The life and times of America’s comic prophet of race


WINTER, 1973. Late afternoon: the entr’acte between dusk and darkness, when the people who conduct their business in the street — numbers runners in gray chesterfields, out-of-work barmaids playing the dozens, adolescents cultivating their cigarette jones and lust, small-time hustlers selling “authentic” gold wristwatches that are platinum bright—look for a place to roost and to drink in the day’s sin. Young black guy, looks like the comedian Richard Pryor, walks into one of his hangouts, Opal’s Silver Spoon Café. A greasy dive with a R & B jukebox, it could be in Detroit or in New York, could be anywhere. Opal’s has a proprietor — Opal, a young and wise black woman, who looks like the comedian Lily Tomlin — and a little bell over the door that goes tink-a-link, announcing all the handouts and gimmes who come to sit at Opal’s counter and talk about how needy their respective asses are.

Black guy sits at the counter, and Opal offers him some potato soup — ” something nourishing,” she says. Black guy has moist, on-the-verge-of-lying-or-crying eyes and a raggedy Afro. He wears a green fatigue jacket, the kind of jacket brothers brought home from ‘Nam, which guys like this guy continue to wear long after they’ve returned home, too shell-shocked or stoned to care much about their haberdashery. Juke — that’s the black guy’s name — is Opal’s baby, flopping about in all them narcotics he’s trying to get off of by taking that methadone, which Juke and Opal pronounce “methadon” — the way two old-timey Southerners would, the way Juke and Opal’s elders might have, if they knew what that shit was, or was for.

Juke and Opal express their feelings for each other, their shared view of the world, in a lyrical language, a colored people’s language, which tries to atomize their anger and their depression. Sometimes their anger is wry: Opal is tired of hearing about Juke’s efforts to get a job, and tells him so. “Hand me that jive about job training,” she says. “You’re trained, all right. You highly skilled at not working.” But that’s not entirely true. Juke has submitted himself to the rigors of “rehabilitation.” “I was down there for about three weeks, at that place, working,” Juke says. “Had on a suit, tie. Shaving. Acting crazy. Looked just like a fool in the circus.” Pause. “And I’m fed up with it.” Pause. “Now I know how to do a job that don’t know how to be done no more.” Opal’s face fills with sadness. Looking at her face can fill your mind with sadness. She says, “For real?” It’s a rhetorical question that black people have always asked each other or themselves when they’re handed more hopelessness: Is this for real?

Night is beginning to spread all over Juke and Opal’s street; it is the color of a thousand secrets combined. The bell rings, and a delivery man comes in, carting pies. Juke decides that everyone should chill out — he’ll play the jukebox, they’ll all get down. Al Green singing “Let’s Stay Together” makes the pie man and Juke do a little finger- snapping, a little jive. Opal hesitates, says, “Naw,” but then dances anyway, and her shyness is just part of the fabric of the day, as uneventful as the delivery man leaving to finish up his rounds, or Opal and Juke standing alone in this little restaurant, a society unto themselves.

The doorbell’s tiny peal. Two white people — a man and a woman, social workers — enter Opal’s. Youngish, trenchcoated. And the minute the white people enter, something terrible happens, from an aesthetic point of view. They alienate everything. They fracture our suspended disbelief. They interrupt our identification with the protagonists of the TV show we’ve been watching, which becomes TV only when those social workers start hassling our juke, our Opal, equal halves of the same resilient black body. When we see those white people, we start thinking about things like credits, and remember that this is a television play, after all, written by the brilliant Jane Wagner, and played with astonishing alacrity, and compassion by Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin on “Lily,” Tomlin’s second variety special, which aired on CBS in 1973, and which remains, a little over a quarter of a century, later, the most profound meditation on race and class that I have ever seen on a major network.

“We’re doing some community research and we’d like to ask you a few questions,” the white woman social worker declares as soon as she enters Opal’s. Juke and Opal are more than familiar with this line of inquiry, which presumes that people like them are always available for questioning — servants of the liberal cause. “I wonder if you can tell me, have you ever been addicted to drugs?” the woman asks Juke.

