Six years ago on December 10, 2005 we lost one of the great comedians to ever grace the stage; Richard Pryor. Pryor was not only one of the best to ever hit the stage, he spawned many of today’s comedians that we have grown to love from Eddie Murphyto Chris Rock. In remembrance of his passing, comedian Darryl Littleton wrote an article about Pryor that we had to share;
Chris Rock once said, “F**k Richard Pryor.” When asked he responded that we should stop revering him to the point he’s unreachable; his level of comedy unattainable. Legends are meant to be supplanted. Runners needed to say “F**k Carl Lewis” so we ended up with a Usain Bolt. Basketball players needed to say, “F**k Michael Jordan” so a Kobe Bryant could get his due. And quarterbacks had to say “F**k Brett Favre” so Aaron Rodgers could become the most respected figure in Green Bay right behind Abraham Lincoln and Jesus (and in that order). However, those are athletics and records broken are naturally filled in with the name of the breaker. Art is not the same. One day Rock and others might technically be funnier than Pryor, but no one will ever replace him. His legacy is secured by the timing he had on stage and off.
Before Pryor did to comedy what Sinatra did to singing and Hendrix did to playing a guitar; jokes were just that – jokes. They were pretty much stories with snappy endings and funny asides along the way. Dick Gregory expanded the mindset and rhythm, but it was Pryor that took us into his world so thoroughly you could smell the hoe’s freshly used bed sheets. He built on what Lenny Bruce, Gregory and Bill Cosby had done as far as showing us the world we knew through identification, not gags; then Pryor handed us a trifecta of a racial, social and political journey none off those three masters mastered. Pryor is so revered because he revolutionized. That can never be taken away no matter how successful or famous any other comedian becomes.
This is why I want to take this time to advocate a course teaching the works and method of Richard Pryor. Comedy is currently integrating itself in the higher learning facilities across the country, similar to how hip hop has found its way into course studies. My book, “Black Comedians on Black Comedy” is currently being taught at USC by Professor Lanita Jacobs-Huey and Howard University is picking it for their next session under the instruction of Kasaun Wilson. So adding Pryor to the curriculum is but a small nudge.
This would not be a class for just comedians. Richard Pryor 101 would be offered to all students who crave to better themselves and find the truth in their existence. I don’t want to go as far as saying they’d discover the meaning of life from this course, but it would be the closet any other class has come. Cornel West stated the Richard Pryor engaged in the most intelligent and un-intimidated speech more than even Martin or Malcolm. This can’t be disputed. A class on Pryor would teach fearlessness in speech and deed. It would inevitably empower those being bullied to stand up and fight back; if not physically, verbally. It would create a more confident student body.
Pryor 101 would also infuse in its students to gift of public speaking. It’s easy to be scared to speak in public if you have nothing to say. Pryor always had a point to make. Let the average individual feel that what comes out of their mouth and mind is significant enough to be thought and uttered then we’d remove the low talkers from society. Death then would become the number one fear of humans as it rightfully should be and balance would be restored in the universe.
A Pryor teacher would teach improvisation. In life as in art the person in either case must be able to think on their feet. To be nimble mentally and verbally at a moment’s notice can be the difference of success or failure. How many times have you said to yourself, “I should’ve done this: or “I should’ve said that.”? Take Pryor’s class and eliminate such verbiage and regrets.
The study of wit would be vital in the Pryor course. Laughter is known as an involuntary response to a verbal or visual stimulus. However, if one is aware of what buttons to push on the machinery known as human beings, the road to laughter has few bumps in it. People generally are aroused by similar humor: the rancor of another, over-the-top violence, an unexpected conclusion to a perilous situation, the unflattering revelation regarding an authority figure and so on. Given the blueprint for these various categories, a person will know the proper things to say to receive the desired response on any given occasion.
Imagination is the expansion of the mind to explore non-traditional possibilities. We’d teach that. Pryor could not only transport the viewer or listener to places we knew existed in our world, but to other worlds entirely. Dracula and the Wino is a classic example of blending two familiar yet diverse known entities into a highly unlikely, but logically fluid exchange. His ‘what if’ way of looking at things is the cornerstone of an active imagination. This departure from normal thought can be instructed.
Style is something Pryor had in abundance. Not only in the attire he donned, but in his manner as an individual. You knew when an impressionist or hack comic is doing Richard Pryor not based on the words but mannerisms and style. His uniqueness is unmistakable and each person has that same advantage over the rest of us. Nobody is really like anybody else despite the claim from racists and bigots that some groupings are all alike. Pryor knew his style and the fact we had accepted it so well that he could say the most outrageous things about himself or society and we’d accept it. Most humorists would’ve never been forgiven for outing themselves, but in Pryor style such an admission seemed in character.
As previously stated courage is something Richard Pryor had in abundance. He opened his insides for us to see and pointed to the spots we missed. The man delved into areas publicly few venture into even in their rooms alone or in front of a mirror. His stance on any topic he discussed left other humorists in awe at the sheer guts it took to bring it up much less address it. This type of courage; to go boldly . . . is something that could and should be part of a study course. How unafraid would a person be in life if they were taught not to fear and to be bold enough to understand the time wasted not adhering to that credo?
In short I am a champion of this class because it would make better graduates. Comedy is a business of unpredictability. Most comedians don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. When the recession hit in October of 2008 the fear comedians had was not of lack of employment or a crumbling of their job security – we never had that. The biggest fear for comedians was how a bad economy was going to affect comedy show ticket purchasers. Comedians themselves were fine. No one jumped out of their high 10th floor office or walked out in front of a semi-truck. Comedians got on the phone and made sure they had work. The grind continued as normal.
So the notion of a class on Richard Pryor is not to teach his biography for a semester. It’s to teach his philosophy for a lifetime; for though he is no longer with us his example lives on. December 10, 2005 was the passing of a human. That human’s ideas will never pass. They will endure as long as we have the mediums to go back and recount them; so with all due respect to Chris Rock – Long Live Richard Pryor.