Something there is that doesn’t love a gun shop. Probably it’s a target. Like this duck perched in front of the semi-automatic carbines at Brass Rail Guns in Hollywood. Now, most people wouldn’t have considered the duck a target; quite likely they wouldn’t have considered it at all — just a dumb, stuffed and strictly ornamental dead duck. But Richard Pryor doesn’t think like most people. Standing next to the duck, his childlike black face as innocent and tight-lipped as a ventriloquist’s, Pryor perceived that the bird was in fact scared stiff, and quite able to talk about it.
“I’m scared shitless,” whispered the duck, afraid to move a feather. “I am a real duck and I’m just waiting to make my move and get out of this fucking place.”
Richard turned away and laughed, the sort of convulsive, repeater-action giggle he often rewards himself with after pulling off a good one. He had come to the gun shop this overcast March day to purchase two pistols, a Walther .380 automatic and a Colt .357 magnum. These he would add to a small home arsenal that already included an antique flintlock piece, a shotgun, some arrows Flip Wilson gave him that formerly belonged to “little pygmy people in Paris,” and a large wooden oar Richard once grabbed from a friend before it could be applied to the friend’s wife.
Yet as a smiling and friendly clerk named Bill checked Pryor out on the two new guns, the shy comedian seemed almost disinterested, nodding politely at this precision movement and that safety device, but asking few questions about what was actually a fairly complicated procedure. His mind was on something else. More targets.
“Could you tell me something?” Richard asked finally. “How come all the targets are black?”
Bill kept smiling, but now there was an embarrassment to it. “Uh, I don’t know, Richard,” he said, shaking his head. “I just …”
“No, I mean I always wondered about that, you know? Like, how come all the targets you ever see are black? You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, Richard, I just don’t know the answer to that one. I really don’t. Just the way it’s always been.”
Implied in the question, of course, was Pryor’s concern, not that all targets were black, but that all blacks were targets. Which is one reason he decided to buy the pistols.
“They just shot a couple of niggers down at Newport Beach,” he explained while driving back home. “They was with white chicks, and a couple of white dudes came by and shot ’em.” The crime of a nigger taking a white chick to the beach was not unfamiliar to Richard, and so he planned to keep the small Walther automatic in the glove compartment of his green Mercedes. “I guess the word would be apprehensive,” he said dryly. “Yes, I’m extremely apprehensive.”
Back at his house, a snug Hollywood Hills cottage that once belonged to the gardener of a famous hotel, Richard dumped the guns, some shells and two empty magazines for the Walther automatic on a coffee table and set about to load them. Each magazine held seven shells, at least they did at Brass Rail Guns, but now, goddamn, no matter how hard he forced the first bullet against the spring of that little bitch of a black box, shit, the crazy motherffffucker would, goddammit, slip out and pop back onto the table. Finally Richard shrugged, counted out 14 shells, picked up the magazines and the automatic and drove down to the gun shop again. There another clerk started loading the shells into the magazines as if they were coated with butter. Richard obviously felt foolish. “Ohhhh, I see now,” he said sheepishly. “I was doing it wrong. Thank you, thank you.” Outside he grinned and whispered, “Shit, I was putting ’em in backward.”
He returned to his car, in the center of a supermarket parking lot next to the gun shop, and as mothers strolled by with children and shopping bags, he finished inserting the 14 bullets. Then he took one of the magazines and jammed it into the gun. But not quite far enough. It sent a bullet into the barrel but not quite straight, so that when he pulled back the hammer it jammed and wouldn’t return. Which meant that for some reason the safety device wouldn’t lock. He yanked at the magazine but now it was stuck, too; it wouldn’t go in and it wouldn’t come out, the safety was stuck, the gun was loaded and cocked, women and children were all around the place, and suddenly Richard burst out laughing.
“You know,” he said, “this is just perfect for me. You know what I mean? This is just perfect for me. I mean, what the fuck am I doing with this thing?” He turned to an imaginary assailant and fumbled with the gun. “Hold it, could you wait a minute, please?” he yelled, knocking the hammer, tugging at the clip. “I just about got it here, could you hold it one more second?”
Well, of course, Richard had no choice but to return again to Brass Rail Guns, this time saying nothing, hanging his head, motioning the clerk to the rear of the store where no one was around, confiding to him under his breath like a defeated cowboy: “I hope you won’t mention any of this to the boys down at the range.”
Richard was right; the predicament was perfect for him, a perfect fuck-up and a perfect revelation of himself. “Nothing comes off real smooth just when I think it will,” he said later. “I just am doomed … like I was somewhere the other night at the screening of this fight. And George C. Scott said hi to me, he said, ‘Hey, Richard,’ like he knew me. And I couldn’t think of a fucking word, so I shook his hand and just turned and walked away. So after the fight was over I stood up to get his acquaintance, and I said, ‘Hi, George,’ you know? And I was gonna say, like, ‘The only reason I stood there was ’cause I didn’t know you knew my first name.’ But then he went east on me, right? He went like, ‘OhhiDick,’ like I was bothering him, and I said to myself, ‘I guess you only get one fucking chance to speak to that motherfucker.'”