Pryor-as-Juke responds instantly. “Yeah, I been addicted,” he says. “I’m addicted right now — don’t write it down, man, be cool, it’s not for the public. I mean, what I go through is private.” He is incapable of making “Fuck you” his first response — or even his first thought. Being black has taught him how to allow white people their innocence. For black people, being around white people is sometimes like taking care of babies you don’t like, babies who throw up on you again and again, but whom you cannot punish, because they’re babies. Eventually, you direct that anger at yourself — it has nowhere else to go.

Juke tries to turn the questioning around a little, through humor, which is part of his pathos. “I have some questions,” he tells the community researchers, then tries to approximate their straight, white tone: “Who’s Pigmeat Markham’s Mama?” he asks. “Wilt Chamberlain the tallest colored chap you ever saw?”

When the white people have left and Juke is about to leave, wrapped in his thin jacket, he turns to Opal and says, “You sweet. You a sweet woman…. I’ll think aboutcha.” His eyes are wide with love and need, and maybe fear or madness. “Be glad when it s spring,” he says to Opal. Pause. “Flower!

“Lily” was never shown again on network television, which is not surprising, given that part of its radicalism is based on the fact that it features a white female star who tries to embody a black woman while communicating with a black man about substantive emotional matters, and who never wears anything as theatrically simple as blackface to do it; Tomlin plays Opal in whiteface, as it were. Nevertheless, “Juke and Opal,” which lasts all of nine

minutes and twenty-five seconds, and which aired in the same season in which “Hawaii Five-O,” “The Waltons,” and Ironside” were among television’s top-rated shows, remains historically significant for reasons other than the skin game.

As Juke, Richard Pryor gave one of his relatively few great performances in a project that he had not written or directed. He made use of the poignancy that marks all of his great comedic and dramatic performances, and of the vulnerability — the pathos cradling his sharp wit — that had seduced people into loving him in the first place. Tomlin kept Pryor on the show over objections from certain of the network’s executives, and it may have been her belief in him as a performer, combined with the high standards she set for herself and others, that spurred on the competitive-minded Pryor. His language in this scene feels improvised, confessional, and so internalized that it’s practically nonverbal: not unlike the best of Pryor’s own writing — the stories he tells when he talks shit into a microphone, doing standup. And as he sits at Opal’s counter we can see him falling in love with Tomlin’s passion for her work, recognizing it as the passion he feels when he peoples the stage with characters who might love him as much as Tomlin-as-Opal seems to now.

ALTHOUGH Richard Pryor was more or less forced to retire in 1994, eight years after he discovered that he had multiple sclerosis (“It’s the stuff God hits your ass with when he doesn’t want to kill ya — just slow ya down,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1993), his work as a comedian, a writer, an actor, and a director amounts to a significant chapter not only in late twentieth-century American comedy but in American entertainment in general. Pryor is best known now for his work in the lackadaisical Gene Wilder buddy movies or for abominations like “The Toy”. But far more important was the prescient commentary on the issues of race and sex in America that he presented through standup and sketches like “Juke and Opal” — the heartfelt and acute social observation, the comedy that littered the stage with the trash of the quotidian as it was sifted through his harsh and poetic imagination, and that changed the very definition of the word “entertainment,” particularly for a black entertainer.

The subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought: first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and, second, because it has generally been assumed to have only one story to tell – a story of oppression that plays on liberal guilt. The writers behind the collective modern ur-text of blackness — James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison — all performed some variation on the theme. Angry but distanced, their rage blanketed by charm, they lived and wrote to be liked. Ultimately, whether they wanted to or not, they in some way embodied the readers who appreciated them most — white liberals.

Richard Pryor was the first black American spoken-word artist to avoid this. Although he reprised the history of black American comedy — picking what he wanted from the work of great storytellers like Bert Williams, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, LaWanda Page, and Flip Wilson — he also pushed everything one step further. Instead of adapting to the white perspective, he forced white audiences to follow him into his own experience. Pryor didn’t manipulate his audiences’ white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck. And as he made blackness an acknowledged part of the American atmosphere lie also brought the issue of interracial love into the country’s discourse. In a culture whose successful male Negro authors wrote about interracial sex with a combination of reverence and disgust, Pryor’s gleeful, “fuck it” attitude had an effect on the general population which Wright’s “Native Son” or Baldwin’s “Another Country” had not had. His best work showed us that black men like him and the white women they loved were united in their disenfranchisement; in his life and onstage, he performed the great, largely unspoken story of America.

