Another Pryor

I am not a comedian. I am, however, a student of comedy. I have spent the better part of a decade writing about stand-up comedians, interviewing them, and hanging out with them in various clubs and bars. Last week the comedy world, if not the entire world, was surprised to hear the latest news on the late Richard Pryor. In an interview with icon Quincy Jones, Vulture reported that the legendary comic and actor Marlon Brando had an ongoing relationship of a sexual nature. This report was later confirmed by Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee Pryor. Thus, giving the world one of the greatest confirmations I’ve ever read. “It was the ’70s! Drugs were still good, especially quaaludes. If you did enough cocaine, you’d fuck a radiator and send it flowers in the morning.”

However, Pryor’s daughter Rainn later denied the report. She did, however, confirm that he was in a long-term relationship with a transgender woman in the early 1980’s. So maybe she’s right. Maybe the affair with Brando never happened. We may never know. However, in matters such as this I tend to defer to a person’s friends or spouse’s confirmation over a child’s denial. Because frankly, what parent discusses the details of their sex life with their kid?

Regardless of whether the Brando affair happened or not, it seems irrelevant at this point. What does seem evident is that Pryor’s sexuality was clearly somewhat fluid. I’ll  leave it at that. It only matters because this seems to have rattled more people than it should have. It’s as if people are shell shocked when insignificant details of someone’s private life emerge.

In the days since the Vulture article was published, many people have asked me variations on the same question. “How does this new information affect my view of Pryor, his comedy, or his legacy?” The answer is quite simple: It does not. Are his jokes suddenly any less funny? Is the way in which he weaponized the English language any less brilliant? Is his openness any less sincere? Absolutely not.

In the time I have spent on the periphery of the comedy industry, Richard Pryor’s name has come up in hundreds (if not thousands) of conversations. His influence and genius never disputed, only spoken of in awe. In fact, Pryor and George Carlin are the two comics most often debated (and #3 is not even close), when it comes to who is the greatest stand-up comic of all time. They are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of comedy. Speaking of which both John Lennon and Mick Jagger have admitted to having male lovers, as well. Does that change how you hear songs like “Imagine” or “No Shelter,” respectively? Of course it doesn’t.

To sum up my feelings on anyone’s sexuality – what you do in your bedroom, has nothing to do with how I perceive your humanness. Or how I judge the art which may spring from the frailty of your humanness. That is with the obvious caveat of: As long as what’s happening behind closed doors is between two (or more, if so inclined) consenting adults. Beyond that, I could give a damn about with what, who, or how you get down in the bedroom. And that certainly applies here in the case of Pryor and whomever he bedded.

This story has been a bizarre cog in the latest news cycle. Therefore, Pryor’s sexuality has come up several times as a topic of conversation. Generally speaking, the impression I am getting from most people reflects my own feelings. In the end, who cares? But some people are legitimately disgusted. While others are outraged that he isn’t here to defend himself. But I ask: What’s there to defend? There’s nothing he needs to apologize for or feel ashamed about. Whether any of it is true or not. He, nor anyone else in the world, should ever have to answer for anything that happens in the privacy of their own bedroom. Again, with the obvious exception of my previously stated caveat.

All of that said, as this new aspect of Richard Pryor’s life sinks in – I do find myself feeling something about it. And that something is sadness. And not because it tarnishes one of my heroes, because I don’t consider one’s sexuality to be a blemish on their life or their life’s work. It’s an insignificant footnote in a historic career. Rather, I feel sad because it’s dawning on me how alone Pryor must have felt his whole life.

In conversations I’ve had over the years about Pryor, the breadth of his influence can hardly be explained in mere words. But what people always come back to is how honest he was on-stage. He was unflinching. Unrelenting. Talking about his own drug use, his infidelity, his jealousy, his rage – his everything. He gave all. It’s there for everyone to see, to judge, and to laugh at.

Little did we know, he gave everything except this one little piece of himself. The great, fearless Richard Pryor was too insecure about this one little thing to face it head on. He couldn’t address it, at least not the way he addressed everything else in his life. And that made me feel sad for him.

As the story unfolded, someone dug up a video of him performing at his own roast. In the video he does address this aspect of his sexuality. He discusses a sexual encounter with another man. But the audience is laughing it off as hyperbole, exaggeration, or pure fiction. It seemed so outlandish coming out of Pryor’s brash masculinity. This time they didn’t believe he was opening up to them in no uncertain terms, the way he always had before.

In retrospect, it might be the most honest moment, in the long career of a man who had nothing but honest moments. And no one took him seriously. They didn’t believe him. I felt bad that he must have felt so alone at that podium. When he finally found the courage to shine even a little light on that tiny insecurity – his audience abandoned him. They failed him. The sad part is that they didn’t believe him because they didn’t want it to be true. And for the first time in his life they were laughing at his honesty, and not because of it. A room full of people laughing at him for all of the wrong reasons. That must have been such a lonely place to be for a man who hated being alone.


Brent Owen

Brent Owen

Louisville based writer and proponent of the Oxford comma. I focus primarily on music and culture, but have a genuine curiosity about literally everything..