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The Only Negro in the World

The sound and the fury: Richard Pryor live in concert

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 Negro...in 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.

...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.)

An obscene poet laureate of physical and emotional fragility, Pryor meets his finest hours when the anxiety morphs from passive-aggressive to just plain aggressive. In "Nigger with a Seizure," the angry-when-drunk guy comes home to a wife who's presumably used to this by now. His parting words are, "Baby, I'm a fuck you tonight!...Uh-huh!...Blee dat shit!... Zzzzzzzzzzz!" In "Bicentennial Prayer" (1976), Pryor nukes the careers of cornpone comics such as Steve Harvey and transgressors such as the Farrelly Brothers when a rectitudinous black preacher, contemplating 200 years of white power, finally loses his cool: "I'd like to say tuh the crippled peoples that come here--can'tcha find another church to go to? God damn! Ya come in knockin' shit down an' breakin' up furniture an' shit, learn how to crawl! An' you deaf-an'-dumb motherfuckers that cain't talk, we don' need ya here! All that 'hoo hah huh' shit, kiss my ass!"

The preacher points to Scripture, in an attempt to make the weak in his flock understand that their burden of suffering can be lifted. It's a tired old reflex that sends him into spasms of frustration:

 

Now it say in the Bible that we will understand when a angel come up out the sea! He will have seven heads! An' a face like a serpent! An' a body like a lion! [pause] I dunno boutchew, but I don' wanna SEE no motherfucker lookin' like that! If I see him come up out the water, I'm 'onna shoot him i'th'ass!

 

Riding on waves of serial, throw-a-fit indignation, "Bicentennial Prayer" is the jewel in Pryor's crown, and the Rhino collection's high water mark.

 

White people are a mystery in the town Pryor creates. Obliviously polite and "nice," or genocidally psychotic, they live someplace else. In Pryor's cosmology, to be black is to be human, and to be human is to be vulnerable to a thousand indignities. This is why Pryor would never make it in the contemporary comedy world, where black comedians have the impregnable mask of a Wesley Snipes or a Jay-Z. Even Chris Rock has a Vegas headliner's top-dog, stay-away force field. Pryor was the guy who put a drawing of broken chains and naked African people walking into a rainbow on the back of his album, but the indignity was far closer to his heart than pride. (The title, ...And It's Deep Too!, alludes to a tired old joke about two guys peeing over a bridge, but also conjures up Pryor's perennial subject: tripping and falling into the existential shitpile.)

And so is it really a surprise that, at 60, Pryor is, as Spike Lee so delicately puts it, a wreck? He cashed himself out--not with tempestuous rock-star theatrics, but with a lot of foolish, equipment-wrecking mistakes. (With the warmth that has become his trademark, filmmaker Paul Schrader declined to direct Pryor Convictions "because I knew if Pryor had one moving body part he'd kill me.") These recordings make it abundantly clear why someone like Pryor--a giant human Achilles heel, hyperattuned to his own and others' failures--would try to medicate himself to death.

Will Rhino's collection deliver the testament of Pryor's genius to future generations? Or can we only process such a vision when it comes dressed as high art? The critical silence that has greeted ...And It's Deep Too! is a disgrace. It would seem "low forms" are discussable only when they've already received academic approval; stand-up comedy is beyond déclassé. Pryor fell into stand-up, and isn't it ironic that he wrote the great American novel, and made the great American movie there? He didn't mean to, most of the time. He was high, and he wanted the paycheck. Still and all, that stuff he just pulled out of his ass tells us everything we need to know about dealing with the parts of ourselves that let us down. It consoles and gives courage. It erases shame and forms bridges between people. For God's sake, please don't refer to this great artist in the past tense! He no longer can speak, but those who know him say that he--like us, when we encounter his work--can listen with every atom in his body.


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