“I LOVE Lily;” Pryor said in a Rolling Stone interview with David Felton, in 1974, after “Juke and Opal” had aired and he and Tomlin had moved on to other things. “I have a thing about her, a little crush…. I get in awe of her. I’d seen her on ‘Laugh-In’ and shit, and something about her is very sensual, isn’t it?”

Sensuality implies a certain physical abandonment, an acknowledgment of the emotional mess that oozes out between the seams that hold our public selves together — and an understanding of the metaphors that illustrate that disjunction. (One of Tomlin’s early audition techniques was to tap-dance with taps taped to the soles of her bare feet.) It is difficult to find that human untidiness

— what Pryor called “the madness” of everyday life—in the formulaic work now being done by the performers who ostensibly work in the same vein as Pryor and Tomlin. Compare the rawness of the four episodes of a television show that Pryor co-wrote and starred in for NBC in 1977 with any contemporary HBO show by Tracey Ullman (who needs blackface to play a black woman): the first Pryor special opens with a close-up of his face as he announces that he has not had to compromise himself to appear on a network-sponsored show. The camera then pulls back to reveal Pryor seemingly nude but with his genitalia missing.

Cut to . . .

IN September, 1977, Lily Tomlin asked Pryor to be part of a benefit at the Hollywood Bowl to oppose Proposition Six, a Californian anti-gay initiative. Onstage, Pryor started doing a routine about the first time he’d sucked dick. The primarily gay members of the audience hooted at first — but they didn’t respond well to Pryor’s frequent use of the word “faggot.” Pryor’s rhythm was thrown off. “Shit … this is really weird,” he exploded. “This is an evening about human rights. And I am a human being …. I just wanted to test you to your motherfucking soul. I’m doing this shit for nuthin’…. When the niggers was burning down Watts, you motherfuckers was doin’ what you wanted to do on Hollywood Boulevard … didn’t give a shit about it.” And as he walked off stage: “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my happy, rich black ass.”

Cut to . . .

“WAS that corny?” Lily Tomlin said to me one afternoon last winter when I told her I’d heard that certain CBS executives hadn’t wanted her to kiss Pryor good night at the close of “Lily,” back in 1973. After all, Pryor was then a disreputable black comic with an infamous foul mouth, and Lily Tomlin had just come from “Laugh-In,” where she had attracted nationwide attention. Tomlin kissed him anyway, and it was, I think, the first time I had ever seen a white woman kiss a black man — I was twelve—and it was almost certainly the first time I had ever seen Richard Pryor.

Tomlin and I were sitting with Jane Wagner, her partner and writer for thirty years, in a Cuban restaurant—one of their favorite places in Los Angeles. Tomlin and Wagner were the only white people there.

“We just loved Richard,” Tomlin told me. “He was the only one who could move you to tears. No one was funnier, dearer, darker, heavier, stronger, more radical. He was everything And his humanity was just glorious.”

“What a miracle ‘Juke and Opal’ got on,” Wagner said. “The network treated us as if we were total political radicals. I guess we were. And they hated Richard. They were so threatened by him.”

CBS had insisted that Tomlin and Wagner move `Juke and Opal” to the end of the show, so that people wouldn’t switch channels in the middle, bringing down the ratings. “It threw the whole shape of the show off,” Tomlin recalled in a 1974 interview. “It made ‘Juke and Opal’ seem like some sort of Big Message, which is not what I intended…. I wasn’t out to make any, uh, heavy statements, any real judgments.”

“Everybody, kept saying it wasn’t funny, but we wanted to do little poems. I mean, when you think of doing a drug addict in prime time!” Wagner told me. And what they did is a poem of sorts. It was one of the all too few opportunities that Tomlin had to showcase, on national television, the kind of performance she and Pryor pioneered.

“Lily and Richard were a revolution, because they, based what they, did on real life, its possibilities,” Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” told me. “You couldn’t do that kind of work now on network television, because no one would understand it…. Lily and Richard were the exemplars of a kind of craft. They told us there was a revolution coming in the field of entertainment, and we kept looking to the left, and it didn’t come.”