Polite society embraces Pryor Tribute: The comedian is lauded for the barrier-breaking humor that the mainstream didn't always find so funny.

October 22, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- OK, let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first.

Yes, it was heavily ironic that Richard Pryor -- the comic whose profane language tagged him as unsafe for family viewing, whose frequent walks on the wild side made him, in the words of fellow comic Richard Belzer, author of the field manual for misbehavior -- was honored as an icon of American comedy Tuesday night within the hallowed halls of the Kennedy Center.

"Any great artist raises eyebrows," Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker said, responding to what was easily the most popular subject for discussion among the pack of reporters covering the ceremony.

And no, that doesn't make Richard Pryor any less of a genius. Or any less deserving of the first annual Mark Twain Prize, awarded for contributions to American humor.

"What appears here on our stage should represent America and the performing arts," said Wilker, acknowledging that someone like Pryor might never have been feted at such a venerable American institution 20 years ago. "But then, 20 years ago, we were a different country. I think it's good to make the center more inclusive, more representative of America."

True enough. One thing on which the assembled comedians agreed Tuesday night: Pryor made possible the hard, cutting edge that American comedy has taken on in the past couple of decades. Especially among African-American comics, his influence has been huge. Pryor made possible, both through influence and precedent, such comedians as Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

Peter Kaminsky, one of the producers of Tuesday night's tribute, said Pryor was chosen as the first winner of the Mark Twain prize after consultations with dozens of writers, comedians and performers. "They all agreed," he said, "that if there was one person who put the ball in play for us and changed the rules, it was Richard. There is no question that he is The Man."

It was Pryor who took the central conflict of our time, the struggle between black and white, and got both sides laughing at its absurdities. It was Pryor who used his personal pain as a source for material, who got us to laugh as he talked about having a heart attack or running down the street ablaze after freebasing cocaine. It was Pryor who expanded the horizons of what we could laugh at.

He made taboos funny.

"Without Richard, I don't know where we would be as comedians," Damon Wayans said during rehearsals for Tuesday night's tribute. "We're all watered-down versions of Richard."

"He has elevated the level of the game," agreed Belzer, who was doing stand-up for two decades before "Homicide" made him a TV star. "I don't think there is anybody who will ever embody all the things he is able to do."

Tragically, Pryor is able to do them no more. His body ravaged by multiple sclerosis, he is unable to walk and barely able to speak; even a sentence of a few words can take several minutes to say. Tuesday night, he had to be carried to his seat in a private box of the Kennedy Center's concert hall.

"There are a lot of people I miss," actor Danny Glover said before the show. "I wish Bob Marley was here. I miss Jimi Hendrix, and I miss John Coltrane. And I miss seeing Richard Pryor perform."

Whoopi Goldberg, who opened the show and then stood back and watched as some vintage Pryor clips played on the hall's huge video screen, stood dabbing her eyes for a few moments before carrying on. It was impossible to tell whether those were tears of laughter or of sadness.

"It's a very complicated disease," said Pryor's daughter, actress Rain Pryor. "What makes it so difficult is, you can't figure it out. When it's a bad day, you don't know how to make it a good day."

But Tuesday, she said, was definitely one of those good days.

After Goldberg opened the show (which will air on Comedy Central in January), a host of Pryor's friends came onstage to perform and pay tribute.

Kris Kristofferson, who was Pryor's neighbor when the two lived in Hawaii, told a punch line from the script Pryor helped write for Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles." The line was cut from the film and can't be repeated in a family newspaper, but it brought the house down.

Wayans came out to proclaim that Pryor defined comedy "like Michael Jordan defined basketball. If you haven't stolen from Richard, you're probably not that funny." In a taped spot, Gene Wilder appeared near tears as he told of never improvising on a film until he worked with Pryor. And Morgan Freeman did a bit as Mudbone, the wizened old street philosopher whom Pryor brought to life.

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