JAMES McPHERSON

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

Almost singlehandedly, [Richard Pryor] is creating a new style in American comedy, a style that some of his admirers have called "theater" because there is no other category available for what he does. His style relies on extremely subtle dimensions which must be observed and heard at the same time in order to be completely understood and appreciated. Indeed, there is no way his brand of comedy can be described in writing without the generous use of parentheses noting nuances in sound and facial expression. Mel Brooks, one of his admirers, has called him a comic of "outré imagination." Rolling Stone magazine has said that Pryor's comic style is "a new type of realistic theater," a theater which presents "the blemished, the pretentious, the lame—the common affairs and crutches of common people." Most black audiences love Richard Pryor…. But because of the particular nature of his art, because of the materials on which he draws, Pryor will probably have great difficulty reaching the wider white public. (pp. 20, 22)

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The characters in his humor are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlers—all the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles. Almost always, he uses taboo words which are common in their vo-cabularies. And he resists all suggestions that he modify his language, censor his commentary. As a result, Pryor's audiences have been limited to those who attend his night-club and concert engagements. These are mostly black people. When he does appear on television, it is only as a guest; and even then he is likely to say something considered offensive to a larger and more varied audience.

Although his routines seem totally spontaneous, his work has moved away from the stand-up comic tradition employed by comedians like Lenny Bruce. Pryor improvises, but his improvisations are structured, usually springing from within his characters. He seldom throws out one-liners just to haul in laughter, unless it is social commentary leading to the depiction of a character. Instead, he enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryor's genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures, emphases in speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human. His problem is that he also considers certain aspects of their language essential to his characters.

"I couldn't do it just by doing the words of the person," he says. "I have to be that person. I see that man in my mind and go with him. I think there's a thin line between being a Tom on them people and seeing them as human beings. When I do the people, I have to do it true. If I can't do it, I'll stop right in the middle rather than pervert it and turn it into Tomism. There's a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at. If I didn't do characters, it wouldn't be funny." Here Pryor pauses. "When I didn't do characters, white folks loved me."

There are many whites, however, who do admire Pryor. Like his black audiences, they seem to recognize he has completely abandoned the "cute" and usually paternalistic black comic images of the sixties, popularized mainly by Bill Cosby. Pryor's people are real and immediately recognizable by anyone who has had contact with them, whether in a black skin or a white one. He does not allow them to get away with anything, If it is true, as Henri Bergson has suggested, that laughter is a corrective, a social gesture that has as its purpose the punishment of rigid or inelastic conduct, Richard Pryor is giving a public airing to some of the more unadmirable styles of the urban black community and making his audiences recognize them for what they are. Any good comedian can do this, but it is Pryor's special genius to be able to make his audiences aware that the characters, though comic, are nonetheless complex human beings. (p. 22)

Most people, black or otherwise, would find it difficult not to respond to some of the characters of Richard Pryor's humor. Among them are a philosophical wino who hands out advice to passersby, including Dracula and a junkie; the denizens of an after-hours joint; a meek blue-collar drunk who picks his weekly fight in a barroom, is beaten, then goes home to his wife bragging that he will make love to her, only to fall asleep; a pool shark named The Stroker; a braggart named Oilwell who showers policemen with muscular rhetoric; a white policeman named Officer Timson; a whore named Big Black Bertha; black preachers, hillbillies and assorted minor characters—all of whom have individualized qualities. Not one is a stereotype. Their scenes are introduced from within them and conform strictly to the patterns of their individual experiences. Pryor presents them with such thoroughness and fidelity to their speech, gestures, flaws and styles in general that the same characters are recognizable to audiences in all parts of the country. Pryor's characters are human, and only that. (p. 32)

For all of its appeal, Richard Pryor's comic style is not for everyone, although, watching him portray a character in a comic scene, one realizes that Pryor's people have always existed. In Elizabethan England, a period with a lower class whose manners and styles resembled some of those found in urban black communities, Oilwell might have been called Pistol, Big Black Bertha might have been called Doll Tearsheet or Mistress Quickly, the boys on the block might have been named Bardolph, Peto, Gadshill and Poins. There might have been a sly old man, curiously resembling Redd Foxx, with the name Jack Falstaff. During that period, a genius who knew all levels of his society made a place for them in his historical plays. He produced great drama. Richard Pryor's is a different kind of genius. He knows intimately only one level of his society. But at least he is reminding us, in his special kind of theater, that such people still exist. (p. 42)

James McPherson, "The New Comic Style of Richard Pryor," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1975, pp. 20-43.

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