It was with both a sense of nostalgia and an understanding of modern American history that I was able to sit down and thoroughly enjoy a documentary on the life of Richard Pryor this week.
I was born in 1970. I came right on the cusp of understanding the “Golden Age” of comedy that was going on at that time. In film, television and in stand-up, the ‘70s were a decade that brought forth many of the great comedians that have ever cracked wise to an audience readily wanting to laugh. Principle among them were Pryor and George Carlin. Both men showed it was possible, sustainable and appropriate to be profound and profane simultaneously.
And what made those two embraced by many who heard them was their ability to use comedy to discuss the most socially relevant issues of their day. You laughed when you heard the jokes, and then you considered what the jokes meant to convey long after the curtain fell.
Pryor, much more than Carlin, used caustic, vulgar language to get his point across. The fact that I cannot print in this column the names of some of his earlier concert albums is proof enough that Pryor had an early understanding of what we now refer to as “shock value”.
The album titles did not include a vulgarity that is still commonly thought unacceptable for print by current social mores, but a racial epitaph usually directed at people with black skin as a pejorative.
It is in that fact that I see both progression and regression in society.
When the reevaluation of conservative social views hit its zenith in the 1960s and ‘70s, many who wanted to break through boundaries did so by attacking with the most powerful tool in the history of the world, language.
As the old guard tried to hold on to their puritanical rule, free speech was used as a baseball bat. Comedians and artists not only admitted their work was obscene—as was defined by the time—but they gloated in their obscenity.
This was a good thing. There is a place for clean, vanilla, family-orientated humor and art in America. There is also a place for bawdry social commentary. Trailblazers like Pryor reinforced our right to dissent. We owe him huge.
Can you dissent against injustice using clean words and non-combative means? Of course you can. But Richard Pryor was a black man. He received more attention by being intentionally controversial. Few things work better in the realm of attention seeking than inciting a mob.
One more point about Pryor. He co-wrote the film “Blazing Saddles” with Mel Brooks—another pioneer of salacious humor. That film, released in 1974, openly and proudly contained jokes using racial epitaphs. It made light of rape, animal cruelty and an entire cache of previously taboo subjects. The film, a parody of Westerns, was also a forerunner of what is now called “meta humor”, which essentially allows the viewer to be in on the jokes.
“Blazing Saddles” is an amazing film. Truly revolutionary to its genre. And it leads me to ask a very important, and unfortunately salient question:
Could any filmmaker make “Blazing Saddles” today?
Outside of Quentin Tarantino, my answer is no.
Somehow, in the past two decades, we have become a nation that believes we have a constitutional right to not be insulted. We are programmed to feel that it protects our liberties if we call for the liberties of artists to be curtailed because they produce works that disparages or somehow denigrates certain groups. Sensitivity trumps the First Amendment.
Are racism, misogyny, homophobia or any phobia regarding a group good character traits? No, they are the very worst inherent to the human condition. Are they funny? They can be.
When it comes to risqué humor, all Americans should live under the same rule, no matter how simplistic it may be.
If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.
And this is not a politically motivated issue for me. Religious wingnuts on the right are no more culpable for the attempted murder of artistic expression than the left wing Thought Police who believe suppression is a just form of control. Josef Stalin was more tolerant than your typical political ideologue.
The right, the one unalienable right, that should never be infringed upon in America is the freedom to be uncouth. When we protect those who insult us we defend the solemnity of that most basic and fundamental American right, free speech.
And those who would ban such works, or attempt to shame those that produce these works into some form of exile—they are not as bad as those who would destroy America in the name of ideological obedience—they are worse.
We could not make “Blazing Saddles” today. Or “Animal House” for that matter—a shamelessly vulgar film released in 1978 that still stands as the apotheosis of anti-establishment humor. And a groundbreaking sitcom like “All In The Family” would never be re-imagined today if Archie Bunker was scripted anything close to sympathetic.
That is not who we are anymore. We no longer break through barriers rudely and defiantly. We don’t stick it to The Man like those who came before us had done. The revolution will not be televised—not if it insults people.
I was pleased to watch that documentary on Richard Pryor. I was happy to remember his genius and the indelible legacy he created for all those who use humor as a form of social commentary. I doubt we’ll ever see his like again, though the ways things are going in America, we could use him.