Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin & the Theatre of the Routine - Rolling Stone
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Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin & the Theatre of the Routine

Capturing these jive times with comedy that preserves our humanity

Richard Pryor

The host of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (Episode 29), comedian Richard Pryor, performs in comedic segments throughout the show, aired 8/17/73.

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

I read the news today, February 9, 1974…

A 71-year-old Wisconsin bachelor who forgot to pay his gas bill was found frozen to death at home after the gas company shut off his heat. In a futile effort to resist the one-degree February weather, the old man had surrounded himself with five shirts, several blankets, a hot plate and a vacuum-cleaner motor. A spokesman for the gas company called it “a horrible tragedy” but denied the company had done anything wrong.

The FBI released composite drawings of three persons it suspects kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst earlier in the week. The sketches of two black men and a white woman resembled so many persons in the Berkeley/Oakland area of California that police were swamped with hundreds of calls, most of them of little value.

In San Francisco, angry residents of the Bernal Heights area called upon street-sweeping supervisor Bernard Crotty at his tidy Sunset District home and asked him why his street was so clean while theirs remained unswept and filled with rotting garbage. Crotty slammed the door in their faces, later explaining to newsmen, “I don’t have my men do a better job out here. It’s just that those people are dirtier.”

In Washington, Navy Yeoman Charles Radford said he lifted private papers from Henry Kissinger and gave them to the Pentagon because “the government has to steal from itself to stay informed.” He said that even though he sometimes felt guilty about spying, he did it to keep his job. “I just didn’t want my record to have a black mark on it.” Meanwhile Edward T. Schmults, general counsel to the Treasury Department, was asked why that agency had spied on F. Donald Nixon, the president’s brother. He replied, “It’s not unusual to put an individual under surveillance.”

And in London, Wing Commander Graham Gardner, happy that he had just settled an argument at a Royal Air Force business meeting, slid down a banister and fell 80 feet to his death. “It was a simple, almost childish impetuousness in a moment of relief,” explained a friend.

… oh boy.

For months now rumors have been circulating inside and outside Rolling Stone about the imminent publication of a special “comedy issue.” We’ve been besieged by advertisers, talent agents and free-lance writers concerned that the picture of comedy we present be complete enough to include their self-interests. “When is the comedy issue going to appear?” is a question I’ve been asked almost daily, usually by the editor.

Well, as you will see, the rumors weren’t entirely accurate. What follows is not a special comedy issue per se; it is not a roundup of comedians, or a survey of where comedy is today, or where it is likely to be tomorrow. That sort of thing is best handled by the Newsweek/Time boys who are so skilled at constructing compartments narrow enough for their ideas to fit snugly.

Nor, as it turns out, is this a special issue of any kind. Originally my plan was to write two stories with a common theme, about a new type of realistic theater – represented by comedians Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin – that greatly expands the boundaries of traditional stand-up comedy and is particularly appropriate for the jive times in which we live. The plan was to present these stories side by side in one issue of the magazine, but ultimately I wrote them too long for that. To print them together would simply leave no room for any other articles – which was all right with me but not with several members of the staff who apparently felt their own work should be published if they were to continue posturing as professional writers.

So the solution was to present Richard Pryor’s story in this issue and Lily Tomlin’s next time. I’m sorry about the inconvenience and extra purchasing expense (you might try setting up a reading pool with an equally destitute friend), but I assure you it will be worthwhile to read both stories and to think of them as a unit.

Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin are not a comedy team, although they have performed together on television and seem to share a mutually high respect for each other’s talent. Independently they have developed their art along similar lines. Both are exceptional actors and mimes. Both are exceptionally funny and quick-witted. Both are astute observers of so-called reality – their private lives, experiences of friends and strangers, the news of the day – drawing from it material which they present onstage with a minimum of alteration. They don’t tell jokes, they seldom indulge in hyperbole or commentary – traditional tools of most comedians.

