I would guess that a lot more people saw Pryor in his movies than ever saw him do standup. As a movie actor, he was certainly a success, with several memorable roles, but he was certainly no mega-star on the order of a Tom Cruise or a Julia Roberts. In fact, if his movies were all you knew of him, you would be quite justified in wondering why everyone keeps bandying about the “genius” label. Most of the TV news coverage of Pryor’s death has included snippets of his standup work but once again, if that’s all you knew of his standup work, you might be a good deal less than dazzled at this point. Please understand, Pryor could make you laugh until you cried, but it was not the lone, disconnected one-liner that did it. If that’s what you want, look up Youngman, Henny in your Funk & Wagnall’s. If you want a real taste of Pryor’s genius, go to your video store and rent the 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the more well known 1982 film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. The latter seems to be more highly regarded generally but for my money, the earlier one is a truer and funnier representation of his standup work. Oh, you could rent Silver Streak if you’re so inclined; he was hysterical in that when it came out, but as a movie that one has not aged well at all. No, you need to sit down and let Pryor spin his characters for you. You need to let him build his world and invite you into it. Know that you are going to hear the F word and the N word a great deal, and be ready to accept them as part of his language. And some of his subject material is pretty hard-core. If you can’t cross that bridge, maybe Pryor just isn’t for you. But here's the thing: unlike all too many comics, Pryor's obscenities of word and image are not what he's there to talk about; rather, they are a part of the language through which he tells his stories. And wonder of wonders, when we get to the bottom of those stories, we find that he's dealing in universal feelings and ideas that span cultures and upbringings. Perhaps without consciously meaning to, he tells me that the lives of a man raised in a whorehouse in Peoria and a man raised in a white Catholic household in Detroit are not as utterly different as one might have thought. Oh, I'm not really as naive as that last sentence might have made me sound. I know our lives were terribly different in many ways, but there's an underlying universal humanity that shines through Pryor's work that I think can touch anyone who is willing to listen. And from where I sit, he’s one of those rare people who tangibly broadened my own sense of what was possible for a man on a bare stage with a microphone.
I want to close by knocking Richard down from that pedestal I've just shoved him onto, because it's hard for a statue to do standup. He was a deeply flawed man. But he had a rare gift, and we are its beneficiaries.