Any time anyone compiles a list of the greatest standup comedians of all time, you can guarantee that Richard Pryor will be somewhere near the very top of the list, and more often than not, he will take the number one spot, and deservedly so. He changed the game. Every comic is edgy these days, but Pryor was an edgy comic in the days when no other comic (apart from the select few greats, like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce) dared to be edgy. He said things no one else dared to say – and he wasn’t doing it for shock value. Everything he said had serious meaning behind it. He was without a doubt the best, and here are 10 reasons why he will always be the finest standup comic who ever lived.
10. His background bred him for finding comedy in tragedy
The way that comedians grow up and their background and the surroundings of their upbringing influence their style of comedy. There’s a longstanding theory that the more miserable and unstable you are as a person in the real world, the better a comedian you’ll be on the standup stage. Eddie Murphy’s parents broke up when he was three and his father was shot dead by a woman when he was eight. Bill Hicks and his father were constantly at each other’s throats over issues of religion and other things. But Richard Pryor wins the contest for most traumatic childhood. He grew up in a brothel with his hustler/boxer dad and alcoholic prostitute mother. Pryor’s father left early in his life and his mother abandoned him shortly afterwards. Before his mother left him, she would always be working – and he knew what she did for a living. Up until the age of ten, his mother would kiss him goodnight and he’d have to know what she had just done with that mouth and also know that she was only doing it to put food on the table for him. After both parents had left him, Pryor was raised by his violent and abusive grandmother. This was all terrible, but it bred him for the art of finding comedy in tragedy. So, in other words, he had to suffer all that time so that he could provide us with laughs and insight.
9. He kept performing even after becoming disabled – and joked about it!
Most people would be too terrified to even attempt standup comedy at all – much less if they had been doing it for years, aged past the point of retirement, and gotten stuck in a wheelchair. But not Pryor. His passion for performing comedy was so great that even though he was in a wheelchair and suffering from multiple sclerosis. And not only that, as if it wasn’t impressive enough as it is – he would joke about it, too! Trust Richard Pryor to tell self-deprecating jokes after coming down with multiple sclerosis. He never took himself seriously, and in doing so, he helped us to not take ourselves seriously either. He would roll out on stage and open with the line, “I see you laughing at me in this wheelchair!” For a guy who had spent his whole career making fun of himself in different ways, there was something beautiful about it. Pryor showed us that you can find humor in absolutely everything, even a debilitating disease (or getting set on fire, which he also joked about after a highly publicized experience when he was freebasing cocaine). There’s a hopefulness to it for other people in situations like that and that’s just great. Isn’t that what comedy is all about?
8. He’s won a boatload of awards and other honors
One of the most black and white signs that Richard Pryor is the greatest standup comedian of all time is the sheer number of awards and honors that he’s been granted over the years. He’s been honored with Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards, American Academy of Humor awards, and the Writers Guild of America Award. He was also praised by the Kennedy Center with their first ever Mark Twain Prize for American Humor award. The guy in charge of handing this out rationalized his decision by saying that Pryor and Twain were “both trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous.” That’s Pryor all over. He’s also gotten the top spots on lists of the greatest comedians who ever lived that were compiled by both Rolling Stone magazine and Comedy Central. He was also included in a British poll that was voted on by everyone in the comedy world to find “The Comedian’s Comedian.” There’s also a statue of him called “Richard Pryor: More Than Just a Comedian” in the area where he grew up with his mother, and after he died, he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. That’s quite some recognition! That leaves no question about how great he was.
7. He was smiling when he died
One of the most beautiful and touching facts that you could ever learn about Richard Pryor is that he was smiling when he died. This was reported by his wife when she announced his passing to the press after he had suffered a fatal heart attack, saying that he died “with a smile on his face.” Isn’t that just a delight to hear? This guy had spent his whole life making millions of people laugh and then died with a smile on his face. He lived to laugh and joke and smile – and that’s how he went out, even after suffering through so much pain to get there. Director Spike Lee said that Pryor’s passing was “a great loss,” Eddie Murphy said that he was “better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone,” and perhaps the best obituary came from Damon Wayans: “There are many different kinds of comedians – the observational humorist, the impressionist, the character creator, the physical comedian, the self-deprecator, and the dirty joke teller. What made Richard Pryor so brilliant is [that] he was able to incorporate all these styles at once.” It was a huge, tragic blow to the world when we lost him back in 2005.
6. Every comedian in the world agrees
The influence that Richard Pryor has had on the world of comedy is absurd. It would silly to ask which comedians he’s influenced, because it’s every single one of them. Whether consciously or unconsciously (mostly consciously), they’re all following in his footsteps. He is the Jesus Christ of comedy – the prophet that everyone follows and looks to for wisdom, even in death. Pryor’s stage presence and delivery style and risky material has influenced literally every comedian who has ever taken the stage. For some people, he is the reason that they took the stage. Eddie Murphy began writing and performing standup routines at the age of just 15, because he had been inspired by Pryor’s work. Murphy is the best candidate for a direct successor of Pryor in the 1980s, followed by Chris Rock in the ‘90s, and Dave Chappelle in the 2000s. And then there’s fellow comedy gods George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, and rage comedy forerunners Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks – as well as Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Eddie Griffin, Martin Lawrence, Patrice O’Neal, Colin Quinn, and Jon Stewart – who all count Pryor as one of their strongest influences, too. Richard Pryor is to comedy what the Beatles are for music.
