The Only Negro in the World

A new anthology documents the rare comedic genius of Richard Pryor

The work takes the shape of a small town: With curved borders and funhouse edges, its population is almost completely black. In it, humble youths get tossed into the clink on income-tax evasion at the drop of a hat (Kid: "I forgot!" Judge: "You remember next year, nigger!"). A wino jumps out of his welfare-hotel rec-room chair when he sees Patty Hearst walk into court: "Bitch had a machine gun! I was in dat bank when she come in duh! I had forty-seven dollars in there, boy. I was drawin' big interest." A Chinese waiter goes ballistic on a black tough guy who won't eat his moo goo gai pan: "You know peepow in Mississippi aw stowvin'? Why you tink you ow, Busta Brown?" A would-be tough guy dressed down by white cops while taking his lady to dinner loses the feeling: "C'mon baby. Let's jus' go home an' beat your kids an' shit." A young black man swallows a tab of LSD and hears the scariest words he can conjure: "You are...the only the world!"

On July 14, 2000, Rhino released ...And It's Deep Too!, an anthology of Richard Pryor recordings made from 1968 to 1992 for Warner Bros. Nearly ten hours long, it makes our most honored cinematic epics, our Godfather, Part IIs and Nashvilles, look cramped. A capacious, full-bodied testimony to all that is human, it ranks with Whitman's outcries, Faulkner's rendering of Yoknapatawpha County, and Don DeLillo's multi-vocal set pieces--his Moonie weddings and World Series chiller-dillers. In a just world, this artifact would cement its author's reputation as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century--our greatest living comic.

I guess when white critics start writing this stuff about you, it means you're old and done for--but what the fuck? What's true is true--the underlying message of Pryor's life work. The other night I saw Spike Lee interviewed about a new book debunking the legend of Muhammad Ali. Why is Ali so embraced now by the white mainstream? Lee was asked. "Because he's a wreck!" he responded. "Same thing as Richard Pryor!" Partly true; but hearing these ten hours, I can't bring myself to be as cynical. Pryor was always some kind of wreck, if not a crippled one. And his work, juxtaposed with that of today's culture (especially that of his spiritual sons and grandsons), is awe-inspiring.

The sound and the fury: Richard Pryor live in concert
The sound and the fury: Richard Pryor live in concert

...And It's Deep is particularly poignant and cheering because it will never be taught in any classroom. It will never sit on a shelf at Barnes & Noble as a classic American whatever. Oprah will never recommend it to her book club. And the sight of the sixty-year-old Pryor, now mute from multiple sclerosis, is enough to scare off any Santana-style Gen Y revival. The great joy of Pryor is that he achieved all an artist possibly can, without ever setting out to make art. Standing in a Peoria tavern, Pryor had a simple objective: Make these rummies laugh and come back next week. And even in later, "classic" Pryor, like the performance titled Wanted: Richard Pryor (the substance of the 1979 film Richard Pryor Live in Concert), he still sounds like a guy cracking up a bar full of his buddies. There is none of the literary pretension of Lenny Bruce or the sound-bite punditry of Chris Rock. There is, over and over and over again, just a guy and a mike--a guy whose goal is to strip himself naked.

For most of his career, Pryor has been associated with fear. A stepped-up, wisenheimered, black-power-aware version of the Mantan Moreland pop-eyed scaredy-cat, but...yeah...scared. If you built a statue of Pryor, it would be a guy leaping back in fright at himself. When Pryor wanted to make money, the fear thing became a grotesque caricature in movies where he clutched Jackie Gleason or Gene Wilder in fright. But in the stand-up featured here, it takes on a different dimension. A whole generation of Def Comedy Jam comics stole Pryor's candor about sex and body functions, but their spitball antics are hollow, a bully staring at his bicep. They lack the layer Pryor returned to obsessively: vulnerability. This is Pryor's magic, his unrepeatable alchemy. He didn't just "show us ourselves"--plenty of comics have done that. He showed us our lack of self-control: the way one side of our personality scared the other; the hundred ways in which our terrorized minds will scream to be released from this box of a body, which taunts us with erections, flatulence, MS.

Pryor begins performances by insisting on as little space as possible between him and the audience. This means, as with his famous Mudbone character (a sort of delta-blues equivalent of Mel Brooks's 3000-Year-Old Man), that Pryor often forswears preassembled material altogether--and to be an improvisational raconteur necessitates bravery. In the way that Faulkner can dial through an entire community to register varying degrees of longing, Pryor has his meter stuck on one setting: frailty, featuring the subgenres of cowardice, self-delusion, and (his favorite) helpless, you-can't-fix-it horror.

No major American artist has ever spent so much time making portraiture of alcoholics, derelict heroin addicts, white LSD fiends, and fast-lane baseheads. Substance abuse isn't just autobiography for Pryor: It's the greatest of all metaphors. Check out the foolish pride of a middle-aged drunk showing off for his girlfriend at a Pryor concert, torturing a waitress with his "high-class" order: "Yeah, get the lady a seven an' seven with a, uh, cherry twist...piece o' lemon...anna...turtle soup!" Or the incredible transformation, in Pryor's second-funniest routine on the collection, "Nigger with a Seizure" (1974), of a repressed Nice Guy Charlie (a telephone repairman--or a supermarket manager?) into a drunken lout, talking a long, unbroken line of bellicose shit till his slipped-out words "ya mama" trigger a biff! into the microphone that cuts off the jive stream. (No comic has used 'plosive T's, zizzing sound effects, and scatological onomatopoeia as Pryor did. In one bit, he even gives his own acid trip an Ennio Morricone score.)

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