Perhaps the single greatest description of Richard Pryor came from his wife, Jennifer Lee.
“On the one hand, you have this incredible angel – vulnerable, in touch with such amazing stuff, so sensitive and so able to reach so many people and cross all boundaries, colours whatever – and then you have this other side of Richard that is demonic and violent. Which is why I think he touches and reaches so many people, because we’re all flawed and we’re all messed up, in some way or another. Even red-necks liked him. Richard was able to connect with everybody. He was expressing that humanity for black as well as white.”
Pryor, the comedian, and his resume goes without saying. He remains the most influential comedian to ever live and his impact on the genre remains as indelible today as it was in the ’80s. Pryor, the man with very public demons, however, is an entirely different and fascinating angle.
Addiction is a petrifying ordeal. The realization that a substance holds more control over your life and how relationships with people are formed and dissolved is heavy. And coming to peace with knowing remaining sober is literally minute-by-minute process? Damn-near unfathomable. I’ve never been addicted to anything, thankfully, but I’ve seen the ramifications first-hand. That’s also the reason why the concept of addiction has been a personal research project for years.
Not because the end goal is an elaborate feature piece that’ll one day hit the front page of the New York Times. Rather because it’s for my own knowledge on the subject. A handful of my favorite entertainers in history have battled addiction of some sort, including Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, DMX and the aforementioned Pryor. The one commonality between them all is the stress.
The stress of fame.
The stress of insecurity.
The stress of self.
Pryor’s sit down with Johnny Carson was funny, as expected. It’s outright hilarious, actually. But it also fails to register on either Carson’s or Pryor’s career highlight list, a testament to the impact of both men. More than anything, however, Richard’s comical answer about his sobriety was a revealing hypothesis.
“You know how your body builds up residue?” asked Pryor. “Well, I got about 30 years of residue. I’ll be high another two years…I had to stop drinking. I just got tired of waking up on the freeway driving 90.”
Comedy has always been its most pure when the inspiration is pain.