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The Comic Who Broke All the Rules

October 22, 1998|VIC SUSSMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The accolades heaped on Richard Pryor on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center were not the sort of compliments one usually hears for someone receiving a prestigious award from a national arts center in the nation's capital: "He was the toughest, funniest, riskiest son of a bitch running around loose," said Kris Kristofferson; "always out there," said Whoopi Goldberg; "the Evel Knievel of comedy," said Robin Williams.

Pryor received the first Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor at a sold-out celebration of his 40 years of influence on American humor. Severely disabled by multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair, Pryor watched the stage show from a second-tier balcony box. "You got the Abe Lincoln seat, Richard," said comic Richard Belzer. "You must know some really important white people!"

Yet even though irreverence and raunchy language rarely heard in the ornate Kennedy Center highlighted the evening's show--which will be shown on Comedy Central on Jan. 20--the evening's subtext was profound love and deep respect for a show business pioneer who broke all the rules on and off stage.

Gene Wilder, appearing on one of the many video clips shown during the 90-minute event, said of Pryor, "I learned more from you than from the greatest artists. You deserve this award. I love you, Richard."

At a press conference before the show, Williams talked about Pryor's fearlessness. He got into his characters, said Williams, "and made me realize that you have to take chances. Anything was available. Everyone out there performing owes something to him. He's the spark."

Much was made of the similarities between Twain and Pryor as humorists. Both attacked racism, bureaucracy, police misbehavior and human stupidity in all its forms. But Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the similarities between the two actually run far deeper.

Fishkin, who delivered a speech at the Kennedy Center as part of the two-day celebration of the Twain prize, said that both men derived their narrative skills from African storytelling. As a 15-year-old, Twain spent a lot of time with "Jerry," a slave who "daily preached sermons from the top of his master's woodpile with me for the sole audience," wrote Twain. Twain's mother beat him for associating with Jerry, but "to me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest man in the United States."

Fishkin suggests that Pryor's storytelling, like Twain's, grew out of the same tradition of satire and subtlety, using humor drawn from their life experiences, wielding stories like weapons to destroy preconceptions and stereotypes.

"Without Richard, I don't know where I'd be," Damon Wayans said from the stage. "He inspired me to think about people in my life." Wayans paused then and said, laughing and aiming his remarks at Pryor sitting above him, "I wanted to be just like him . . . except for the failed marriages, the drugs, temper and guns."

When the show was over, the audience stood to give Pryor a five-minute standing ovation. Most people waited at their seats until Pryor was wheeled out of the auditorium. Then an invitation-only crowd of 200 gathered in the Kennedy Center's rooftop terrace for the presentation of the Twain award.

A tuxedo-clad Pryor, flanked by his daughters and well-wishers, sat slumped in a motorized wheelchair, his unblinking eyes focused downward, his palsied right hand shaking uncontrollably. Someone then placed a microphone close to his lips and after a painful silence, Pryor managed to whisper a strained, almost inaudible "thank you."

His words seemed to echo around the packed room. Comedian Chris Rock, who had appeared in the show as a presenter, suddenly reached into the crowd and pulled veteran comedian-activist Dick Gregory forward. Gray-bearded and elegant in a tux, Gregory was asked by a reporter how it felt to see Pryor so honored, especially since Gregory had been one of the first black performers to attack racism and government corruption with slashing humor. "It's a great night," said Gregory quietly, "hearing his peers say these things about him. I may have opened the door, but it was for a genius like him to go through."

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