Face it -- it's very hard for someone who grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher's son (that would be me) to feel very comfortable with the kind of language that the late Richard Pryor used on stage. At the same time, I think I know a God-haunted individual when I see one and, as soon as I was able to dig into his work in any way, it was clear to me that Pryor was one of those individuals who was utterly clear-eyed, much of the time, about the power of his own sins and of the sins he witnessed in the hilarious and terrifying world around him.
This was a man who lived, we are told, in a state of agony, fury and pain. What was the source of all of that?
By the way, when I use the term "God-haunted," I am referring to someone who is not a religious believer in a conventional sense of the word (as far as we know), yet cannot seem to stop airing her or his religious questions, fears, speculations and other forms of artistic commentary. Think Woody Allen or Bill Cosby. Think Clint Eastwood or Robert Duvall. Think Madonna or Sting.
Back to Pryor. If you spent any time this weekend reading all of the usual mainstream media reports on Pryor, you saw -- along with the obvious salutes to his talent and stunning impact on television, film and the stand-up comedy of others -- a steady stream of references to him wrestling with his angels and his demons and commentary about his unique childhood. What happens when you grow up in whorehouses run by family members, while your parents and grandparents also want to force you to go to church? You get Richard Pryor. You get a man who can argue with God about the state of his own flawed heart -- his physical heart and his spiritual heart, too -- and perfectly capture the sound of church deacons primping as well as ghetto studs pimping.
I was struck by this brief passage in the Los Angeles Times obituary by Lynell George, which ran under a headline that said, "Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian."
In later years, Pryor's life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Pryor tried to take his own life. The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor finally revealed the truth in his autobiography "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," co-written with Todd Gold:
"After freebasing without interruption for several days in a row, I wasn't able to discern one from the next. ... Imagining relief was nearby, I reached for the cognac bottle on the table in front of me and poured it all over me. Real natural. Methodical. ... I picked up my lighter. ... I was engulfed in flame. I was in a place that wasn't heaven or earth." ...
But Pryor was best known for his searing analysis of race relations. He was honored by the Kennedy Center with the first Mark Twain Prize for American humor. ... The comedian was poignant in his remarks to a Washington Post reporter shortly after winning the honor: "I'm a pioneer. That's my contribution. I broke barriers for black comics. I was being Richard Pryor; that was me on that stage. But I was on drugs at the time."
He told the Post: "The drugs didn't make me funny. God made me funny. The drugs kept me up in my imagination. But I felt ... pathetic afterward."
Call this a missed opportunity. I wonder if this sensitive subject is a job for Beliefnet.com? However, I have to admit: How can anyone write about this topic without quoting many of Pryor's most famous routines on topics such as these? And how do you do that in a public newspaper?
"God made me funny"? Is that a statement of thanksgiving or anger or both?