Why Do Black Comedians Go 'Crazy'?
Is Hollywood driving them up the wall?
Today marks the seventh anniversary of the death of Richard Pryor, perhaps the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived.
By the time Pryor died on Dec. 10, 2005, the man known for his profane yet profound commentary on race, relationships and the pain that life sometimes brings was virtually silent, having lost his voice to the ravages of multiple sclerosis, communicating primarily through his wife and manager.
Dying silently probably was the last thing anyone who got to see Pryor in his prime would have believed of him. In virtually every movie he starred, Pryor's scenes made you forget anybody else was even in them. His explicit comedy albums led to many of fun nights at the spades table, or whuppings for youngsters trying to sneak a listen. And his on-stage stand-up performances? Well, let's just say people are still trying to find new ways to make drug addiction and setting oneself on fire funny.
Pryor's comedic genius was one part God-given talent and verbal skill, one part suffering from an abusive childhood and one part being high as a kite to cope. Add in the extra ingredient of fame and the pressures that come with it, and you have yourself one highly combustible dish. It's an explosive combination that has seemingly marked the lives of many black comedians who have followed Pryor.Take Katt Williams. In just the past month, during a West Coast tour, Williams has become increasingly known more for his erratic behavior than his jokes, doing everything from slapping Target employees and picking fights in pool bars, to leading police on high-speed go-cart chases. Williams has yet to reach the point where he's setting himself on fire as Pryor did during a free-basing incident in 1980, he did put his mental state on display for the world to see during a bizarre "performance" in Oakland.
And the "crazy" continues to touch the lives and careers of some of today's black comics.Comedian Martin Lawrence's career has almost been a carbon copy of Pryor's. The energy, the vulgarity and, unfortunately, the drug and mental health issues. In 1996, at the height of his popularity, Lawrence reportedly pulled out a gun and screamed at tourists on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles screaming, "They're trying to kill me!"
Fellow comedian Dave Chappelle, while riding high on the popularity of his successful sketch comedy show, suddenly quit and fled to South Africa, leading media observers to question his sanity. Chappelle instead raised the question, "What's Wrong With Hollywood?"
Was Chappelle on to something? Does Hollywood drive black comedians "crazy?" Or are many already on the edge by the time they get there and just get pushed over.