Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday Humor: Faster than a Bowl of Chitlins, Richard Pryor is "Super Nigger"

I am stuck knee deep in midterm papers, grading furiously in an effort to make an escape (which explains the light tempo to my posts this week). In these moments I need a laugh. On a Thursday, the day before Friday, I suspect a laugh may raise your spirits too.

I remain surprised that the critical literature on African American humor and comedy is so underdeveloped. One would think that given how comedy is a voice for the subaltern to speak back to power (through satire, the carnivalesque, or the grotesque) that there would be many books and articles on the topic.

Save for Mel Watkin's book and Lawrence Levine's chapter-long treatment in Black Culture and Black Consciousness the scholarly work on African American humor remains thin. Thankfully, folks are starting to step up and fill that gap. Laughing Mad was released in 2007. Laughing Fit to Kill came out in 2008. I have just began working through the latter: it is a solid work with a nice balance between theory, criticism, and aesthetics.

Super Nigger moves me because Pryor's playful routine exposes the idea of black folks being written out of the script as superheroes by the white gaze, and one that some people of color internalize, where the very notion of being a "super human" is outside of the realm of possibility for a people judged by white racism to be anti-citizens (at best) and subhuman (at worst).

With Pryor's genius comes a comedy with multiple levels of tension, joy, and tragedy. Here, the character Super Nigger is still a "nigger"--even though the phrase and its power are ostensibly reversed through the use of code switching and black vernacular English--who is unable to "see through whitey." Moreover, he is still vulnerable to a little boy (that in the context of the routine is coded as white) who dares to call him "Super Nigger." This exchange is rich with double meaning and possibility because our protagonist is in fact named Super Nigger, but how dare one call him a "super nigger."

The appeal of Super Nigger is that he can enact a fantasy held by so many black folks historically, where grown adults were reduced to "boy" and "girl," or "auntie and uncle" as they worked as caregivers, maids, drivers, and Pullman car porters who had to feign deference to white folks of any age, be they older or younger, in the cradle or the grave.

Super Nigger is the very definition of the super hero as a projection and a fantasy figure for the collective subconscious: he can whoop that little white boy's behind and put him in his place without fear of retribution.

In all, Richard Pryor was the definition of genius. He made everyone before him obsolete; Pryor was the standard by which all comedians to follow would be judged. Richard Pryor was also amazingly self-reflective. For example, he was the master of the word "nigger." He manipulated it, exposed it, twisted it, and ultimately rejected its use as one of the most ugly words in the English language:

Many folks work "blue" for the sake of cussing and talking about sex. Pryor worked blue as a means of telling a story and being nakedly human.

What are your favorite Pryor routines? And is there anyone who comes close to taking his crown?

A bonus for the Age of Obama, Richard Pryor on the differences between black women and white women:


Plane Ideas said...

I met him by chance in a parking lot in Hawaii he was playing the role of a diva with me and my wife....I still love him I lived a few blocks away when he caught on fire at his home in Northridge, CA..

Now that was some some funny shit in his,lol,lol

chaunceydevega said...

@thrasher. watched your last show. good stuff. what we he like when you met him?

southern girl said...

"Little Feets" with Mudbone, Miss Rudolph and the Monkey....CLASSIC!

Many comics may be influenced by Pryor. However, none can match him because the genius of his comedy was wrapped in his personal experiences, psychology and demons.

Anonymous said...

@thrasher....I live in Canoga Park CA....small world.


fred c said...

Richard got a lot of people talking, that's for sure. I was working in a record store in New York when "That Nigger's Crazy!" came out. I got to observe a lot of behavior, Black and White, good and bad. But all interesting. For instance, young Blacks would just come in and ask, you got that album, That Nigger's Crazy? Older Blacks would invariably ask if we had the new Richard Prior album. They'd wince if I said the word.

I had some nice conversations with the younger guys about the whole thing. They were very open and generous about it all. The reticence of the older crowd was instructive, a powerful lesson in the power of words.

Richard, of course, was funny as hell, a giant in more ways than one.

Plane Ideas said...


Pryor was very reserved and aloof..I asked him to give me and my wife a ride in his MB to the beach and he was like I am in a hurry...I then asked him about some b-movies which he had some minor roles in and he then went into a diva mode..

I discovered that all people regardless of thier station in life are people and full of shit but still people with the same stuff we have on our plates..

chaunceydevega said...

@Southern. Another good one. I love how Pryor also took on hecklers.

@Fred. You need to write a book. You have some great stories and life experiences.

@Thrasher. Pryor was so real. Was the Pryor you met the same one from on stage?

Plane Ideas said...


No he was quite different very reserve and uptight..He was a disappointment