Saturday, December 10, 2005


he stood naked on stage, stripped of pretension and secrets, his mouth an open wound from which the gore of his life pored in angry, expletive-filled exclamations of his defiance against convention. when he first got into the biz, he tried to be that middle-class nigger his white audience wanted him to be. he talked about ‘safe’ things like religion and farts, topics that had his audience breathing a sigh of relief. “whew! niggers ARE happy!”

then something snapped. perhaps it was his nigger experience in america finally bursting through the seams of his composure like bullets blasting through bullshit. no, black folk WEREN’T content. we weren’t living middle-class lives where the only trouble plaguing our minds was how to handle all the fucking happiness. Richard was one of the first black comedians who started giving less of a fuck about how people would respond to his humor and more of a fuck about just telling the truth, with all of its pain and horror and discomfort. it couldn’t have been easy for him, but luckily he was just courageous enough to do it.

the first time i saw richard pryor, it was on the cover of his 'is it something i said?' album. my parents had tucked it in the back of their album collection, as if that was gonna prevent me from finding it. i found it, but the image disturbed me. what kid isn't gonna be frightened by a photo of a black guy about to be attacked by a bunch of folk in black hooded robes? frankly, i thought it was some kind of devil worshipping thing, and i started to wonder about the sanity of my parents. i didn't hear the album itself until i was much older.

he didn't really affect me much as a kid, as i only peeped him in movies like 'silver streak' and 'bustin' loose'. he was the funny black guy who always seemed like he was just a little off. the 'off' was the drugs, but i didn't know it at the time. it wasn't until i reached adulthood that i was exposed to the 'real' richard pryor. by this time, he had already had the free-basing incident where he'd set himself on fire. he courageously joked about it in his stand-up routines, discussing his struggles with drug addiction so matter-of-factly, it was like the brotha was talking about the weather instead of how his addiction to cocaine had nearly cost him his life.

his candor about such an event was what made me fall in love with richard. he kept it raw and real, his foilbles the link of human frailty between he and his audience. he was no longer a young boy living in a brothel being raised by prostitutes. he was a grown man living with the scars of his childhood, talking about the new self-inflicted wounds of his adulthood, exposing all of them to the world for others to both laugh at and relate to.

i'm not a stand-up comedian. i don't make my money by telling jokes or acting in movies, so richard's influence upon me isn't from those aspects of his life. my lessons come from his character. he showed me that the black experience in america, while full of unfair obstacles, turned many of us into fighters instead of quitters. he showed me that it's aiight to be black and mad and really not give a fuck about who that would offend. through his example he gave me the courage to lay out my own pain and vulnerability for others to laugh at and relate to. from him i gained the understanding my mistakes and embarrasing moments aren't something to be secreted away in the mind, never to be thought of again. the exposure of these moments are the opportunity for others to see them and learn from them and find the fortitude necessary to view their own 'failings' not as imperfections but as things that make them uniquely gifted. not everyone will get that, but at least one person will.

and for that one person who gets it, i will continue to find the courage to speak of my life as candidly as possible.

thank you for that, mr. pryor.