The Comedy and Legacy of Richard Pryor

Comedian Paul Mooney, a longtime friend and writer for Richard Pryor, talks about their friendship and the impact of the late comedian on American comedy.

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ED GORDON, host:

Joining me now to talk more about Richard Pryor, comedian Paul Mooney, a friend of Pryor's for more than 40 years.

And, Paul, we should note that you helped craft the comedy. I mean, you're a co-worker, a co-writer. You built with Richard his persona.

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Comedian): It's funny. It's actually eight kids. We don't talk about it, but, yeah, say that again 'cause you--hearing Richard's voice...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: ...it's...

GORDON: I saw you. You go with that.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. No, it's...

GORDON: It's still a shock to you.

Mr. MOONEY: No.

GORDON: I mean, we should note that you were more than just a friend. You helped build this...

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, I've known Richard--Richard was probably 24, 25 when we met. So it's part of my youth and it's part of my good times in life. I've got great memories. And hearing his voice, I mean, it's--you know, you guys played different things at different periods in his life. It's bringing back different emotions for me and the world has lost a brilliant genius. And, you know, that movie "The King of Comedy" was offensive and a joke to me because the king was still alive. He kept running around saying the king of comedy when the king is still alive. Maybe the can redo the movie now 'cause the king is dead, but Richard's definitely just--he was just brilliant.

GORDON: You know, he said at one point in his life, `I couldn't escape the darkness.' How much of what we read about Richard Pryor and hear the media talk about this two-sided person as real?

Mr. MOONEY: It's real. There was more than two sides to Richard and there was a lot of demons. There's a lot of demons. Comedians period in general have demons and myself included. And Richard overcame a lot of things that was very difficult to overcome. I mean, his grandmother was a madame in a whorehouse and his father was a pimp. And the funny thing about it, he used to always tell me I reminded him of his father. He always said that to me. He said, `Women love you. You remind me of my dad.' You know, I found that funny. And he loved his grandmother. I mean, she was very likeable, and she--you know, grandmothers--you know, black grandmothers are the Earth especially when they come from the '30s and the '20s and they're real solid. And I remember once Richard had a lot of cocaine at the house and the grandmother took all of it and flushed it down the toilet, you know, right in front of him.

GORDON: And she is about the only person that could do that.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, she took it and...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: ...she flushed it all down--oh, no, she wasn't the only person. I remember one time--a story--I shouldn't really tell this but I will. He's gone, 'cause I promised him I wouldn't talk about him as long as he was living, but he said once that he passed, he said I could write a book, I could say anything. He said, `But as long as I'm alive, I don't want to hear it.'

He--it was a jazz singer. Ester Phillips--do you remember Ester? She sung like Dinah Washington, you know, "What A Difference A Day Makes." They were up in bed together naked in Hollywood and I had come into the room. It's on Sunset Boulevard, and there was a new Miles Davis--and Miles and Richard were very close--album, and the cocaine was--I don't do drugs--you know, on the album. I came in the room. This is for real story. I picked the album up and I brushed all the cocaine off the album. I said, `Is this Miles' new album?' You should have seen the look the two of them gave me. If looks could kill, I wouldn't be here.

GORDON: Let me ask this. What was the genius of Richard Pryor? What made him so different?

Mr. MOONEY: His ability to--his honesty. His ability to tell a story. When he told a story, it was like a movie. You believed it was happening. When he did the drunk, you believed you were seeing a drunk. When he talked about the deer in the woods, you believed it. He made the sounds. He was brilliant at telling stories, and some people are brilliant at losing themselves. That's why Richard could play characters. That's why Eddie Murphy can play characters. They can remove themselves from who they are, you know? It's hard for me. For me, I can do, like, attitude. I have such an ego 'cause I'm a double Leo. I can't let go of me, you know, so it's very difficult for me to be somebody else and not me. I'm so into me. I know I'm being crazy now, but it's the truth. And Richard used to say that, too, but Richard loved to lose himself. He could become the character because then he didn't have to be Richard, you know?

GORDON: He forced America to look at race in a way that many people were not brave enough to do at the time.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, race is a very touchy subject in America. It is America. I mean, if you believe in spies and--you know, it--when you decode America, it says race. I am race. And Richard did force them. See, Dick Gregory first went out there with the racial things and talked racial, but Richard would come from the streets and he would touch on the keys of black people. It was religious. He would touch their keys and their inner soul. And black people loved him for that.

I mean, I would sit there--I was Richard's biggest fan. If you get all of his albums and you listen to them, you hear me laughing. I mean, Richard used to crack me. Our creative marriage was perfect because I was such a big fan, and when we would write and we'd work and we'd work up the material and we'd talk about it afterwards, Richard knew I was his biggest fan, that I loved hearing him, you know? And he would come and see me perform. And at the time, my thing was new and he used to get such a kick out of it, you know? And so it was mutual. And he was just very good at--Richard had a gift. I mean, he's very good at storytelling and making--and he's funny. Richard was naturally funny.

GORDON: Paul, do me a favor. Stay with me for just a minute. We're going to roll with the punches here and talk a little bit more about Richard Pryor. We'll also be joined by essayist Stanley Crouch to talk about the social impact of Richard Pryor and then we'll get into an abbreviated roundtable in segment B. We'll be back with more on Richard Pryor in just a second.

This is NPR News.

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