Comic Roxanne Reese is on stage at Los Angeles' Comedy Store, finishing her act. "And now," she says, "a real big welcome for a man who's too legit to quit."
A big welcome it is. The audience stands, claps and cheers. And then, in the corner, he enters: Richard Pryor, the angry, profanity-spewing comic who started it all for angry black comedians.
It's a really big welcome for a man who now looks very little, walking onto the stage, holding the arm of his assistant. There is a dazed little grin on his face. He looks like a shy child at his birthday party.
"I'm happy to be here," says Mr. Pryor, grasping the mike for support as his assistant carefully lets go.
"I'm happy everybody sees me alive."
His appearance is a shock. He has had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease, since 1986. He appears very weak, unable to stand very long. He is painfully gaunt, down to 115 pounds, and his hair is short. Behind thick glasses, his eyes are deep-set, staring straight ahead.
Mr. Pryor is here to do, of all things, stand-up comedy. He can't stand up, and what can be comic?
Mr. Pryor has always been able to laugh at his plight. In the past, he managed to wring stand-up hilarity from a near-fatal heart attack. Then there was the infamous free-basing cocaine "accident," whereby Mr. Pryor set himself afire and nearly burned to death. His friends call it a suicide attempt. That, too, became part of the comedy act.
Mr. Pryor has hardly worked for years. He tried an unfortunate film, "Another You," with Gene Wilder last year. So he's gone back to his roots, stand-up comedy, honing an act at the Sunset Strip's Comedy Store. Some of Mr. Pryor's friends are calling it a comeback. That seems unlikely. Still, Mr. Pryor's mind is funny, though trapped in a body that is flaccid and frail.
"Man, it's weird," he says. "You can imagine [things], and then you come out [on stage] and your body won't do it."
But he's out there. The man who came out of a wretched childhood, using an authentic street vernacular that white producers feared, opened the doors wider for all, especially black comedians, who enshrine him. They have been coming to pay homage to his genius and to his courage. It's the indomitable courage that has taken center stage.
"Yeah, everybody thinks I'm dead," he begins. It gets a laugh because Mr. Pryor, 52, is expecting it, but most of the crowd is just staring, their hearts in their throats.
"They been calling my house. They ask my maid, 'Is he dead?' " Mr. Pryor tries to loosen the mike to raise it, but he can't. "Death is a m man. It'll come."
Mr. Pryor sits down in a chair that has been placed at the microphone. He keeps talking, but he can tell that the crowd is not able to decipher what he is saying, something about a possum.
"What's he talking about?" he says with a grin to a face in the front row. He can't see beyond the front row. "I got this disease. It's called MS. If you got it, everybody knows it. It's an embarrassing disease . . .
"They gave me an eye test. Is there anybody here who can't see the [top letter] 'E'? I can't see the 'E.' There was a little kid. He could read the eighth line. It was embarrassing, man."
And now the laughs are more genuine. The man is vulnerable but not pathetic. You can still recognize the comic mind, the self-deprecating humor. It's really amazing. Bit by bit the pity lifts, and Mr. Pryor begins connecting with his audience. Yeah, multiple sclerosis can be funny.
Then, Mr. Pryor moves into more pain, talking about last year's triple bypass surgery. He flails his arms as he talks about his hallucinations while under anesthetics.
"My bed is a trout stream. I'm fishing in a trout stream. Then Sister Rose, a nun from my school, is there. And I say, 'Hey, Sister Rose, you standing in my trout stream.' "
Hilarious, no. But Mr. Pryor gives hints of the old technique, his arms swinging about for a moment. But then his arms tire and flop to his lap, refusing to play their part any longer. There is a towel next to the mike and Mr. Pryor wipes his brow, kidding about his need to do it.
When the audience responds, he says: "I love you so much. I'm here on a stage, and my energy . . . that wasn't there . . . is here."
"You're beautiful, Richard!" comes a big voice from the rear. "Thank you," Mr. Pryor says. "You lying m ."
Backstage after the show, the Green Room is swarming with people.
Mr. Pryor is seated in the middle of a large, semi-circular booth, looking fragile, exhausted, his eyes darting, then staring.
There are four or five people seated on each side of him, including Marilyn Staley, his new assistant (for the past five months) who never leaves his side. All sorts of people come up to pat Mr. Pryor on the back, shake his hand and pose for pictures with him, including Arsenio Hall, comic Byron Allen and director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood").
Mr. Pryor has agreed to an interview, and we are going to talk in his limousine, as it drives around town.