Considering the Cultural Impact of Richard Pryor

Essayist and critic Stanley Crouch reflects on the cultural impact of Richard Pryor's work. Crouch recently wrote in the New York Daily News that Pryor's groundbreaking comedy opened the floodgates for darker, more vile expressions of "art" that continue to hound the black community.

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ED GORDON, host:

Normally this section is reserved for our roundtable. We'll have an abbreviated roundtable in just a few moments but we wanted to continue our conversation about the late great Richard Pryor. We're joined by comedian Paul Mooney who was a friend of Richard Pryor's for over 40 years and helped craft the comic persona of the man. We are now joined by Stanley Crouch, editorial columnist for the New York Daily News.

Stanley, one of the reasons I wanted you to come on is to talk about the social impact from a critic's point of view of this man that so many have called a comedic genius. We throw that term around `genius' perhaps too often but it was quite appropriate in Mr. Pryor's case.

Mr. STANLEY CROUCH (New York Daily News): Oh, well, the thing is that he was a pure original, and he had--as Mr. Mooney said, he had the ability to stand alone on stage and populated with all of these other people whom he would play and whom you could see and whom you would believe were alive. Yeah, he could do that, and he could do that better than anyone had ever done it before, I think.

GORDON: Paul, was Richard more than one person? I mean, we saw him play all of these characters. Sometimes we try to make things perhaps more complex than they are. Was he a complex person?

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Comedian): Very. He was very complex and he was moody. And you have to know, Richard was doing drugs, so drugs had an affect on him. And I have to admit he--there was something deep inside of him that was in earnest and he just--he had a lot of love. He had a lot of love. He had love for his fans. He had love for his art. And, you know, misery loves company and Richard loved drugs. He really did. It was him, Flip Wilson. I could tell on of them. They were all into those drugs. The "Saturday Night Live" crew, those druggies. Don't even start me.

But anyway, the one thing Richard never did, and you know misery loves company and we were tight, OK? Richard never tried to seduce me into drugs, 'cause you know misery loves company, and to get me to do drugs. He would always tell everybody, `Paul doesn't do drugs,' and that was during the time of the money, when a hundred dollars was a hundred dollars and drugs were the best--that whole thing. All of Hollywood was high and so was the rent, but what happened was Richard would say, `Paul doesn't do drugs. Give me Paul's share. More for me. More for me.'

GORDON: Let me ask you this, Stanley. There is a complexity in this man. Even when you look at what Richard Pryor was as an icon and culturally, there was this give and take of people who wanted to love him, as Paul said--he was so endearing as a comedian and a character--yet there was the personal side of Richard Pryor that was hard to embrace even from afar.

Mr. CROUCH: Well, yeah. I mean, but that's always the complexity of people who have Jekyll and Hyde personalities, which are often the result of being high a lot; about being high or not being high and wanting to be high, always needing to be high. As far as...

GORDON: What do you see, Stanley, as his impact on comedy in general?

Mr. CROUCH: Well, you know, I think it was both good and it was bad. I think it was good with those people who aspired to what he actually tried to do, which were very, very few people. Because, see, a lot of Pryor's material was not only brilliantly executed in terms of the mimicry, but he also talked about a lot of the personal--not just personal to him but intimate kinds of terrors and problems that people have, of their insecurities, of their loneliness or their confusion, etc. And he was able to weave all of those things together. Like one of the best examples is that moment in his first performance film when he goes back and forth between this extraordinarily terrifying moment when the man is having a heart attack and this comic routine of somebody trying to make a telephone call to God to get a break. And so he can make you laugh when he's calling heaven trying to get God on the phone, and then he can flip immediately right back to this man in the middle of a heart attack, and it's extraordinarily terrifying.

And none of the people who came after him have even tried to do any of that sort of thing. They settle often for vulgarity, the kind of thing that has led us into, you know, the worst of gangsta rap and pimpology and all of that stuff. But, see, that wasn't really his--I mean, he helped open the door for that but I don't think his great value was in that arena. It was the fact that he could balance so many things and make so many things real...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. CROUCH: ...in his stuff.

GORDON: Paul, with about--quick for me, Stanley.

Mr. CROUCH: And also that he was extraordinarily funny.

GORDON: Paul, with about two minutes to go, talk to me about what Stanley has just brought up, the idea that there are so many imitators to the throne, as we talked about who wanted to be Richard Pryor but just didn't have the ability to do what he did.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, there's only one Richard Pryor. There can't be two. It's a done deal. And what he's saying is true in a lot of areas. Richard was brilliant at what he did and he gave a lot of love and he was very creative. And it's--to me, it's like, you know, life is very strange. Richard--his speech, his talking ability, Richard ended up where he wasn't talking anymore. He talked with his eyes. Whenever I'd go see him, he'd talked with his eyes. He couldn't--it's like the same thing with Muhammad Ali. These two people used their words and now they can't. It's like something very strange about that to me, you know. The world loved what they said and now they can't talk, you know. And it's just weird to me. I mean, that's why I said that Richard can't speak but I can speak, you know, 'cause I was right there.

Richard used to sleep on my living room floor when I first met him and drive my '52 Ford. That's a true story. He didn't even have a license. He drove it for about three weeks. And when--I told him to go to Berkeley. When he went to Berkeley, California, we'd go up together--this is how much I love this man. He was drinking all the way from Hennessy, drinking and driving, and we were singing all the way, all the old tunes. That's how crazy I was, you know.

And that's a true story. And then later on, Richard had a Rolls-Royce, a Corniche they call them, the real expensive one. He came up to The Comedy Store in Hollywood, he drove it up. And I said, `Richard, let me drive it up, let me park it.' He said, `I'm not letting you park my Rolls-Royce.' I said, `Well, you drove my '52 Ford for three weeks. That was my Rolls-Royce.' He said, `Yeah, you're right,' and he let me drive it.

GORDON: The world has truly lost some laughter and, as I said, often we use the word genius, but in this case, it is real. Richard Pryor, dead at 65, but luckily those of us who were here at the time and shared the space and world with Richard Pryor were made a little happier at the time in the laughter that he brought to us.

Stanley Crouch, thank you very much for putting it in context socially for us. And, Paul Mooney, thank you so much for joining us and sharing remembrances of one of your good friends and, again, you're as much of making Richard Pryor who he ultimately became as anyone, so we thank you so much.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, hey, it's the Lone Ranger and Tonto, it's Lucy and Ethel. There's no separating Richard and I. And we were there from the beginning and Richard did change a lot of things. He really did.

Mr. CROUCH: He really did.

GORDON: All right. Paul Mooney, thank you very much.

All right, here comes the unique perspective. We're going to just hit a quick music button for you. When we return, the roundtable. Back in a moment.

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