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Because he was the comedian who reflected America’s racial pain and confusion

Pain was always Richard Pryor’s comedic easel of choice. Look no further than his chillingly still relevant 1974 bit, “Niggers vs. Police,” from the Grammy-award winning album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor’s jokes were a therapeutic soundtrack for black America and a no-holds-barred crash course for those who failed to understand what it meant to be an outsider in one’s own country a century after the abolition of slavery. That same year, Rolling Stone caught up with Pryor as he purchased a Walther .380 and Colt .357. At checkout, Pryor had but one question for the gun shop owner: “Like, how come all the targets you ever see are black?”

Born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Pryor III’s art reflected his life — hard, vulgar, sensitive and, of course, hilarious. He was molested at 6, abandoned by his mother, a sex worker, at 10, and was raised in his grandmother’s brothel.

No comedian has used the black experience more effectively to express its complexities to diverse audiences. His was a comedy that black folks usually heard in private, that sometimes made white folks squeamish — yet appreciative of the reality check. The recipient of one Emmy and five Grammys from 1974 to 1982 — the last of which was for Live At The Sunset Strip, arguably comedy’s greatest standup routine ever — Pryor also had a number of exceptional movie roles, including credits in Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wiz, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, and Harlem Nights.

His life and career are a vision board of incredible highs, debilitating lows, tumultuous relationships and the ever-present demon of drug addiction. Later, there was multiple sclerosis. Comedy legends such as Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart are direct beneficiaries of Pryor’s flawed genius. – Justin Tinsley


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