No. 3: Richard Pryor
The Godfather of modern comedy, perhaps the easiest way to understand the importance and impact of Richard Pryor is to note that he has influenced nearly every single comedian on this list. He’s one of those rare figures in the history of arts and entertainment who comes along and changes the game so dramatically that you can look back on their profession and separate eras based on their existence.
Like The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, the emergence of Pryor meant we would never again go back to the way comedy was before. There are figures deeper in history who have accomplished this in stand-up who didn’t make the list because of my admitted lack of knowledge going that far back. Redd Foxx and Jonathan Winters come to mind in particular. But what we might generously call the modern era of comedy begins with Richard Pryor.
Leaving out those guys is like the music conversations that start with The Beatles, leaving out Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. A little unfair, it’s just much harder to compare and contrast those guys in a modern context.
While it might be tempting to boil down Pryor’s impact to opening the doors for raunchy, racy, radical material, his biggest role was arguably becoming a pioneer in personal story telling. Since the beginning of time, comedy has come from a place of telling funny stories, but standing on a stage and drawing from your own personal struggles and pain was a relatively new concept. As Pryor would state in an interview, “Sometimes pain is funny later on.”
Whether he was telling stories about his own failures with drugs or talking in-depth about police brutality, he managed to make it comedy gold. He had a unique voice in every sense of the word and the charisma he oozed allowed him to stand toe-to-toe with icons across all platforms including Muhammed Ali. Pryor himself is nothing short of an American icon.
Rolling Stone called his “Live In Concert” special the greatest stand-up special of all time and I’m inclined to agree. In addition to being the first feature length comedy concert film, it’s also just a perfectly paced and brilliant piece of stand-up from beginning to end. As Chris Rock was quoted in the Rolling Stone piece, “This is what every comic is striving for and we all fall very short.”
He left this Earth in December of 2005, but he left it a much funnier place.