The following appeared in newspapers nationwide...
Pryor’s flawed legacy
Comedian’s vulgarity made him no role model
by Stanley Crouch
Richard Pryor's world was filled with prostitutes, pimps, winos and those others of undesirable ilk.
This past Saturday Richard Pryor left this life and bequeathed to our culture as much darkness as he did the light his extraordinary talent made possible.
When we look at the remarkable descent this culture has made into smut, contempt, vulgarity and the pornographic, those of us who are not willing to drink the Kool-Aid marked “all’s well,” will have to address the fact that it was the combination of confusion and comic genius that made Pryor a much more negative influence than a positive one.
I do not mean positive in the way Bill Cosby was when his television show redefined situation comedy by turning away from all of the stereotypes of disorder and incompetence that were then and still are the basic renditions of black American life in our mass media.
Richard Pryor was not that kind of a man. His was a different story.
Pryor was troubled and he had seen things that so haunted him that the comedian found it impossible to perform and ignore the lower-class shadow worlds he had known so well, filled with pimps, prostitutes, winos and abrasive types of one sort or another.
The vulgarity of his material, and the idea a “real” black person was a foul-mouthed type was his greatest influence. It was the result of seeing the breaking of “white” convention as a form of “authentic” definition.
Pryor reached for anything that would make white America uncomfortable and would prop up a smug belief among black Americans that they were always “more cool” and more ready to “face life” than the members of majority culture.
Along the way, Pryor made too many people feel that the N word was open currency and was more accurate than any other word used to describe or address a black person.
In the dung piles of pimp and gangster rap we hear from slime meisters like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, the worst of Pryor’s influence has been turned into an aspect of the new minstrelsy in which millions of dollars are made by “normalizing” demeaning imagery and misogyny.
What is so unfortunate is that the heaviest of Pryor’s gifts was largely ignored by so many of those who praised the man when he was alive and are now in the middle of deifying him.
The pathos and the frailty of the human soul alone in the world or insecure or looking for something of meaning in a chaotic environment was a bit too deep for all of the simpleminded clowns like Andrew Dice Clay or those who thought that mere ethnicity was enough to define one as funny, like the painfully square work of Paul Rodriguez.
Of course, Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam is the ultimate coon show update of human cesspools, where “cutting edge” has come to mean traveling ever more downward in the sewer.
In essence, Pryor stunned with his timing, his rhythm, his ability to stand alone and fill the stage with three-dimensional characters through his remarkably imaginative gift for an epic sweep of mimicry.
That nuanced mimicry crossed ethnic lines, stretched from young to old, and gave poignancy to the comedian’s revelations about the hurts and the terrors of life.
The idea of “laughing to keep from crying” was central to his work and has been diligently avoided by those who claim to owe so much to him.
As he revealed in his last performance films, Pryor understood the prison he had built for himself and the shallow definitions that smothered his audience’s understanding of the humanity behind his work.
But, as they say, once the barn door has been opened, you cannot get all of the animals to return by whistling. So we need to understand the terrible mistakes this man of comic genius made and never settle for a standard that is less than what he did at his very best, which was as good as it has ever gotten.
Originally published on December 12, 2005