Richard Pryor JAMES McPHERSON - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

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...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)