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Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy

Both of these landmark figures passed away today.

Pathbreaking Comedian Richard Pryor Dies. I remember vividly in the 70s and early 80s eagerly awaiting my older cousin to rush out and buy Pryor’s latest concert LP. For you youngsters out there, prior to video, the only way to enjoy the great stand up comedians of the day was to buy one of those big albums played at 33 1/3-speed. Everyone would gather around the stereo system and have a roaring good time.

Richard Pryor, the caustic yet perceptive actor-comedian who lived dangerously close to the edge both on stage and off, died Saturday. He was 65.

Pryor died shortly before 8 a.m. of a heart attack after being taken to a hospital from his home in the San Fernando Valley, said his business manager, Karen Finch. He had been ill for years with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

“He did not suffer, he went quickly and at the end there was a smile on his face,” his wife, Jennifer Pryor, said. “I’m honored now that I have an opportunity to protect and continue his legacy because he’s a very, very, very amazing man and he opened doors to so many people.”

Pryor’s audacious style influenced an array of stand-up artists, including Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Damon Wayans, as well as Robin Williams, David Letterman and others.

He was regarded early in his career as one of the most foul-mouthed comics in the business, but he gained a wide following for his expletive-filled but universal and frequently personal insights into modern life and race relations.

We listened to Bill Cosby to hear observations on the common, color-blind experience of being an American — particularly the humor of family, but you just couldn’t hear insight on race relations that spoke to the reality of what black and white America was really thinking about one another from anyone better than Richard Pryor.

Yes, he was profane, yes, he could be outrageous, but the things that made people uncomfortable were his observations on the painful truth about cultural difference between the races at a time when sensitivities were running high and emotions were barely in check. It was odd to see him on Saturday Night Live, when you knew he was constrained by the censors from tapping into his really biting stuff.

The one exception, and I bet most of you can guess which skit I’m going to mention, is the infamous 1975 SNL skit with Chevy Chase, the Racist Word Association Interview. Just go read the whole thing.

In searching for the transcript of this, I came across this essay, by writer Tim Wise, that is an interesting analysis of the skit’s use of epithets and the power of the words (or lack thereof):

In the skit, Chase and Pryor face one another and trade off racial epithets during a segment of Weekend Update. Chase calls Pryor a “porch monkey.” Pryor responds with “honky.” Chase ups the ante with “jungle bunny.” Pryor, unable to counter with a more vicious slur against whites, responds with “honky, honky.” Chase then trumps all previous slurs with “nigger,” to which Pryor responds: “dead honky.”

The line elicits laughs all around, but also makes clear, at least implicitly that when it comes to racial antilocution, people of color are limited in the repertoire of slurs they can use against whites, and even the ones of which they can avail themselves sound more comic than hateful. The impact of hearing the antiblack slurs in the skit was of a magnitude unparalleled by hearing Pryor say “honky” over and over again.

As a white person I always saw terms like honky or cracker as evidence of how much more potent white racism was than any variation on the theme practiced by the black or brown.

When a group of people has little or no power over you institutionally, they don’t get to define the terms of your existence, they can’t limit your opportunities, and you needn’t worry much about the use of a slur to describe you and yours, since, in all likelihood, the slur is as far as it’s going to go. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right.

So whereas “nigger” was and is a term used by whites to dehumanize blacks, to imply their inferiority, to “put them in their place” if you will, the same cannot be said of honky: after all, you can’t put white people in their place when they own the place to begin with.

I’m certain that there are many people that will only remember Pryor for setting himself on fire while freebasing in the 80s — a spectacularly stupid act, but remember this was during the time when blow ruled Hollywood and everyone knew it. He wasn’t the only casualty of excess.

I haven’t watched much stand-up comedy over the years I remember Robin Williams being incredibly funny in his heyday on the stage, and I saw Bill Maher live waaaaay back at Catch a Rising Star in NY in the early/mid-80s (strangely enough, his timing was really off that night; I wasn’t sure he was going to go anywhere, lololol). I have some pictures of him from that night. I ought to post them.

Of today’s comedians, perhaps the one that reminds me most of Pryor — and may, in fact, be as spot-on in his observations — is Chris Rock.

I’d be interested to hear Blender comments on Pryor.

***

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, 89, Dies. I was not old enough to remember his most significant run (’68), so it would be good to hear from folks old enough to compare his gadfly run to other “insurgent” candidacies (particularly to Dean in ’04).

Former Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, whose insurgent campaign toppled a sitting president in 1968 and forced the Democratic Party to take seriously his message against the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 89.

McCarthy died in his sleep at assisted living home in the Georgetown neighborhood where he had lived for the past few years, said his son, Michael.

Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination during growing debate over the Vietnam War. The challenge led to Johnson’s withdrawal from the race.

…Helped by his legion of idealistic young volunteers known as “clean-for-Gene kids,” McCarthy got 42 percent of the vote in the state’s 1968 Democratic primary. That showing embarrassed Johnson into withdrawing from the race and throwing his support to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.

Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York also decided to seek the nomination, but was assassinated in June 1968. McCarthy and his followers went to the party convention in Chicago, where fellow Minnesotan Humphrey won the nomination amid bitter strife both on the convention floor and in the streets.

Humphrey went on to narrowly lose the general election to Richard Nixon. The racial, social and political tensions within the Democratic Party in 1968 have continued to affect presidential politics ever since.

..With a sardonic sense of humor, McCarthy needled whatever establishment was in power. In 1980 he endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan with the argument that anyone was better than incumbent Jimmy Ca
rter, a Democrat.

I wonder what McCarthy would have thought about the current Adminstration’s recent boondoggles. A telling quote about the Vietnam era may give us a clue, as well as a more recent one:

Although he supported the Korean War, McCarthy said he opposed the Vietnam War because “as it went on, you could tell the people running it didn’t know what was going on.”

…In an interview a month before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, McCarthy compared the Bush administration with the characters in the William Golding novel “Lord of the Flies,” in which a group of boys stranded on an island turn to savagery.

The bullies are running it,” McCarthy said. “Bush is bullying everything.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding