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A Talk with Jennifer Lee Pryor
"Keep some sunshine on your face." The sun never hung so high when Richard Pryor was on stage. For comedians and satirists alike, Richard is everyone's Mudbone. And the celebratory DVD "Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! Uncensored!" is proof. Not to be disillusioned by crazy #*%$#@ers who carried the "n" word on their tongue or feel hatred by the white man for wearing the wrong tie, Richard has and always will be the king of comedy. A staple for every known comedian to copy, admire and live by, Richard was the black man who did the white man's voice. Then the lights went down.

A known glutton for a woman's anatomy, Richard married seven times, suffered drug addictions in the 80s and had tabloids assuming he was dead. He turned painful reality plagued with poison and fire into comedy that rolled like thunder influencing the likes of Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle and Steve Harvey. Since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, Richard hasn't lost his triumphant swag, his trademark ‘stache or his cussin' ways. He's the craziest, most brilliant #*%$#@er to ever stand on stage, but he certainly couldn't do it alone.

Jennifer Lee Pryor is Richard's "white honky bitch." Sure it sounds brutal to us, but for a woman who Richard claims has angel wings holding her panties up, I'm sure the nickname is her only indiscretion. After her second union to Richard, the issue of race and their comparably lonely backgrounds only seemed a natural fit; a lover to learn from and a soul to sink into. That's when Jennifer knew she found her very own Mudbone.

Jennifer Pryor: Hi Danielle! How are you?

Good how are you?

JP: Very good.

I just watched the DVD last night. It's amazing, I love it.

JP: Good!

Yeah, my parents are really jealous that I'm talking to you.

JP: Oh really? Why is that?

They love Richard Pryor and have all of these memories of listening to him and watching him on-stage. That kind of thing.

JP: Oh, well give them my love.

I definitely will. Now, onto the DVD. What's your background like in terms of Richard because I know he grew up in poverty and didn't have the best family life?

JP: That's a very interesting question because I actually had the opposite upbringing: New England privileged and my dad was and still is an attorney. Half of my family was full blood English and the other half was Irish. You know -- lots of privilege. Our commonality comes in because my family was also fucking crazy. And there was violence and alcohol and there was a lot of the same kind of thing which is so interesting, you know. Take white middle New England privilege and compare it to Peoria, Illinois, poverty and it really has great similarities. Lots of loneliness as a child, lots of pain, lots of violence and you know, when we met, for me it was really finding my own half. But also we didn't know how to do it very well; we certainly messed the first marriage up.

Yeah, I heard he was married seven times.

JP: Yeah.

How many of those were you?

JP: Well, I'm twice and he also married somebody else twice as well. And he has six children by five different women. We never had kids which I think was a very good decision. Number one, he had so many and number two, I didn't think either of us were capable of good parenting. So now we rescue animals.

That's great to hear. I'm a big animal lover myself.

JP: Oh, are you? You should go on our website: www.richardpryor.com and we have a big animal rights forum on there.

Great! I was looking on your website earlier today and I noticed the t-shirts with Mudbone on them. Those are great!

JP: Aren't they cool?

They definitely are. So what were you thinking when everyone thought Richard was dead at one point after the suicide attempt? What was running through your head when the tabloids ran away with the story?

JP: Well, you know I was present right before he did it. It was a really horrible time because the tabloids didn't know the truth and Richard didn't tell the truth for quite a while so it was really not a great period, you know. It was terrific isolation for me and obviously terrible suffering for Richard. We were really isolated, you know, we lied, there were misconceptions and celebrity, boy I tell you, that's when celebrity just came like a tidal wave with all the bad stuff, you know.

Yeah, absolutely.

JP: It was a pretty grim period.

Can you tell me about Richard shooting the car with a magnum?

JP: Yeah! The 357! That was different because it was before me. It was New Years Eve and everybody got drunk and she (his wife at the time) challenged him and said, "Well I'm leaving" and she went out with her girlfriends and got in the car. He said the famous line, "No bitch! Not in this car!" and he took the 357 and shot the engine and the tire then had a great comedy routine from it.

Oh my god.

JP: Yeah, then the police came, too. It was rock and roll. Then the marriage ended; he was married to her very briefly, and a week later he and I -- I worked for him for six months prior to that -- started dating a week after that. Any normal girl would have said, "Shooting a car! Guns! What? I'm outta here!" Nope, not me.

What drew you to him?

JP: Oh my god. You name it he had it. Vulnerability, toughness and a wonderful sense of personal dignity and at the same time you know its just courage, unafraid courage. When he has convictions he stands tall and committed to his truth. I can just go on and on and on. It was all the things that I felt I had known when I met Richard; he confirmed them. What being true to yourself, knowing to stand your ground and being brave; let the light in. Just all of that corny, cliche stuff. He was a man I just knew I was going to come into myself with him and he would help me and teach me and hopefully we would teach each other and I think that that is true.

How long have you been married to him now?

JP: This time it's been five years.

Richard is known as being the black man who tells the truth about black and white people.

JP: Right.

And I think Wanda Sykes said it best when she said that Richard invented the black people doing the white people voice.

