The stand-ups of today are still feeling the shockwaves of Richard Pryor’s impact on the artform. The late comedian, writer and actor was, like his contemporaries Lily Tomlin and George Carlin, a key figure in moving the medium beyond the setup/punchline delivery into more freeform storytelling that left ample room for improvisation and allowing material to evolve naturally. And he was the kind of comic mind that found joy in comedy that appealed to both our intelligence and our basest instincts. That’s why an early album like Craps (After Hours) can feature tracks like “President Nixon” and “Religion” alongside “Snappin’ Pussy” and “Fartin’.”
What girds all of Pryor’s work, no matter how frivolous, is his understanding of what he represented to his audience. This was a black man who survived unfathomable abuse and horrors growing up, an addiction to cocaine as an adult and the casual and blatant racism in America. When he had a microphone in his hand and an audience in front of him, he stood tall, fully appreciating both the role he played in bringing an evening of joy to people and how he was able to take the power away from all his demons and societal ills by laughing at them.
10. “Discipline” (from Wanted: Live In Concert)
The abuse that was meted out on Pryor by his maternal grandmother clearly left some deep psychological wounds. That didn’t stop him from picking at the scabs to connect with those folks in the audience who were also dealt out some harsh punishment growing up.
9. “Black and White Life Styles” (from That Nigger’s Crazy!)
A comic comparing the difference between black people and white people has become the go-to reference for hacky material. It was Pryor, though, that laid the foundation for these bits in the ‘70s, and when he did it, they were raw and hilarious. And, as outlandish as they often got, his compare/contrast comedy rang consistently true.
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