Instead, they have introduced a version of comedy that goes way beyond laughter, certainly way beyond the escapist entertainment we are used to seeing in nightclubs and on television. It is real theater, a theater of the routine, the blemished, the pretentious, the lame – the common affairs and crutches of common people. Watching Lily and Richard perform is like watching yourself and all victims of human nature onstage; it can be painful and it can be exhilarating. Lily, musing on some very real characters from her past, put it like this:

“They were all like humans. Everybody had these incredible highs and terrible lows, everybody was afraid of something. They could be real petty and ugly, or they could be just real beautiful and uplifting and have wonderful little quirky moments where they made you laugh and other moments where you just hated them. And I saw that nobody knew anything. Nobody knew any answer to anything.”

Although their attitudes toward comedy, and thus reality, are nearly the same, Pryor and Tomlin differ somewhat in their performing styles. Richard’s act tends to be more spontaneous and free-form, whereas Lily’s is quite formally scripted and varies hardly a word in any series of performances. For that and other reasons I decided on rather different approaches to their stories, both involving experiments of sorts.

For some time I had wanted to play with a videotape recorder as a journalistic tool, in the manner one uses an audio tape recorder. Richard seemed a perfect subject, since his visual movements are so quick, spontaneous and subtle. I think it worked OK, although really, there’s no way he or Lily can be fully realized in print. That’s why theater is such a turn-on, after all.

With Lily I have attempted a kind of journalistic play – in two acts, no less. Her interview was remarkable; it lasted 12 1/2 hours and she performed the entire time, pacing about the room, acting out characters, gesturing, changing her voice, screwing up her face – a whole bag of tricks. So I gave her two roles, onstage and offstage, and wove them in and out of the story line.

Thus Pryor’s story sets up the argument about comedy and reality, and Tomlin’s more or less illustrates it. That’s my theory, anyway, and at least it gives me a chance to include a good deal of their material.

To show you how well these two people work together and how much they are changing the complexion of comedy, particularly on television, here’s an excerpt from a sketch they did last year on Lily’s second TV special, the one that won two Emmys. The sketch, written by Jane Wagner, performed without audience or laugh track, takes place during winter inside Opal’s Soul Food Cafe. Lily plays Opal, the cafe’s black proprietress. Richard plays Juke, a black junkie. Bill Gerber and Judy Kahan play two young, white community researchers who have just entered the cafe with questionnaires in their hands.

(Bill and Judy, wearing coats and business clothes, sit at a table. Richard sits at the counter in an Army-type field jacket. Lily, wearing a long blue dress and a pink cloth around her head, stands behind the counter. From the jukebox, Al Green sings “Let’s Stay Together.”)

Bill: We’d like to ask you a few questions. They might prove to be interesting.

Lily: Oh, I imagine they will; I always find those questions interestin’, don’t you Juke?

(Richard raises his eyebrows and nods blankly at Lily, as if to say, “Oh, yeah, sure, if you say so.”)

Bill: Say, this is a far-out menu.

Lily: I drew that pork chop myself.

Richard: (Mimicking) Far out, far out.

Bill: I think I’ll have the, uh….

Richard: (Gets up, walks toward Bill) Let me order for you … sir … allow me … (grabs the menu from him) … ’cause you now in the community; leave the menu, chump. Nobody gonna hurt you or nothin’. (Sits down next to Judy and shows her the menu with the pork chop on it.) Hey, baby, check this out. Is she an artist?

Judy: (Slightly nervous) It’s very good.

Richard: (Sing-song, to Lily) And she don’t look back (chuckles). Get this man some of your homemade potato soup. He’ll like that.

Bill: OK. I’ll have the potato soup.

Lily: (To Judy) You want anything besides answers?

Judy: Oh, well, I’ll just have some tea, please, with some milk.

Richard: That’s a good idea – hey, give me a bowl of tea … and a twist of lemon … and ten dollars.

Lily: (Abruptly) Ten dollars….

Richard: Cash money. I have some community affairs business to take care of, myself.

Lily: (Upset) You must think I’m crazy … come in here, insult my cookin’, make sarcastic remarks, expect me to give you a Master Charge for lunch, I don’t know what all else.

(She brings them the tea.)

Richard: (To Lily) I love you. You should be more respectful of a man in my position. (To Bill) That soup’s a knockout, ain’t it.

Bill: (Tastes it) Hot!

Richard: Yea, well it’s got to be hot to be hot soup, turkey. That’s a homemade recipe. She makes that from scratch, gives you….