5. His onstage energy is unmatched
Most comedians will just go up on stage and just stand there and tell their jokes. Others might wander around a bit between jokes, while the audience is laughing and they have nothing else to do. But then you get the likes of Eddie Murphy and Kevin Hart, who bounce around the stage with a bubbly attitude, bursting with energy and winning over their audience. This terrific style of performance, which is the best way to tell jokes but also requires an amount of energy that very few comics had, can be traced back to Richard Pryor. The onstage energy of Pryor was outstanding. He jumped around the stage and fired jokes at you like he was armed with an automatic weapon of humor. He was one of those comics whose delivery style is so brilliant and varied that even if you don’t quite understand the joke, merely the way that he tells it will be enough to make you laugh. His performing style was phenomenal, and every comedian claims to be inspired by it, but very few come close to actually matching it. Plus, it’s hard to be revolutionary now when Richard Pryor did just about everything a comedian can do during his own career.
4. He joked about things no one else dared to joke about
Richard Pryor never shied away from any topic when he was up on that stage. He would joke about whatever he could think of a joke to make about it. And at the time that he was performing, nobody else would dare to joke about these things – but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t funny. You just had to have the balls to be the first to joke about them. Richard Pryor was that guy. He joked about his drug use: “I’m not addicted to cocaine. I just like the way it smells.” He joked about his father’s death: “My father died fucking. He did. My father was 57 when he died. The woman was 18. My father came and went at the same time.” He joked about the freebasing incident that set him on fire and sent him running down the street in terror: “When that fire hit your ass, it will sober your ass up quick! I saw something, I went, ‘Well, that’s a pretty blue. You know what? That looks like fire!’ Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 in 4.3.” A lot of comedians joke about Pryor’s controversial topics today, but he had to blaze the trail for that to happen.
3. There are plenty of testimonials to Pryor being the best
Other comedians have rarely shied away from singing their praises for Richard Pryor. Jerry Seinfeld called him “the Picasso of our profession” (i.e. the genius who changed everything and is still inspiring people and having his work analyzed to this day). Bob Newhart also made a pretty sweeping statement when he said that Pryor was “the seminal comedian of the last fifty years.” These guys don’t hold back. They love him and they were influenced by him and they’re not afraid to say it. Dave Chappelle – who has himself been called the “comic genius of America” and tackles issues of racism and race relations in his own standup work – said about Pryor, “You know those, like, evolution charts of man? He was the dude walking upright. Richard was the highest evolution of comedy.” Another seminal standup comic (who shall remain nameless, because he was found guilty of certain crimes recently) was reported to have said, “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it.” These are some pretty heavy testimonials. The work and comedy of Richard Pryor is not to be taken lightly by anyone. This is a truly special comic who changed the face of standup forever.
2. Pryor was always candid
Most comedians don’t have the balls to open up when they’re on stage. They are brave enough to stand in front of a room full of strangers and tell them jokes and desperately hope that they’re going to laugh, but they’re not brave enough to reveal all of their deepest, darkest secrets in front of those same strangers. They don’t want to bare all and open up and get personal, but that’s where all the best comedy comes from – it breaks down that barrier between themselves up on the stage and their audience all the way down there in their seats. Richard Pryor was a trailblazer in this form of comedy, and he changed the face of standup in doing so. If he hadn’t opened up and been so candid during his performances and taken those risks, then far less comedians these days would be willing to take that same risk. This is just one of the things that made Pryor the best in history – he never kept anything about his personal life, no matter how painful or intimate it was, out of his act, as long as it was funny or would help the audience to relate to him. He was always completely honest with his audience and that’s why they fell in love with him. He used his ability to do this to explain what art is: “A lie is profanity. A lie is the worst thing in the world. Art is the ability to tell the truth, especially about oneself.”
1. Pryor took all the risks to shape modern standup comedy
Alongside George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor was one of the forerunners of comedy that wasn’t clean and questioned authority and it cost them all a lot and landed them in a lot of trouble, but it helped to shape the face of modern standup comedy. Comics can swear as much as they want and criticize the government all they want and joke about whatever controversial topic they feel like, but that’s only because Carlin and Bruce and, indeed, Pryor took all the risks to make it that way, and it may not seem like it, but for that, they’re among the most important people in history. Everyone who has changed history were fighting for something that was important to them – these guys were fighting for their freedom of speech. Pryor was the first to challenge racism and point out everything that is wrong with the way that white people treat black people. Every comedian talks about this these days and mixes serious insight with hysterical laughs – even the white comics – but it was Pryor who started it all. No longer was comedy made up entirely harmless one liners about mother-in-laws and marriage. Now, there was passion and depth and opinion and controversy on the standup stage.