Dead of a heart attack at 65. And he’d been suffering from MS for a long time. But he did more than anyone to influence modern comedians.
Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock -- what would they be doing if they hadn't heard Richard Pryor? Same with Sam Kinison, my personal favorite all-time comedian (killed in a car accident in 1992) – whether or not either one of them would admit it. He made the absolute sickest jokes, usually punctuated by yelling FUCK at the top of his lungs every other sentence. It’s hard to imagine being doubled over laughing at jokes about Chernobyl victims or starving Ethiopians, but with Sam Kinison’s twisted jokes you had no choice. Come on, admit it, you callus heartless villain – you laughed.
Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are great too – their Saturday Night Live skits, movies and live performances. Robin Williams' stage act was a total mindfuck. You'd think there were at least five comedians up there on stage, bouncing one-liners off each other.
But Richard Pryor paved the way. I never knew much about his personal life; and most of that I didn't know until I read about his death.
His raunchy jokes paved the way for everyone who followed him. But I always thought he was funniest when he was imitating White people. No doubt every ethnic group mimics the speech and movements of every other ethnic group. But Richard Pryor’s stage act was the only time I ever heard a Black person imitating that sterile metronomic speech pattern of White people. To hear him saying “hey, cut the shit” or "excuse me, can I have a Scotch and water please" in that White cadence – you just had to bust a gut laughing.