“All I wanna do is leave Tucson alive,” Richard says in the interview, and he did, just barely. The following June 9th, in what was originally (and strenuously) called an “accident” but which he later admitted — on film and in print — to be an attempted suicide, Richard capped off a long freebasing bender by dousing himself in cognac (or rum, the stories vary) and setting himself on fire. The burns covered more than half his body. He spent six weeks in recovery.
The public outpouring of affection and support that followed was poignant, but not terribly surprising; part of the genius of Richard, as a performer, was in the degree to which it felt as though we knew him, understood him, even as he confronted us with ideas and accusations that made us uncomfortable. That brutal, blunt candor, that sense of danger and hostility, co-existed with a palpable vulnerability. They weren’t in conflict with each other, because they were both the same thing: truth.
His earliest breakthroughs as a performer came in the mid-1960s, as a gentle, easygoing comic in the Bill Cosby mold. If a socio-political ideology could be assigned to his early persona, it would be firmly integrationist; there was little in his early work specific to the black experience. He was a jokesmith, a storyteller, and not much more. That ended in 1970, when he walked away from his lucrative career (right in the middle of a Vegas performance, no less) because he’d grown bored with his tame, uninspired material. His reinvention of his onstage persona dovetailed with a political rebirth that recast his philosophy closer to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton than Martin Luther King.
Yet Richard, whether he intended to or not, became a symbol of the progression of civil rights in the 1970s, not because he led marches or organized rallies, but because he provided a common ground for audiences of varying races, creeds, and classes. There had been plenty of entertainers that white and black audiences could enjoy together; that was nothing new. But here was one who was aggressive, sometimes insulting, often hostile, who spoke truth (uncomfortable truth) to power — but who was unfailingly, unreasonably, unquestionably funny. Pryor laughed at us, and laughed with us, and he was so funny that we laughed at ourselves, too (and he made it okay to do so, because he was also laughing at himself).
Richard’s journey was America’s journey: the attempts at quiet integration, the political awakening, the power of that engagement and the disappointment that followed, softened and buried in money and sex and drugs, so many drugs, mountains of cocaine, until the breaking point came. In 1980, the nation burned itself to the ground figuratively, by electing Ronald Reagan; that same year, Pryor did it literally. Neither was ever quite the same, and with rare exceptions, both spent the next quarter-century playing it very, very safe.
But there is nothing safe about this clip. As in the best of his work on stage and screen, Pryor seems capable of anything: he’s shocking and vulgar and offensive and dangerous (not only to us, but to himself). He was not, as is clear here, always in control. But he was always uniquely himself.
BAMcinématek’s “A Pryor Engagement” retrospective begins tonight and runs through February 21.