhood neighborhood perfectly without ever having lived in it. The guy who made me seriously consider trying to be a stand-up comedian. The comedic god whom I had first listened to on bootleg 8-track tapes purchased at the swap meet and whose brilliance I had spent the latter half of the 1970s explaining to all of my white college friends.

Richard Pryor was my favorite entertainer ever. He was a seriously flawed man who could make fun of pain, sorrow and himself and have people screaming with laughter.

A man who told how his father had died at age 57 while having sex with an 18-year-old woman ("He came and went at the same time"), and then explained how nobody cried at the funeral, and then how nobody would have sex with that woman for two years. ("Huh-uh, I don't want no part of that!")

I first saw Pryor on TV during his early "clean" period, when he was basically riffing on Bill Cosby. He did this absolutely hilarious bit of physical comedy on The Ed Sullivan Show about knuckleheads (the '60s equivalent of gang wannabes) at the park shooting free throws to see who gets to be the captains who pick teams. (I always thought that was why white guys were so good at shooting free throws; it was the only way we would get to play.)

My friend Gary Matthews, who is now the first base coach for the Chicago Cubs, had all of the bootleg tapes, and we wore them out. We realized that while he used lots of bad language, it wasn't for shock value, as had been the case with Lenny Bruce. His was the language of the street, and it flowed like music, whether he was talking as Southern character Mudbone, whose friend was suffering because a woman "done put a mojo on his ass," or as the wino lamenting the deteriorating condition of a former numbers runner-turned-drug addict ("He used to be a genius! Booked the numbers; didn't need paper or pencil. Now, he don't know who he is!"), or as himself. ("I used to [masturbate] so much, I knew [female genitalia] couldn't be as good as my hand.")

He would spawn two generations of copycats (Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle) who were more financially successful, but never, ever as funny or creative. Despite his checkered personal life (married seven times, multiple drug addictions and appearances on the police blotter), it's really not surprising that he was the runaway No. 1 on Comedy Central's list of the top stand-up comedians of all time, as well as the first-ever recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

In college, I shared his stuff with my football and basketball teammates, who knew his work; my baseball teammates, who didn't know his work; and my tennis teammates, who didn't know any black people. I turned on my (now-) brother-in-law, Jessie, to it, and by the time he was a freshman in high school, he was walking around saying things like, "Jesus? Yeah, I knew him. I remember when the boy got kilt. It was a Friday, down by the railroad depot. I tried to warn the n-----. I said, 'Boy, don't you go down there (messin') with them Jews without no money!'"

Anyway, when Pryor walked up near me, I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to me, but instead, it came out, "Damn, you're skinny!" You know sometimes you want to say 500 things in the 12 seconds you have available to you? Instead, I told him I'd been a fan of his since I was a kid. He asked how, and, knowing that he lived in the San Fernando Valley, I explained that I had grown up in Pacoima.

He asked why, and I said, "I used to be black, but as I got older, I gradually turned white. Kinda' like Lionel Richie." That joke used to kill before Weird Michael Jackson emerged and usurped the punchline. He laughed hard at that and nodded.

When Richard Pryor died a couple of weeks ago, it really wasn't much of a surprise. With the multiple heart attacks, the self-immolation and the multiple sclerosis, God had been tugging on him for a good long time. I just hope, for his sake, that it's not like when he had his first heart attack, woke up in an ambulance full of white people and thought, "Oh God, I done (messed) up and wound up in the wrong motherf------ heaven."

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