The most human comic of our time.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Dec. 16 2005 4:02 PM

The Richard Pryor Experience

The most human comic of our time.


Click here to see a video slide show.

The Richard Pryor obituaries last weekend admirably sketched the comedian's almost incredible biography—the whorehouse childhood, the public flameouts, the artistic flowering from Cosby clone to revolutionary—and they also rounded up a lifetime's worth of praise. Just about every comic in the world has called Pryor "the best ever," and his 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is widely considered to be the greatest comedic performance ever recorded. But the obituaries couldn't begin to give us the experience of Richard Pryor: the rhythms and intonations, the obscenity and wisdom, the swagger and the damage. Thanks to standards of public taste, most of the obits couldn't even quote his jokes.


The death of Pryor—a great enemy of ignorance—inspired in me a deep sense of my own ignorance. I knew him only as a distant icon: the guy with the sloping mustache, the shifting face, and the arsenal of voices. As a kid I had seen several of his side projects—the famous Saturday Night Live slur-off with Chevy Chase, Superman III, The Toy—but I had never seen his stand-up. So, on the Monday after his death, I went out to buy all the Pryor stand-up I could find. This turned out to be approximately none. New Yorkers seemed to have collectively obeyed their Pryor-hoarding urge about 24 hours before I did. The shelves had been picked clean. It was a touching (though frustrating) homage. Finally, at a mall 80 miles north of the city, I found a single DVD: 1982's Live on the Sunset Strip, his last great concert film. I bought it and settled down to experience the man firsthand.

Click here for a video slide show of selections from Live on the Sunset Strip.

Two disclaimers:

1) The Clips. Unfortunately, copyright law limits us to 30-second clips, and Pryor is probably the least excerptable comedian of all time. His act, at least in this late phase, is devoid of snappy one-liners. He is not even (in any traditional sense) witty. He digresses, improvises, and rambles—just about every one of his jokes could be "improved" by a talented comedy writer and plenty of comics could beat him in the traditional game of setup and punch line. But Pryor deliberately refused to play that game—on personal and political grounds. Once, during a show in New Orleans, he started to tell the audience how cold it gets in Illinois, and about 30 people shouted (in the classic joke cadence) "How cold is it?" Pryor looked at them and said, "This ain't Johnny Carson, motherfucker." It's best to think of each clip as a very small taste of a long and wandering routine.

2) The Cursing. Johnny Carson once said that he wished Pryor wasn't so "dirty" because he was funny enough to get by without it. Carson missed the point entirely. In Pryor's mouth, the word motherfucker becomes incredibly versatile—it can be venomous, neutral, or affectionate depending on whether he enunciates (moth-er, fuck-er), slurs (mahfur), or compresses (mfr). Pryor's humor powerfully inverts traditional notions of obscenity: In his world, profanity is healthy, while seemingly benign things are unspeakably foul—for instance, the kind of self-distortion it takes to tell a one-liner.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.