Richard Pryor: From Tragedy to Comedy

“It takes a certain talent, genius (if you will) to insult 17,000 people – black, white, male, female, straight, gay, rich and poor – at one time.” -Los Angeles Times The infamous stand-up comedian Ricard Pryor was born December 1st, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, where his upbringing was anything but easy. Pryor was raped by his neighbor at age 6, abandoned by his mother at age 10, molested by his Catholic priest, and expelled from school at age 14. After being discharged from the army in 1960, Pryor tried to find his way by playing his cards in the music world. He began by performing in a bar at his hometown in Peoria, and quickly learned that the audience enjoyed his jokes much more than his singing. In 1963, he made the move to New York City, where he performed his comedy routines alongside artists like Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. His career took off from there, and today he is still voted #1 on Comedy Central’s all-time greatest stand up comedians. In 1977, Pryor performed at the Hollywood Bowl in support of an early gay rights group, where he openly spoke of the joys of gay sex. In fact, Pryor spoke of his personal experience with gay sex. To put it short, he held nothing back. Pryor was not a gay man, however. In fact, he married eight times throughout his life- twice to the same woman. In his art of comedy, he simply liked to talk about anything that would shock and awe his audience, such as his sexual experience with another man. The comedy skit, however, did not necessarily support gay rights, and got a lot of bad rap from the media. This bad rap did not cause him to make his comedy skits any less provocative, however. The quote posted above this article is a result of Pryor’s skit at the Hollywood Bowl, and pretty much sums up his career. The talented comedian had an infamous breakdown on June 9th, 1980, when he lit himself on fire while free-basing cocaine and drinking rum. Initially the incident was blamed on a drug-induced psychosis, but later in his life, Pryor admitted that he was trying to commit suicide. It is no surprise that he made a comedy skit based off of the incident, called Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986). For Pryor, comedy meant turning the horrific tragedies of life into something people can laugh about. Personally, I believe that Pryor used comedy as a coping mechanism for himself. His life was anything but easy, yet he spent his days making jokes. In a sense, that is all art really is: a strategy that involves coping with the hardships in everyday life by turning them into something beautiful—like laughter. Richard Pryor died at 65 years old on December 10th, 2005 from a heart attack. Considering his consistent drug and alcohol abuse, Pryor was truly a survivor. He spent his life taking illegal drugs and evoking all kinds of emotional reactions through his comedy skits. While suffering from multiple sclerosis, Pryor became the highest paid African American actor in 1983. He won an Emmy Award and five Grammy Awards throughout his life. His ability to spark a strong emotional reaction from his audience through his raunchy, provocative comedy–whether he insulted people, made them angry, made them laugh, or simply shocked them—could be considered both an insult and an art for humanity. Either way, Pryor had a strong influence in the world of comedy, and will forever be remembered by those who appreciate the art of turning something horrific into something funny.

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