Saturday, December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor Is Dead

When I was a kid, Pryor was the very byword of transgression. More then anyone, he taught me the wondrous subversive power of a joke, how the jester can say what no one else at court could say. If you've ever seen the excellent film Wattstax, about the Stax Records concert at the L.A. Coliseum in the Summer of 1972, then you realize what a politically aware comic Pryor, who serves as a kind of ghetto tour guide in the film, was. But he wrapped his politics inside his confessional comedy, and by doing so, never became a bore.

Because he never flinched to political correctness, Pryor was able to say things about black culture that no one else, certainly no white man, could say. Could you imagine if George Carlin, a comic who was a contemporary of Pryors, had put out an album with the title "Supernigger"?

Because of the incredible way he used self-reference to speak complex truths about what it was to be black in America, I created what I like to call the Richard Pryor Exemption, which states that extra latitude must be given to any comic who comments outrageously on his own community. Under this exemption, I have said things about queers and crackers that would be terribly offensive from anyone who wasn't. A queer or a cracker, that is.

One of the nicer aspirations you could have in your life would be to say as much about what it is to be who you are in America as Pryor said about who it was to be him. Undoubtedly, we'll all fail.


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