(Suddenly Richard gasps, bends over in pain and clutches Judy’s wrist.)

Judy: You all right?

Richard: (Groans) I think it’s the soup.

(Bill pulls back and looks nervously at Judy, while Richard tries to joke his way out of it.)

Richard: No, it’s the tea … no, it’s the soup (laughs and claps his hands).

Lily: (To Richard) Will you take that one nerve you got left, get on outa here, leave the people alone.

Richard: Don’t insult me and my date.

Judy: (Turns to questionnaire) I wonder if you can tell me … have you ever been addicted?

Richard: (Scowls) What?

Judy: Have you ever been addicted to drugs?

Richard: (Hesitates, glances sheepishly at Lily, then at Judy) Yeah, I been addicted … I’m addicted now – don’t write it down, man, be cool, it’s not for the public. I mean, what I go through is private. (Righteously) My body is a temple. I mean, tomorrow I may be off the stuff, for all you know.

Lily: (Disgusted) Aw, shoot.

Richard: (Laughs, then nervously rubs his mouth and chin) I’m for real, baby…. I’m tired. (To Judy) Uh, I have no dependents … self employed.

Bill: What are you going to do about your job?

Richard: I’m gonna marry your eyes. (Everyone snickers.) You got some pretty eyes. (To Judy) How’s your tea, dear?

Judy: It’s fine. Tell me, what do you think of your congressman?

Lily: Aw, just about what he thinks of me.

Richard: Yeah, she’s a beautiful woman, she give them quickies. Dig, (To Lily) do that impression of Billie Holiday, momma.

Lily: Aw, no. Judy: (To Lily) Do you do housework other than your own?

Richard: (Reaches over and grabs the questionnaire from Judy) Let me see this list, let me see the list.

Judy: That’s really highly irregular….

Richard: Let … me … see … the … list, tut, tut, tut. I have some questions. Who’s Pigmeat Markham’s momma? You dig? (Starts writing on questionnaire) Wilt Chamberlain the tallest colored chap you ever saw?

(No one answers. Judy adjusts her coat, Bill glares at Richard, Lily walks over to supervise.)

Richard: Have you ever been mugged in the same neighborhood more than once?

Judy: You know … I can’t help but sense a certain amount of resentment, and I really don’t think it’s fair.

Bill: Excuse me … excuse me….

Richard: What?

Bill: We don’t make up these questions.

Richard: Gee, golly.

Bill: Try to understand.

Lily: (Pats Bill on the back) Aw, c’mon, try to understan’, we do make up these answers. It’s all right.

Richard: (Hands questionnaire back) Press conference is over. (Mock news voice) “Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.” (Gets up from the table) Just playin’, you know. Have a good time. Enjoy the soup, man, it’s outa sight. You gonna pay for my tea?

Bill: Yes.

Richard: You’re all right.

Lily: He don’t have to pay for the tea, you didn’t even use a tea bag.

(Richard walks up to the counter, leans over and half whispers to Lily.)

Richard: Let me have the thing.

Lily: (Turns away) No, baby, come on …

Richard: (Pleading) No, I need it.

Lily: Baby….

Richard: I got to take care of business. I’m gonna get busted if you don’t gimme the bread. You want me to be out there in the street, trying to look in cars?

(Reluctantly, Lily opens the cash box and hands Richard a ten.)

Bill: You really shouldn’t give him the money. You know what he’s going to do with it, he’s going to go out of here and just….

Lily: (Defensive) I know what he’s gonna do with it, he’s gonna go out of here and get me ten pounda potatoes. (To Richard) I like them little red new potatoes for my potato soup.

(Richard hangs his head down for a moment, then turns to Bill. He sounds like he is about to cry.)

Richard: Hey, man … that’s wrong, you know. You wrong, man. I mean I ain’t a bad cat or nothin’, man … ’cause you hurtin’ me. I wouldn’t interfere in your life.

Lily: (Comes up to Richard, buttons up his jacket and pulls the hood over his head) Baby, look at this. If you don’t get you a warm jacket … I’m tellin’ you, it’s cold outside.

Richard: (To Bill) I mean, I should dus’ you off.

Lily: You got to bundle up, it’s really cold.

Richard: I’m gettin’ a coat.

