Of the roughly 15,750 days that I’ve lived, December 28, 1978,
was one of the best. Earlier that year, my family had moved from downstate Illinois
to Southern California, where I’d turned 16 and gotten my driver’s license. My
big brother, Danny, had turned 20 and, a week before Christmas, died of cancer.
My big brother and I were funny li’l shits, and we’d been planning to make funny
shit together for our life’s work. But now, with Danny gone, I didn’t know quite
what was left.
For 10 days following his death, I was a complete zombie, but on the 11th day, December 28, I somehow drove down to Long Beach and sat in the front row of the Terrace Theater balcony.Patti LaBelle sang her ass off.And then came Richard Pryor.I’d cracked up to Pryor’s Bicentennial Nigger at my friend Kevin’s house in ’76, and to The Richard Pryor Show on television in ’77. Neither had prepared me for this.With my arms hanging over the balcony, my mind drained of trauma for the first time in months by Pryor’s shamanistic standup. With only a microphone, he disarmed derogatory bullshit with beautiful, raw pictures of humanity, and the tears ran down my face as I laughed and looked around at others doing the same. The audience felt like family, like we were all related through Pryor.Otherworldly, magical; pain into pleasure. He controlled us, brought us somewhere Better. This was all the religion I needed. I decided I’d aspire to be like Pryor. I’d round up all the nastiest pains and hypocrisies I could find and tame them into something worth laughing about.And I keep trying. I still sleep beneath a big poster of young Pryor sitting in front of an American flag. His shirt’s off, both fists poised to punch, eyes and jaw confrontational. An angry angel: What you gonna do about it, motherfucker?
Pryor’s performance that night and the next was filmed and released as Richard
Pryor Live in Concert. Three or four times a year, I’ll pop in the DVD and
the tears will roll, as I remember how the pain dissolved, how I felt that night.
So very, very grateful.
Illustration by Chandler Wood