Comic Roxanne Reese is on stage at Los Angeles' Comedy Store, finishing her act. "And now," she says, "a real big welcome for a man who's too legit to quit."
A big welcome it is. The audience stands, claps and cheers. And then, in the corner, he enters: Richard Pryor, the angry, profanity-spewing comic who started it all for angry black comedians.
It's a really big welcome for a man who now looks very little, walking onto the stage, holding the arm of his assistant. There is a dazed little grin on his face. He looks like a shy child at his birthday party.
"I'm happy to be here," says Mr. Pryor, grasping the mike for support as his assistant carefully lets go.
"I'm happy everybody sees me alive."
His appearance is a shock. He has had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease, since 1986. He appears very weak, unable to stand very long. He is painfully gaunt, down to 115 pounds, and his hair is short. Behind thick glasses, his eyes are deep-set, staring straight ahead.
Mr. Pryor is here to do, of all things, stand-up comedy. He can't stand up, and what can be comic?
Mr. Pryor has always been able to laugh at his plight. In the past, he managed to wring stand-up hilarity from a near-fatal heart attack. Then there was the infamous free-basing cocaine "accident," whereby Mr. Pryor set himself afire and nearly burned to death. His friends call it a suicide attempt. That, too, became part of the comedy act.
Mr. Pryor has hardly worked for years. He tried an unfortunate film, "Another You," with Gene Wilder last year. So he's gone back to his roots, stand-up comedy, honing an act at the Sunset Strip's Comedy Store. Some of Mr. Pryor's friends are calling it a comeback. That seems unlikely. Still, Mr. Pryor's mind is funny, though trapped in a body that is flaccid and frail.
"Man, it's weird," he says. "You can imagine [things], and then you come out [on stage] and your body won't do it."
But he's out there. The man who came out of a wretched childhood, using an authentic street vernacular that white producers feared, opened the doors wider for all, especially black comedians, who enshrine him. They have been coming to pay homage to his genius and to his courage. It's the indomitable courage that has taken center stage.
"Yeah, everybody thinks I'm dead," he begins. It gets a laugh because Mr. Pryor, 52, is expecting it, but most of the crowd is just staring, their hearts in their throats.
"They been calling my house. They ask my maid, 'Is he dead?' " Mr. Pryor tries to loosen the mike to raise it, but he can't. "Death is a m man. It'll come."
Mr. Pryor sits down in a chair that has been placed at the microphone. He keeps talking, but he can tell that the crowd is not able to decipher what he is saying, something about a possum.
"What's he talking about?" he says with a grin to a face in the front row. He can't see beyond the front row. "I got this disease. It's called MS. If you got it, everybody knows it. It's an embarrassing disease . . .
"They gave me an eye test. Is there anybody here who can't see the [top letter] 'E'? I can't see the 'E.' There was a little kid. He could read the eighth line. It was embarrassing, man."
And now the laughs are more genuine. The man is vulnerable but not pathetic. You can still recognize the comic mind, the self-deprecating humor. It's really amazing. Bit by bit the pity lifts, and Mr. Pryor begins connecting with his audience. Yeah, multiple sclerosis can be funny.
Then, Mr. Pryor moves into more pain, talking about last year's triple bypass surgery. He flails his arms as he talks about his hallucinations while under anesthetics.
"My bed is a trout stream. I'm fishing in a trout stream. Then Sister Rose, a nun from my school, is there. And I say, 'Hey, Sister Rose, you standing in my trout stream.' "
Hilarious, no. But Mr. Pryor gives hints of the old technique, his arms swinging about for a moment. But then his arms tire and flop to his lap, refusing to play their part any longer. There is a towel next to the mike and Mr. Pryor wipes his brow, kidding about his need to do it.
When the audience responds, he says: "I love you so much. I'm here on a stage, and my energy . . . that wasn't there . . . is here."
"You're beautiful, Richard!" comes a big voice from the rear. "Thank you," Mr. Pryor says. "You lying m ."
Backstage after the show, the Green Room is swarming with people.
