Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor

I was tuning in to listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" last night when I caught the tail end of an NPR story about Richard Pryor. The part I heard didn't mention anything about his death, but I knew that such a feature piece about a performer who has been unable to perform due to health reasons for years was probably an epitaph.

Sure enough, when I started checking the net later in the evening, there was the news. A lot of blogs are eulogizing Richard, and deservedly so. He changed the face of comedy for many of us, along with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, and a few others. God Bless him for that.

I remember seeing him on a talk show (Merv Griffin, I think) when he did an amazing bit about a baby in the womb, a piece that was utterly transcendent in its humor and beauty. This was around 1967 or so, and I had never seen anything quite like it. And after living for years in a racist household, I saw a black man do something that went beyond anything I had seen from anyone from any race. It was a life changing moment, a paradigm shift in my perceptions.

He had his demons also. As a recovering alcoholic and addict myself, I truly identify with him on that level as well. He suffered an enormously humiliating and public bottom (most crackheads don't manage to set themselves on fire, and if they do they are not public enough personas to have it be FRONT PAGE NEWS), and he continued to lie and live in denial for whatever reasons for quite some time after he spoke publicly about it. Remember the whole "over-proof rum" alibi?

Yes, I identify with that too. I lied to others and myself for years about my drug and booze addictions, and while I never set myself literally on fire, I did suffer a crash and burn which was a metaphoric self-immolation. And looking in retrospect at Richard and his life, I can only feel enormous empathy for the man and his weaknesses. He was a genius, no doubt, and he gave the world a hell of a lot of laughter. But he sacrificed himself to his demons in a way that is both pitiful and scary.

It is utterly tragic that he succumbed to the disease of addiction, long before the multiple sclerosis finally robbed him of his livelihood. And his death due to a heart attack probably had at least some connection to cocaine abuse. I don't know if he was able to keep those demons at bay for the end of his life, but I certainly hope he did.

God speed, Richard, and may you now find peace.

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