12/11/2005 at 12:17
For We Shall Not See His Like Again
I didn’t know until today; I found out by reading Chris’ blog (HHH, link at right). It shook me, even though the last time I saw him on TV almost 10 years ago, he looked raddled and emaciated.
Pryor- along with Lenny Bruce- redefined what standup comedy is, and in so doing shifted our entire social landscape. The two of them extended its reach far beyond anything anyone had ever before dreamed it could do.
He- they- made standup comedy an art form.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not belittling people like Henny Youngman or Bob Hope or the Godfather (or, depending on what you’re watching, just God), George Burns; but their brand of comedy is all but extinct. The slapstick vaudevillian antics of Milton Berle, for example, still show up once in a while; but now, it’s extraordinary- something most of us don’t normally even think of as belonging in standup.
Of course all comics criticized the social norms and happenings of their day; from its inception comedy performance has been a mirror held up to the world. But that mirror once signaled only in Morse code- brief, one-liner flashes of brilliance that momentarily illuminated issues and attitudes before flashing away again.
Pryor and Bruce switched from Morse to English. They combined the personal sway and humor of vaudeville comics with caricature beyond anything that had previously been attempted- they merged what was seen as strictly a performance art with the kind of stinging social satire that had previously been the exclusive province of authors, from Jonathan Swift to S.J. Perelman.
In short, their acts were a narrative- a prolonged and comprehensive parody of the pieces of the world which they wished to highlight. By weaving their jokes and biting insights into longer pieces of absurdity, they compelled from their audiences a level of attention which only the very top names of previous ages had been able to command- and even then, only for moments at time.
By changing the ways in which comedians interacted with their audiences- by requiring an audience to pay close attention in order to get the joke- Pryor and Bruce also changed the status of the comedian. The standup comedy act became the main focus of an evening out- not like the comics (even the legendary Henny Youngman)- who were hired to make people laugh every once in a while as they dined or drank.
Pryor and Bruce, by giving comedians a longer time in which to tell their tales, gave them an enormous set of tools which simply were not available to comics of an earlier era- and required of their audiences the kind of thought and attention to detail which has become the norm in comedy.
As an example, pull one line out of a Robin Williams or George Carlin rant, or an Eddie Izzard meditation, or a Lewis Black explosion, and see whether or not it’s funny. Oh, chances are it’ll have the faint echo of humor, but in order to howl and clutch your sides, you’ll need to listen for five or ten minutes- an exponential expansion of what used to be the comedy audience’s attention span.
That span continues to extend- the ripples of Pryor’s enormous splash will continue, far further than most of us can ever hope or even think to go. We may not remember him well, or credit him for all he has done, but his legacy is there all the same.
The little boy from the brothel made it big. Boy, did he ever.
And the influence of his work will keep us laughing- and thinking about it- forever.
Richard Pryor, December 1, 1940- December 10, 2005
Rest in Peace
The Humanity Critic said...
Thanks for your comment. Your words about Richard are so eloquent and put so much better than I ever could. I agree that he changed the comedy landscape. I was watching my DVDs of The Richard Pryor Show today and was thinking that no-one does sketch comedy this good anymore. Indeed, no-one does stand-up quite like he did either. Also, the man had so much integrity, despite the fact that drugs and drink became his shackles, he never let his comedic vision be compromised, not by TV networks, not by prudish old-school comics, not by anyone. His is a great loss and one that will be felt the world over.
P.S. Nice blog you have here.
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