2 Jul

From the San Francisco Chronicle

Staying cool and melting down

One night at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in 1973, Richard Pryor was in the middle of a routine about black people and religion: “Black people didn’t have a God — we just worshiped nature … then the white man said, ‘Why not worship me?’ ”

Pryor took in the fact that his audience was largely white and said apologetically, “Now when I say ‘white man,’ I don’t mean everybody.” Then he paused, then laughed and added: “But you know who you are!” Loud applause and congratulatory hoots. Out of the back of the room, a heckler shouted out, “You better be glad I have a sense of humor!”

Pryor came back quickly: “Yeah, I’m sure glad you have a sense of humor, because I know what you white people do to us.”

The audience went crazy. They hooted and hollered and grabbed their stomachs. The heckler shut up and disappeared from the room. Forever.

This was trademark Pryor. He knew how to handle hecklers.

The recent debacle involving Michael Richards (“Kramer” on “Seinfeld”) using a racial epithet to describe two African American audience members critical of his act at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles three weeks ago demonstrates how race continues to bubble up in the most unexpected places.

During the late ’70s, I observed Pryor well, because I was writing a novel about his art. At the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, I spent many nights watching the young comics who couldn’t handle hecklers and, thus, would have their show destroyed by them. Often, the hecklers would be other comedians whose purpose would be to teach the comic a lesson. Being able to handle hecklers was a rite of passage at the Comedy Store, and Pryor was one of the priests. The comic creates his audience, and he taught the comics — including local heroes like Robin Williams.

When comics reply to hecklers, they must do it just right or they fail. When Pryor did it right, he was brilliant.

Except the time he melted down at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, at an event called “A Star Spangled Night for Rights,” a benefit for a gay organization. As he pranced up and down the stage, he erupted, “While the n — in Watts were out there burning, you guys were up in Hollywood doing whatever you wanted to be doing,” And then he turned his backside to the audience and said, “Kiss my rich, black ass,” strolling off to howls and boos.

As with the Richards incident, Pryor’s career was in jeopardy. And so was mine. I had just co-written his movie, “Which Way Is Up,” and there was talk that it might not be released.

Both Richards and Pryor gave a textbook performance of how not to handle a crowd.

Freud said there are two kinds of jokes: the harmless and the hostile. One kind of hostile joke, or as Freud called it, “tendentious joke,” is basically an ethnic slur. It is a form of verbal art that pits one group against another using cultural stereotypes.

In order for a joke to work, it must have two parts: a facade and a substance. “Freud carefully distinguishes between the technique of the joke, which constitutes the joke’s envelope or facade, and the substance of the joke, its underlying thought,” said Elliott Orning, an anthropology professor at UCLA, in his book “The Jokes of Sigmund Freud: A Study in Humor and Jewish Identity.” Words that have double meanings allow the underlying thoughts — inhibited thoughts — to escape the censor. It is the escape of getting inhibited ideas to consciousness that brings the teller and his audience the deepest pleasure and psychological reward.

In order for an ethnic joke to work, the comedian must present a facade, or a persona, so it does not appear that he is personally making the attacks. In Richards’ case, he dropped the facade and spoke as a person who uses ethnic slurs to attack individual members of his audience.

Like the social dramas they are, comic routines make us aware of the folklore that undergirds our historical events, of the underlying thoughts of daily American life.

We don’t know yet what will happen to Richards.

But in the end, Pryor’s career didn’t suffer because of his Hollywood Bowl outburst. “Which Way Is Up” came out to great success — and I got my name on the screen.

Cecil Brown is the author of “Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?” and a novel, “Days Without Weather,” about the experiences of black entertainers in Hollywood.


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