Arts & Life


Richard Pryor occupies his own special category in comedy. He played Las Vegas and made popular movies, and he did routines that could be searing, profane, moving and unnerving short stories. He grew up in his grandmother's brothel in Peoria, Illinois; she beat him, too. He was expelled from high school, went into the U.S. Army, but spent much of his stint in prison. And with a special fever of genius, torched by drugs, fueled by grief, and enlivened by exhilaration, he did unforgettable depictions of what it's like to feel left out of American life.

RICHARD PRYOR: This is my impression of a heart talking to a brain.


PRYOR: Brain...


PRYOR: Brain...


PRYOR: What do you want?


PRYOR: You've been naughty.


PRYOR: Go to hell.


PRYOR: Don't make me angry, brain.


PRYOR: Drop dead.



SIMON: Richard Pryor died in 2005 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and drugs. The Shout Factory has just released a new seven-CD, two-DVD boxed set to remind us the man who was the first winner of the Mark Twain Humor Award and topped Comedy Central's list of 100 Greatest Standups of All Time. It's called "No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert." And we're joined now by Richard Pryor's widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, who was also his manager. She joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNIFER LEE PRYOR: It's a pleasure to be here. I love talking about Richard.

SIMON: Well, could you tell us about that night in 1978? I guess you were dating but it was the first time you saw him perform.

PRYOR: Oh, my gosh. One night, we went into town. However, on the way home, he decided that the evening was not over. And a few minutes later, we ended up - he pulls into the driveway of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. And the next thing I know, I see Richard on stage. And I was very surprised that this was the culmination of our evening but more surprised that this was so unintended, that in fact it was so spontaneous, but that's how Richard worked. And that was indeed certainly part of his brilliance. You could see there was nothing planned. So, he started talking about candle wax on the floor - the first thing he saw - and from there, he just spun this incredible web of humor but also drawing the audience into unexpected discovery and adventure. And this was who Richard was. He would fly with no net. And that was the first night, by the way, he had gotten onstage after the New Year's Eve, very public New Year's Eve incident, which he had been arrested for, by the way.

SIMON: Yeah. This was, we should make plain, shooting a bullet into his, I guess was she about his ex-wife, his wife's car.

PRYOR: Several bullets.

SIMON: Several bullets, OK.

PRYOR: Yeah, .357 Magnum. And then, of course, what his genius was, was taking that incident, that terrifying incident, and turning it into comedy, of course, and talking about it on stage.

SIMON: Do you mind me asking, I mean, he was - Richard Pryor was married seven times to five different women, and he was accused more than once of committing domestic violence. What did you have with each other? Why did you love him?

PRYOR: Oh, my gosh. There's never been anybody I've met who has been as vulnerable, as willing to be open and loving as Richard. He had a great capacity for the deepest empathy of anybody I've ever met. Of course, this would go to a dark side because Richard was a very hypersensitive human being. If he saw a look of judgment or scorn it could wound him as deeply as if somebody had taken a knife to him. So, that's the price of genius. Genius isn't free; there's a great price to pay. And Richard knew it.

SIMON: We want to play one of the routines, if we can. This is Richard Pryor on Dracula.

PRYOR: Hey, man. You with the cape. What you doing peeking in them people's window? What's your name, boy? Dracula? What kind of name is that for a (beep)?


PRYOR: Where you from, fool? Transylvania? I know where it is, (beep). You ain't the smartest (beep) in the world, you know, even though you is the ugliest. Oh yes, you are the (beep). Why don't you get your teeth fixed (beep). Got (beep) hanging all out your mouth. Why don't you go get you an orthodontist? That's a dentist, you know, (makes noise).

SIMON: So, by the time our listeners hear this, of course, there will be a lot of beeps. May I ask where you were that famous night in 1980?

PRYOR: Oh, God. I went out to the house in Northridge. He was in very bad shape; he was very, very addicted to freebase cocaine. And he said there's no way out, I don't see a way out. I've made my mind up; I've chosen. And I said - I begged him; I said, Richard, please don't hurt yourself, don't you hurt yourself. And he said I'm telling you right now, if you don't leave now, you're going to get hurt, too. So, I did get the hell out. And 20 minutes later, it had happened, and he was literally running down the street on fire.

SIMON: We need to explain, for people who haven't heard the story in full, he doused himself with rum, set himself on fire, right?

PRYOR: Yeah, yeah. It was an attempted suicide.

PRYOR: I snorted cocaine for about 15 years with my dumb (Beep). I must have snorted up Peru. I started off snorting little tiny pinches. Said, I know I ain't gonna get hooked. Not on no coke, you can't get hooked. My friends have been snorting 15 years. They ain't hooked. Six months later, (makes noise).

SIMON: So, why we should listen to this in this day and age?

PRYOR: Yeah. Richard, from A to Z - you have incredible light, incredible darkness, and incredible joy. And, you know, all of us have that in our lifetimes. Obviously, some of Richard's dark periods were more extreme than what any of us will go through. But the point of Richard is how brave he is and how wonderful he is to tell the whole story. The whole story is there for all of us to see. And why we connect to him so deeply and profoundly is because he's willing to show it. Very few people are willing to show it. So, his own truth and his own moral compass was so courageous that people grabbed hold of it for themselves and for their own life. And it's important to listen.

SIMON: Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard Pryor's widow, and the Shout Factory has just released a new seven-CD, two-DVD box set "No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert." Jennifer, thanks so much.

PRYOR: Thank you for having me.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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