The same sort of thing happened a few nights later during a party at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house. “I was petrified, just didn’t feel comfortable, all the movie stars were there. And he was in the bathroom with me — Sammy Davis was in the bathroom with me? I pissed all over my shoe!” Richard giggled painfully. “I couldn’t even get a semihard-on, so he could see I had a big cock or something, you know what I mean?”
One of Pryor’s classic fuck-ups occurred five years ago at the end of a major stage in his career. It was the wrong end of a stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and Pryor decided to walk off it in mid-act. He had become increasingly disgusted with his life in Vegas, with performing what he considered mundane, white-controlled, gag-oriented material.
“It wasn’t me,” Richard recalled. “The current was happening, and every now and then I’d go in for it. And people would tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ If I said ‘ass’ or something, they’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t have that in there.’ And I’d think, ‘Why in the fuck … ? Fuck these people, man, fuck this way of livin’, fuck it.’
“And then I went crazy one day. On the stage. I said, ‘What in the fuck am I doing here?’ and walked off — the wrong way. ‘Cause the panel at that end was like two times smaller than I was, and the guy’s saying, ‘No, you can’t get through there.’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I can get through there, believe me!’ And I squeezed through that motherfucker ’cause I wasn’t going back ‘cross the stage.”
It was the turning point in his artistic development; Richard decided then and there that he would only do the material he wanted to do, the way he wanted to do it. Needless to say, such moments of truth are probably not understood and certainly not appreciated by most promoters and big-time club owners. He was instantly banished to the minors—the low-paying, no-cover hoot-niteries you find in some major cities and college towns. His income dropped drastically, and to some extent he is still suffering for his decision at the hands of the entertainment establishment.
“‘You’ll never work again’—that was the agency’s reaction,” said Richard. “‘What about us? What about our reputation?’ Everybody was worried about themselves. I said, ‘Fuck all you motherfuckers, I’m worried about me.'”
Nonetheless, his gamble at long last seems to be paying off. He has appeared in seven motion pictures, most notably in Lady Sings the Blues, but also in Busy Bodies, Wild in the Streets, The Mack, Hit, Wattstax and Uptown Saturday Night. His third album, That Nigger’s Crazy, has recently broken into the Top 30—an unusually high rating for a comedy record. He’s written five Sanford And Son television scripts and shares the writing credits for the film Blazing Saddles. And he’s currently performing on stages around the country, averaging 18 gigs a month in houses like New Jersey’s Latin Casino, New York’s Philharmonic Hall, the Oakland Coliseum and Harlem’s Apollo Theater. For the performances alone he is expected to net an estimated $300,000 by the end of the year.
Most important, Richard Pryor has established himself as a rare and serious innovator, a perfectionist in the arts of comedy, mime, drama and, as the students at San Jose State College recently put it; in awarding him an honorary PhD, “black street history.” In the process he has expanded stand-up comedy to the dimensions of pure theater, and has accurately presented the times we live in, perhaps in the only way the times we live in can be presented accurately. Because of his ability to fragment his life and the life around him into bits and pieces, and to recreate those fragments onstage without contrivance, with intense feeling and absolute truthfulness, Pryor is considered a genius by many of his colleagues—for example, Mel Brooks, the producer/director of Blazing Saddles:
“Richard has almost Nietzschean ideals of what is good, what is powerful, what is superior,” says Brooks. “He just reports terribly accurately and does not stretch. When he does a junkie or he does a drunk, he does ’em fuckin’ right on; I mean, that’s it. He gets all the nuances; he gets the breathing right. You say, ‘I know that guy, that’s true.’ And that’s blindingly brilliant and amazing.”
Lily Tomlin, who performed with Pryor on her two remarkable television specials last year, says it a bit differently. In fact, she says it a lot differently: “To me, Richard is separate from anybody else. See, when I think of Richard, like the hours I’ve spent with him, and I see him improvise and tell me about his life, or people he’s known, or whatever impressions he’s had, or little moments and fragments and things, you know, it’s like … so uplifting. Just because of his interpretation of it, and in the way he’s perceived it. See, he doesn’t perceive it, he perceives it humanistically, you know, and then he himself, the fact that he exists or something, I don’t know what it is, but it totally, like, just uplifts me. I don’t know what I’m saying.
“It’s like believing that we’re all worth something, you know, when everything around us tells us that we’re not really.”
Now all that ain’t bad for a 33-year-old nigger with no formal training.