One of my first memories of Richard Pryor was watching him in a brief role as the hilariously conniving Daddy Rich in “Car Wash.” That was hardly his introduction to American audiences. He had been well-established on the standup circuit for some time by then, becoming a role model for young comics looking to explore terrain few had the nerve to tiptoe into.
And he had already graced the silver screen in such high-profile studio projects as “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” He missed out on the starring role in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” because the ribald nature of his nightclub act had precluded him in the eyes of studio executives, although he did contribute to the screenplay. He had also written for “The Flip Wilson Show” and “Sanford and Son.”
But the Daddy Rich role serves as an ideal case study in the life of Richard Pryor because it typifies his exalted place in the world of comedy. And because Daddy Rich was so excessively deceptive, it juxtaposes perfectly with the real Pryor, whose greatest attribute was his in-your-face honesty.
“Car Wash” was a minor comedic classic. Released in 1976, it features a predominantly African-American ensemble cast in the episodic tale of a bunch of people whose lives interconnect at one Los Angeles car wash. It includes some of the finest talent working at the time, including George Carlin, Bill Duke, Ivan Dixon, Franklyn Ajaye and the Pointer Sisters, who accompany Daddy Rich on his visit.
Fit for a throneDaddy Rich was a charlatan who preached the gospel of money. Although Duke’s character Duane/Abdullah saw through his act, nobody else did. When Daddy Rich arrived at the car wash in his long white fur coat, he immediately was put on a throne — a shoeshine stand — and serenaded by the Pointer Sisters as the rest of the workers marveled at him.
“Car Wash” and the Daddy Rich role did not represent quintessential Pryor. If he had expressed himself without restriction, it would have gotten the picture an “X” rating at the time because of racy language. It also probably would have been even funnier than it was.
Regardless, Pryor turned a sizable cameo into a perfect showcase, albeit a sanitized one, of his considerable talents. Just one simple line from Daddy Rich — “The best place for money … is right here in my pocket” — combined with his lascivious grin was enough to put me on the floor.
That was not the first time Pryor played the role of king. He would do it daily, especially throughout the ‘70s when his comedic gifts were raging at their peak. He was the black Lenny Bruce, although without the long and tedious digressions into his legal problems. Pryor would go after whatever social taboos existed regarding sex, race and drugs, and do so with enthusiasm and without trepidation. He was a brave funnyman, because he would tread on any forbidden ground for a laugh, often straddling the thin line between tragedy and comedy.
One of his most famous sketches came on “Saturday Night Live,” when he paired with Chevy Chase. Pryor played a job applicant and Chase was the man interviewing him. Chase engaged him in a word association test. But as each word became more racist than the next, Pryor became more agitated. Near the end, Chase tossed out another racist pejorative, to which Pryor replied, “Honky.” When Chase followed that with the “N” word, Pryor answered ominously, “Dead honky.” It remains one of the signature moments in SNL history.
Like any good ruler, the Daddy Rich-like influence from Richard Pryor extended to fellow comics far and wide. He touched untold numbers of followers, from Eddie Murphy to Whoopi Goldberg to Robin Williams to Rosanne. Said Chris Rock of Pryor’s effect on his career: “When I was a kid, nothing gave me more pleasure than to wait for my parents to leave the house so I could listen to a Richard Pryor album. I didn’t know it then, but by listening to those albums I was preparing myself for what I’m doing today. If I hadn’t listened to Richard as a kid, I’m sure I’d still be a comedian. The only difference is I’d really suck. Richard Pryor is the greatest comedian of all time.”
Although Daddy Rich was a schemer and a manipulator, the real Pryor in his standup act was the complete opposite. If he saw racism at work, he would call the culture on it, making us split our sides in the process. If he had a particular opinion of the way men related to women, he would educate us in the most unadulterated manner, to great applause and uncontrollable laughter. He was certainly no saint in his personal life, and maybe he lied to himself on more than one occasion. But when he grabbed the microphone, he never lied to his audiences.
In the early 1980s, he burned himself while freebasing cocaine, and it was later reported that the incident might have been a suicide attempt. In 1986, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and began fading from view. Much like Muhammad Ali was taken away from the public too early, Pryor receded from view, and his comic genius became available only through his films and TV appearances, concert DVDs and CDs.
But just like Daddy Rich, his place of honor is unassailable. He will be remembered for presiding over a comic citizenry that hung on his every word, even the dirty ones. Especially the dirty ones.
He made more people laugh — and inspired more people to make people laugh — than perhaps anyone who ever lived. Because of that, he’ll always rule.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.