The fact that Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy passed on at nearly the same time made me think that the universe doesn’t always “move in mysterious ways” and often moves with an acute sense of timing.
Pryor was a force of nature at the height of his powers and lived long enough to learn that he had been an enormous influence on comics and millions of individuals who sat alone in their rooms and listened to his recordings over and over and over again.
There’s no question that in his personal life Pryor wrestled with demons. But in his work he insisted on doing full body slams with the devil that taunted America by bestowing on it the Achilles heel of racism. You don’t release a comedy album titled “Bicentennial Nigger” without signaling that you’re more than happy to kick racism’s ass at every opportunity. Yet rather than pontificate, Pryor’s genius was in the details… of the characters he described and the street realities he knew from his own background.
Pryor was never on a quest, except perhaps to meld the hard facts of his own early life with a level of honesty in comedy previously unrealized on American stages. Comics like Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks worked with truth on stage and paid a certain price, but many of those “rebels” stayed focused on their own situations; Bruce on his legal problems, Hicks on his cigarette smoking. Pryor kept working outward, insisting all the while that regardless of the revelations contained in his bits he was mostly into it because the s**t was funny.
Eugene McCarthy worked a larger stage, and where Pryor was funny McCarthy was deadly serious. McCarthy was after moral outrage and the young Americans who were being asked to please die in Vietnam were ready to help him fan the flames. At this point, I should include the disclaimer that I was one of those who joined his crusade, having enlisted in his campaign in Wisconsin.
My memories of that time include long hours sitting around in people’s houses, talking and talking about how we might get a professorial liberal into the White House. Maybe I’ve retained some of that naiveté, but you never feel something is silly or pointless when people your own age are dying, villages are burning, children are being napalmed.
All war has the quality of demonstrating magnificent and brutal waste. Vietnam was the first to deliver film every night. But while we were all witnesses, just as we are right now, back then we were also simultaneously intoxicated with the power of possibilities. Eugene McCarthy was a beautiful possibility, and if we now feel our possibilities are too often reduced to choosing lesser evils…. then somewhere in there is the measure of something critical that has happened to us.
“Saving the world” has become a catch phrase floating in irony gravy and possessing the potency of “You go, girl.” But back when Pryor was setting fire to young minds with his routines and “Clean Gene” McCarthy (young campaign workers would cut their hair shorter to abet their credibility) was standing up to Lyndon Johnson, there was a definitive sense that things were turning.
In some way, things are always turning. What we’re missing right now is a sense that they might turn forward, rather than backward. Pryor and McCarthy were, each in his way, men who pointed us toward something better by means of the spoken word. But they had the courage to trust using the truth.
This Week’s “Know Your News” Quiz
1) Google will invest in AOL which
a) expand their ad partnership.
b) help deliver “Super Porn!”
c) create AoogleOLoogle.
2) The Beatles lawyers are suing
EMI Group for
a) “Sgt. Pepperoni” pizza shops.
b) $53 million in royalties.
c) Na na na na na na no reason.
3) A Korean cloning scientist may
a) fabricated his research results.
b) “cloned” someone’s credit
c) “fathered” the Olson Twins.
1) (a) “You signed the check ‘Mr.
2) (b) “So, those songs made
3) (a) “Wait ‘til you meet George