When we spoke with comedian David Brenner, the first thing he asked was, "Did you ever see Pryor in person?"
Told that we'd never had the chance, he groaned as if mortally wounded. "Oh, my God! You missed it, then. There was no one — no one — who could do onstage what Richie Pryor did."
Standing alone on a bare stage, Richard Pryor knew as much about human fear and frailty as reckless desire; could see into the dark recesses of the heart as clearly and cunningly as Shakespeare or Cervantes. Up there in the spotlight he was, in the words of Henry James, "one of those on whom nothing is lost."
Say what you will about Richard Pryor's failings as a father, husband, costar, or business partner (offstage, he couldn't balance a checkbook), he lived his life immersed in the moment. Had he cared one whit about his legacy or posterity, we would still be buying up box sets of lost nightclub performances and concert films, just as we do Miles Davis's Complete Sessions and Bob Dylan's Bootleg packages. It maddens us to imagine all the unrecorded, never repeated performances Richard delivered during the flowering of his genius, lost now but for a few firsthand recollections.
We have a sketchy account from sociologist and jazz enthusiast Joan Thornell of Richard's portraying of Richard Nixon as the devil at Washington, D.C.'s Cellar Door. "The lights went red, and he got into it as an actor would get into a role," she says. "He out-Laurenced Olivier." Thornell's companion that night was a psychiatrist friend who declined an invitation to meet Richard after the show saying, "That man is so disturbed that he frightens me. I fear for him. I fear for his safety. He doesn't have any personal defenses."
We have the testimony of Franklyn Ajaye who went to the Comedy Store every night and watched in amazement as Richard gave birth to his most enduring and recognizable character, Mudbone, over the course of a single week in the winter of 1975. "That first night," Ajaye recalls, "Mudbone was a nameless old man who spoke only a line or two. But Richard would bring the character out again every night and work on it, building on what he'd done the night before."
And again, we have David Brenner who witnessed an inspired set at the New York Improv when Richard, a one-man ensemble, portrayed not only a nine-year-old boy stoned out of his mind threatening to jump off the roof of a tenement building, but the crowd that gathered below.
"There was the white priest and the black minister," Brenner recalls, "and the white cops and the gang members and the people screaming for him to jump... I think he even put the mayor in there somewhere. And of course Richie played all those parts, plus the nine-year-old kid. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen or heard in my life... The routine went on for 15, 20 minutes. And then he jumped.
"Do you hear what I'm saying to you? He jumped."
Richard stepped up to the edge of the 18-inch riser that was the Improv stage and hopped off, landing hard with both feet on the floor. And the kid was dead. Simple as that.
Richard walked out through the room weaving his way between the tables to dead silence. "To this day," says Brenner, "it's the most devastating thing I've ever seen a comedian do." He took an audience that had been wiping away tears of laughter and made them sob real tears of grief.