Face it: Richard Pryor was one funny (insert your favorite obscenity or epithet here).
Profane and profound, Mr. Pryor, who died Saturday at the age of 65, revolutionized comedy. Eschewing the standards of setup and punch line - as well as political correctness - he found material in the often-unpalatable realms of race, sex and his own despair. Not much of a teller of jokes, he rooted his act in the tradition of storytelling, where delivery, rather than structure, is important.
Although much has been made of Mr. Pryor's film career - he appeared in more than 40 films and was a writer on Blazing Saddles - it is Pryor the comic and commentator who contributed most significantly to popular culture. Fearless behind a microphone, he proved that funny is funny, regardless of its roots.
That's what made Mr. Pryor's comedy career so remarkable. His material was risky, risqu and intentionally edgy, but it was always accessible and very, very popular. His great gift, it seems, was in finding just the right way to engage an audience, persuade them to accept his bawdy banter and revolutionary approach. Whether riffing on race, sex or his own brush with burning death while free-basing cocaine, Mr. Pryor found a way to spool out facts, fiction and earnest opinion that allowed the audience to forget that these were not topics for polite discussion.
In recent years, his voice had been quieted - although never completely silenced - by multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, there was never a comic ready to step into his spot. Certainly there were those influenced by Mr. Pryor. In fact, most contemporary comics owe a debt to the funnyman. But none, not Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, not Bill Hicks or Eddie Murphy, has been able to catch lightning, and the national zeitgeist, in a bottle the way Richard Pryor could.
And for that, we'll miss the (another obscenity here) out of him.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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