Mr. Pryor is seated in the middle of a large, semi-circular booth, looking fragile, exhausted, his eyes darting, then staring.
There are four or five people seated on each side of him, including Marilyn Staley, his new assistant (for the past five months) who never leaves his side. All sorts of people come up to pat Mr. Pryor on the back, shake his hand and pose for pictures with him, including Arsenio Hall, comic Byron Allen and director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood").
Mr. Pryor has agreed to an interview, and we are going to talk in his limousine, as it drives around town.
He isn't always easy to understand. His speech is sometimes slurred, sometimes inaudible. He says he works on material about two hours a day. "If I do more, I start arguin' with the paper.
"But it's nice workin'. This is the best weapon I got -- I can get up on stage. A lot of people can't get up on a stage."
And you still make them laugh, I say.
"Yeah," and his eyes light up. "Yeah. That's the gift!"
They're laughing at some serious stuff, I say.
"Sure. You gotta make 'em laugh. You know what I'm sayin? 'Cause they cry, there ain't no money in that. There ain't a dollar in that. You gotta make 'em laugh."
I laugh. I say: Well, your mind is still working.
"Yeah. Except on Wednesdays." That gets big laughs in the car.
You've done it all. Of all the big, big things you've done in your life, what gives you the most pride?
"I pulled my little baby boy out. Steven Michael. It's beyond anything. She's [his wife, Flynn Pryor] layin' there like it ain't nothin'. . . . And the doctor let me cut the cord. Now that's the scariest thing I done in my life -- cutting the baby's cord."
Mr. Pryor has six children from five wives (he married Flynn twice), some of whom did not leave with fond memories. Jennifer Lee wrote a 1991 memoir called "Tarnished Angel" that was especially hard on Mr. Pryor, including claims that he'd beaten her.
Is Mr. Pryor, the angry man, gone now?
"I hope. I hope the a is over with. I see young people who remind me of me. They don't understand. Enjoy [life]. Appreciate it. 'Cause it ain't gonna last forever."
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (named for four of his mother's favorite pimps) was raised by his grandparents, who ran a pool hall and the whorehouse where Mr. Pryor's mother worked.
The 1986 film "Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life Is Calling," which Mr.
Pryor directed and co-wrote, is a biography that details it all. There were successful gigs on the talk shows, the hit "Silver Streak" with Mr. Wilder, the now-classic concert films. In the meantime there was Pryor the mean, angry rebel. He served a term in prison for tax evasion. He stabbed a man with a fork, and shot up one wife's car.
I ask, what do you think about these days, when you've got time?
"Death. I think how it's gonna be dying. Then I think that's so far off. No, I'm gonna live a long time. But I think, you know, you gonna be dead soon. No matter how long it is, it ain't enough. And I think my father, mother, stepmother, grandmother, my uncles -- they gone. They all gone."
We talk about Mr. Pryor's six kids. Rain Pryor had a role in "Head of the Class." Richard Pryor Jr., 29, is getting married in April.
"I called him up, and I said the same thing to him that my father said to me. I said, 'Richard, you don't have to do this.'
"But he's in love. I can tell from the way he talked."
Mr. Pryor says he wishes he had talked more with Richard. "I shoulda told him, 'I love you so much. You're my firstborn.'
"I wish my father had told me about love, about bein' in love. He never told me about that. He told me about women. In a man's way. Nobody tells you about love. Understanding. Feelings."
Our limo ride is almost over. We talk about all the books written about Mr. Pryor (eight) and the bio he is writing. We talk about fear, which was so much a part of Mr. Pryor's life. And the pain.
"The pain is a laugh. It's like God's gift. He said I'll give you pain, but it's like a treasure chest."
We are back at the club. Getting out of the car, I tell him I look forward to seeing him again. Mr. Pryor picks up on the cue.
"I hope one day we'll be riding in a car, and you'll say, 'Remember one day we were riding in a car way back in '92?' "
I laugh. He laughs. And the ride is over.
When: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Where: D.A.R. Constitution Hall, Washington.
Call: (410) 481-SEAT.