Pryor, McCarthy revealed the power of humor in making a point

December 16, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- If there is anything that Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy had in common besides their sadly coincidental deaths on the same day last weekend, it is this: Both men understood the value of humor as a sweetener of persuasion.

Both men were amusing mavericks who reshaped our political and social landscape in a time of turbulent change.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, who was 65, reinvented standup comedy in the 1970s with a gumbo mixture of Dick Gregory's political edge, Bill Cosby's folksiness and Lenny Bruce's profanity-laced social commentary.

The less acidic wit of Eugene Joseph "Gene" McCarthy, who died at age 89, nevertheless helped the scholarly Minnesota senator to rise quickly from relative obscurity to pursue the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. His strong showing in the New Hampshire primary brought opposition to the Vietnam War into the political mainstream and helped drive President Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House.

"Being in politics is like being a football coach," Mr. McCarthy said in 1968. "You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."

Comedy comes out of one's experiences. Mr. Pryor used his experiences growing up in a world of hustlers on the edge of Peoria's criminal underclass to bring the humor of low-income urban black America into the ritziest living rooms of mainstream America.

Unlike comedian Cosby, who had broken through to mainstream acceptance previously unknown to black entertainers by the late 1960s, Mr. Pryor did not have a "Cosby Kids" kind of upbringing. He was raised in a Peoria brothel where his paternal grandmother was the madam and his mother was one of her employees. His father, a former boxer, worked as a bartender in the family bar where his mom moonlighted as a waitress.

Relistening to my collection of his comedy monologues, I cannot help but notice a strong moral undertone. Beneath his salty talk, you can hear his quest for redemption, whether from drugs, failed relationships or from his self-hating use of the "N-word," most notably on his early best-selling comedy album That Nigger's Crazy.

It's those not-so-funny moments that elevate Mr. Pryor's humor above that of so many other wannabes. His recounting of his experience in Africa may have brought a new awareness of black consciousness to mainstream black America unmatched by anything since Alex Haley's Roots.

It was there, having seen a vibrant and proud world of black Africans, that "I left enlightened," he said in his 1995 autobiography. "... I also left regretting ever having uttered the word `nigger' on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren't funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I'd never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn't get what I was talking about. Neither did I."

Recognizing the self-defeating nature of the word, even when used in a brotherly street sense, he vowed he'd never use the word again.

It is unfortunate that too many pretenders to Mr. Pryor's throne in the comedy and hip-hop music worlds seem to have kept very little from his legacy but the foul language. He tried to leave a lot more than that. For some of us, at least, he succeeded.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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