Any discussion about who was the funniest man ever that doesn't include Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor cannot be considered that credible a conversation. Born the first day of December in 1940, the iconoclastic comedian, actor, social critic and writer won an Emmy Award, five Grammy Awards, two American Academy of Humor Awards and the Writers Guild of America Award, as well as receiving the very first Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and was named by Comedy Central the number one choice in their list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians.
This litany of accomplishments doesn't even capture a fragment of the impact and influence of Richard Pryor. Almost every modern Black comedian, whether they know it or not (as some studied his comedic descendents), leans heavily on his body of work (as well as that of Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby), from the (now) regularized use of the "N" word (Paul Mooney worked with him extensively, and helped form that legacy) to the cadences of their punchlines.
Pryor had a challenged childhood — growing up in a brothel where his mother worked, being abandoned by that mother at age 10, getting kicked out of school at age 14 before spending most of his time in the military in an Army prison. After freeing himself from military service in 1963, Pryor found himself in New York, where his wit led him to play in clubs with the likes of Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Woody Allen, which skyrocketed him into the public eye and appearances on variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and in Las Vegas. In 1967, sandwiched between the deaths of his parents, he drifted away from falling under the Cosby influence (despite great success) and "went blue," including the use of the aforementioned slur in his work, which brought him to a completely different level of fame.
California came calling, which meant rubbing shoulders with counterculture cognoscenti like Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed. Writing followed, helping craft the humor of Sanford and Sons, The Flip Wilson Show, Blazing Saddles and more. Despite this experience, he couldn't tame his fiery material for the NBC series The Richard Pryor Show, which ran just four episodes, but eventually calmed down a little with the children's series Pryor's Place (which featured a theme by "Ghostbusters" hitmaker Ray Parker Jr. and the puppets of Sid & Marty Kroft).
Fame waxed and waned as he suffered setbacks like a heart attack and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, as well as a famous drug addiction problem that led him to him setting himself on fire while using cocaine. He was married seven times to five different women, leading to six children. He was famous in the most egregious way possible, lived big and lived loud and lived fast and never apologized for a single minute of it.
The biggest names in comedy and entertainment still hold Pryor's name and legacy in high regard, as he was one of the first Black faces to penetrate the national zeitgeist in a multi-media fashion (paving the road for Eddie Murphy, among others) as well as being wickedly funny. He recorded 18 comedy albums, starred in upwards of 40 movies. He'd have been 71 today, had he not passed away from complications surrounding a heart attack on December 10, 2005 ate age 65. Despite introducing some … challenging elements into the national discussion, he never backed down and never stopped trying to push the envelope, and we honor his talent.
In the words of our ancestors, we say anedge hirak Richard Pryor, and "thank you."
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