Richard Pryor didn't tell jokes. He became them. Sometimes, the effect was pure hilarity, like the time he jumped off the stage in the middle of his Vegas act, took off his clothes, walked into the casino and hopped on a table yelling "Blackjack!" Most of the time--and even in that casino joke, if you think about it--Pryor's comedy came wrapped in barbed wire. After he nearly burned himself to death in a fire started by a crack pipe, he created a bit where he played the crack pipe, which taunted him on the joy of getting high. He played his own heart, too, in mid-heart attack (and, in fact, he died of a heart attack last week after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis). And then there was his indelible cast of characters: junkies, hustlers, winos. They were angry, proud, insecure, profane--people no one found funny before. But Pryor mined their stories for truth as well as humor, and he told their stories with a streetwise vernacular that verged on poetic performance art. "Richard Pryor was the Picasso of our profession," says Jerry Seinfeld. "His very presence gave black people a chance to laugh and feel good about stuff that usually pissed us off," says Chris Rock.
Nowadays, no one would flinch at Pryor's in-your-face humor (well, his first two Grammy-winning albums do both feature the N word). But our comfort level with that black-and-blue material comes from the fact he Pryor influenced nearly every major comic working today. You can draw a straight line from his angry, impolite comedy to Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, the Wayans brothers and Dave Chappelle, in addition to Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and John Leguizamo. "It sounds cliche to say that he opened the doors for all of us, but it's true," says Martin Lawrence. "He did for comedy what politicians do for movements. He passed a law that said it was OK to tell it like it is."
He was born Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor. Pryor's mother was a prostitute, and each of the names apparently came from one of her johns. He was, in short, the personification of the idea that tragedy feeds great comedy. Pryor was married seven times and struggled for much of his life with drug addiction, even as he made his way up the stand-up circuit and as a writer for venues as different as "Sanford and Son," "The Carol Burnett Show" and the screenplay for "Blazing Saddles." He starred in 40-some movies and, along with Gene Wilder, became half of Hollywood's first successful interracial comedy act. Pryor appreciated his successes, but like his bombastic characters, he also had a charming humility. "I had some great things and I had some bad things, the best and the worst," Pryor once said. "In other words, I had a life."