Lily: This ol’ light jacket….

Richard: I’m getting a coat. (Starts out the front door and turns to Bill) I’m civilized, man.

(Richard leaves, Bill and Judy quickly gather up their stuff, put some money on the counter and head for the door.)

Bill: (To Lily) Excuse me, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you, here’s … that’ll take care of the soup and the tea.

Lily: That’s all right, I know where you comin’ from, that’s all right. You got some change comin’.

Bill: No no, that’s all right, keep it.

(As Bill and Judy reach the door, Richard pops back in and the three stand awkwardly face to face.)

Richard: Hold it, hold it … no, man, I’m tryin’ to give you some advice. You got a black car?

Bill: Yes.

Richard: A family just moved in it.

(Bill and Judy scurry out, and Richard, laughing, walks over to the table and starts carrying dirty dishes to the counter.)

Richard: Let me help you with this stuff. You know, I think I’m kinda crazy about you.

Lily: Thank you, baby.

Richard: You sweet. You a sweet woman. (Picks up a coin from the table and gives it to her) Looka here, a tip! (Stands there for a moment, then pulls a bill from his pocket) Here … here’s your ten back. I ain’t gonna buy no more potatoes. I’m gonna try it without some potatoes … I’m gonna try … I ain’t shuckin’ … OK? Now be cool. (Leans over and she kisses him) Take care of yourself.

Lily: OK.

Richard: All right? (Heads for the door) I’ll think aboutcha … be glad when it’s spring …

Lily: Yeah.

Richard: … flower! (He leaves.)*

The art and insight of Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin represent an important new path for other entertainers to follow. As far as I know, they now share it pretty exclusively.

There are other comedians who act brilliantly – Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Art Carney. There are others who deal with reality – Robert Klein, George Carlin, Albert Brooks. But few come to mind who can fuse both those creative talents into what approaches a philosophical statement.

Richard and Lily quite possibly have shown us a road to personal survival through times that turn harder and weirder by the day. For it doesn’t take much insight to see that life at the same time grows more entertaining. Just think of what we’ve been through the last year or two. Crooks become leaders and entrap themselves. Revolutionary exconvicts control whole newspaper chains. Distinguished actors sell snapshot cameras on the tube. And more than half the nation’s people still suffer from an incurable disease that makes their breasts too large to be elected president.

Dare I mention Richard Nixon? Why not – I simply want to praise him. Certainly he was the most entertaining president in our country’s history. How he enriched our vicarious lives … don’t you miss him already? What drama, what mystery, what moves! … did you see the way he moved in front of that convention of national broadcasters? … when they asked him whether the press had been fair about Watergate, and he snapped back, “You expect me to answer that here?” … and his arms shot out and he did this great double-take? Don Rickles could take lessons from him. And what about the time he shoved Ron Ziegler?

Of course, he’s made it tough for us to concentrate or get any work done in the last two years. In fact, only after he resigned did I become bored enough to finish these two stories. But I’ll always be grateful to him for the way he enlivened our culture, our cocktail conversation, our language – shit, when he said shit, the Los Angeles Times printed shit. On the front page! Nixon and the SLA have advanced newspaper language ten years.

As far as I’m concerned, Nixon should stop moping about San Clemente in solitary confinement and get seriously into show business … maybe host a talk show, or do some movie cameos. Wouldn’t he have been great in The Three Musketeers? … he could’ve played eight roles. At the very least he could always sell snapshot cameras on the tube.

The point is, survival in the future won’t mean breathing clean air or eating three squares. We can forget about that. Survival will mean keeping our sanity and our sense of humanity. And the comedy of Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin can do much to prepare us.

Lily says that nobody knows the answer to anything, and that’s probably a healthy attitude. But there’s a question which might help us cope. When our lakes become so polluted we can skate on them in the summer, and people are kidnapped for their nutritional value, and we’re forced to share our drinking water with the creatures floating in it, and small, pimply nations are blackmailing us with nuclear warheads, and the music’s over ’cause it can’t be heard … our survival may depend on blind irreverence and the ability to laugh and ask, “Are you serious?”

What an exciting prospect.

* “Juke and Opal” by Jane Wagner. © 1973, Omnipotent Inc. Reprinted by permission. 

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