In 1986 Richard Pryor appeared on The Barbara Walters Special as a different kind of character, his lissome features, slender, fractured and unseemly. His demeanor was distant, he was quiet, reflective, and more importantly, Richard Pryor was sober. Six years earlier Pryor was sitting back on a deckchair while filming Stir Crazy, as blasé as they come, cigarette in hand, a cosmic squint, and the wit of a ceremonial fox:
Crewmember: “I don’t know how much of this we can air”
Richard: “I don’t care about air! Air is free, ya’ll talkin’ ‘bout time and space. Ya’ll have to pay for this. Ya’ll scared, I ain’t. I’m ‘bout to put eight hundred motherfuckers to work trying to edit this. I am helping society.”
The point I wish to make is not one of sobriety and its relation to comedic fervour, but understanding the gaze of an audience, and how damaging it may be. The enigmatic Pryor with all the bells and whistles of a hard-talking, overtly uncensored icon appeared jaded and weary in the Barbara Walters studio, restrained to the confinements of what we wish to make of him, heckled by that constant ringing; ‘what happened that night, Richard? Do you remember? Is it true that you were on drugs at the time? Do you have AIDS’
Pryor on fire – A freebase cocaine incident in June 1980 results in Richard Pryor suffering substantial burns over half of his body. A questionable suicide attempt, Pryor sought help in combatting his drug intake through various rehabilitation programs.
“I remember this one, you strike the match like this and say what’s that? Richard Pryor running down the street.”
The promiscuous portrait, hedonistic and apparently immune to heart attacks, heartbreak and limitation, Pryor’s indulgence and comedic value was to take a turn upon his diagnosis with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) in 1986. His schematic image was soon to be no longer emblazoned with obscenity slinging or the charismatic gestures of his former stand-up self. In 1993 he appeared on The Phil Donahue Show as a fatigued vessel of his former existence, clutching the hilt of his cane, shaking. An embodiment of decline, tranquilized, the Richard Pryor of my childhood was resigned to the electronic scooter.
The ossified imago, stolen in the mystery of an inflammatory nervous disease, left us cheated out of what we could have seen Richard Pryor become, and we received a small dose of it during the 1986 Barbara Walters interview. It was the impeding intrusion of Barbara Walters’ ‘intravenous’ insertion of censorship deep into the veins of Pryor, unnaturally he became corrected, and unnervingly he became liberalized.
Perhaps his diagnosis with MS was the abrupt curtain call on the Pryor show, forcing him not to adjust his views on the changing face of ‘Black America’ in unison with the rest of society, but instead, to confront his own decline mirrored with that of the Rodney King era of police confrontation and civil unrest (Pryor comments on the Rodney King incident during his interview with Phil Donahue: “I have never, I don’t know about you, seen a man whooped like the police whooped Rodney King. I’m sorry I’ve just never seen it. My father never gave me a whoopin’ like that).
But it was this symbolic freezing of time that allowed us to feel sad at Pryor’s last performances, his trembling voice, musing over the perils of MS, how when he wanted to go East, he ended up going West. How also in his typical comedic style of personifying elements of the human body, his bladder seemed to have a mind of its own, that it seemed to want to unload itself at sunset in front of eight or nine women.
“Of course I’m not dead! No I’m not dead. Because sometimes they used to have that on the news and shit, that I was dead. You know, it’s a bitch if you be watchin’ the news and motherfuckers be talkin’ ‘bout, you dead. Accountant calling me up talkin’ ‘bout “Oh, I thought you were dead!”– Richard Pryor speaking on MS, 199-
Richard Pryor won the epithet of ‘comedian’, and it is true that an artist of great ability was also present in the lotus eating. His decline was not kind; his disease did not let him down easy, but more than anything, if there is one thing I would like to remember about Richard Pryor it is that even with a debilitating illness, he continued to remain as they say, uncensored.
Scott Saul (University of Berkley) has released a new book entitled Becoming Richard Pryor. The book gives readers an insight into the earlier parts of Pryor’s life in Peoria, Illinois, as well as a compatible website with over two hundred documents used by Saul in the mapping of one of America’s great icons of comedy.