A Final Tribute to Richard Pryor

Commentator Todd Boyd says that as a critic of pop culture, he owes a debt of gratitude to the late Richard Pryor. Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price endowed chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.

ED GORDON, host:

A memorial service for Richard Pryor will be held in California on Saturday. Pryor's family has requested that the funeral be a private affair, by invitation only. Commentator Todd Boyd offers his own final tribute to the comic genius.


Back in the year 2000, I attended the premiere of the film "The Original Kings of Comedy." As I entered the theater that night, I couldn't the title of this film off of my mind. How would anyone dare consider themself comedic royalty, much less an original talent in the field that Richard Pryor not only dominated, but completely redefined. To me, this title was inappropriate, if not downright arrogant. Adding insult to injury, it just so happened that Richard Pryor was in the house that night. Considering that this film featured a group of contemporary African-American comedians, I assumed, or at least hoped, that the title was a joke, too.

Richard Pryor is without a doubt the undisputed king of comedy. But to limit his influence to comedy is to completely diminish his significance on the culture at large. Save for Malcolm X, there has never been a more honest discussion of American race relations than the one that Pryor initiated from the comedy stage back in the day. He was as much a social critic as he was a comedian. When Pryor was set to host the inaugural episode of "Saturday Night Live" back in 1975, the network was concerned about what he might say, so much so that they postponed his appearance. By the time he was allowed to host the show, they had decided to delay the transmission of the broadcast so as to censor any potentially offensive language before it hit the airwaves. You know you're significant when they devise a broadcast standard just to regulate your speech.

As a kid growing up in the '70s, Richard was one of my biggest heroes. When you're a young contrarian in the making like I was then, hearing someone curse and repeatedly use what people now refer to as `the N word' on a record was about as fascinating as seeing fire for the first time. But Pryor was about far more than just cursing, as is often the case with some of today's comedians. Pryor was like an amalgamation of all those cats that I saw in the streets, the pimps, the dope dealers, the dope fiends, the hustlers. He brought them and their perspective to life for me and gave them a voice. He was conscious and political at the same time, and what he said resonated with the black-power speeches that I heard all around me at the time.

To say that Richard was my role model is an understatement. The art of talking trash has become my calling in life. I now talk trash for a living. The trash that I talk, though, is not what one might normally associate with that phrase. It is a combination of critical theory and the kind of street knowledge that Pryor made famous in his comedy. It is this fusion of what I like to call the formal and the vernacular that makes me the Notorious PhD. I would not be able to do what I do were it not for the transgressive, unadulterated genius that flowed from Richard's mouth.

Talk about keeping it real: The concept originated with the man and it lives on because of the man. Every comedian who steps on the stage today, be they black, white or otherwise, and every rapper that picks up a mic owes a debt to Richard Pryor. We should all pour out a little liquor in his honor. Real recognized real, Richard, and you're looking mighty familiar. Rest in peace, my brother.

GORDON: Todd Boyd, also known as the Notorious PhD, is a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.