JP: Yes, it's very true. She's right.

Yeah, she just really hit it home for me when she said that because I find that so many comedians, some even featured in the DVD -- especially Dave Chappelle -- are constantly doing that critique and stand-up routine. Does Richard ever talk about it now? How he misses performing?

JP: Yeah, um, Richard doesn't wallow in self-pity. But, if you know Richard you certainly understand it's painful for him to not be out there with the youngins, the young guys, the rookies, so to speak, and so many established people as well doing what he does so brilliantly. On the other hand, I think he takes great comfort and solace in the fact that he still is the king. I mean, that's what's so amazing. Richard is still so relevant and valuable. But even though he's not out there doing his standup with everyone else that's part of the whole landscape now, the comedic landscape, he never the less is still such a force. I think he definitely is aware of that and I think that's very comforting.

In the DVD you said that he used to call you "white honky bitch."

JP: Yeah!

Did you ever have any names for him?

JP: Uh, I certainly have a counterpart for that! I can tell you right now. You know, love of my life was what I called him. I didn't have any...you know...I just called him my love, my heart, my man...my one and only. I'm going to start crying!

Oh no don't cry!

JP:

Okay, back to more stories! Can you tell me about the time, you mentioned this in the DVD, about the time you said the "n" word because he made it known as a taboo to watch yourself whenever that would come out of your mouth.

JP: Well it only came out once. That was that time I talk about when everybody was sitting around and snorting dope and being very hip and I thought I'd be very hip, too and of course I was the only white person and I thought he was going to kill me but as I said in the story he just took me outside and showed me the stars and said, "Which one is a n-i-g-g-e-r?" And that was quite a lesson I had in humility.

Absolutely. That's amazing to have that moment.

JP: It has this quality about it and people probably would've thought, "Oh, he's gonna kill the bitch," but that's what was so fantastic about Richard was he had this amazing passion and calmness, you know, for fools. And I was being foolish and broke the bottle or whatever. I think we all can understand when something comes from intent and something is intended to be malicious or a screw up. I think culturally, Richard and I went through that experience of tripping over black and white spots which doesn't make either of us bad people. It's just that culturally we came from different places and both had a lot to learn and perhaps I had more to learn than Richard, but I think that there were valuable lessons for both of us in that regard. Race is such a compelling issue and when two people get together who love each other desperately you're going to have moments where it's like, "Well jeez, how do we settle this and how did we get in this position?" And sometimes I look down. I see a hand and Richard had these long, gorgeous, elegant hands and he still has them. They're beautiful, but I look at our hands -- mine would be white and his is black -- and I go, "Oh look!" It would almost be kind of jarring. It would be on our mind that we weren't the same color. I guess what I'm saying is we really didn't have problems on that level, except for cultural, that people need to get over.

I hope I don't sound out of line here, but I hear that you've got a pussy made of gold.

JP: That's right!

Or what Richard also calls the "angel pussy"

JP: You're absolutely right! He called it Pandora's pussy. No you're not out of line at all.

Well I wanted to ask you. Dennis Leary had said that women controlled men with their pussy.

JP: Dennis Leary said that? Well, women control men through their pussy? I think that's pretty simplistic.

Yeah when I heard that I was like...um....

JP: Dennis is a good old chauvinist. I guess if a man's an idiot that's true, you know?

Oh definitely!

JP: Yeah.

Richard also showed people what he was afraid of instead of hiding it, which was very unique.

JP: Okay.

And when he free-based, burning himself up, snorting cocaine, all of these negative things, can you tell me about going through the suicide attempts with him and how he managed to survive it all?

JP: Well I think it happened over a long period of time. I think the physical survival, obviously, was quite a journey. I think you're asking about the emotional survival.

Right.

JP: I think that took a long time. He had to come to terms with the truth. And he ran away from it for quite a while. He started working six months afterwards which was insane because he went back on drugs. He didn't take time to reflect, which was very Richard. I mean, six months in Richard's life would be like 20 years for us living in Nebraska. You know what I mean? He was non-stop. He just moved like a jet, a comet. And so I think that period of reflecting didn't come until he got sick, quite frankly, and looking back on it. But I do think one of his ways of healing or dealing with it was of course, through comedy again. The pain and the comedy. And he took that experience and created "Live on Sunset."

How do you think he can laugh at himself through all the pain that most people wouldn't even survive?

JP: Richard had an uncanny ability to, for everything that he went through, he actually should've been in prison by the time he was 16. The typical African American syndrome of growing up that way and going through what he did go through. There's his absolute magic. He turned that pain into magic and into genius and into comedy. I think it was like gills on a fish, being on stage for Richard. If he did not get up and perform, he would've died. I really, really believe that. He would've imploded. It would've just been disaster. I think he had to in order for him to breathe; he had to be on stage.

Do you think comedy kept him alive?

JP: I do, I really do. I think that it was just getting up there and the explosion of the pain and the comedy was what thrilled him.

Why can't you watch "Stir Crazy"?

JP: I hate that movie.

Yeah.

JP: I hate it because it was when he free based. It was through that period...and nobody knew it...and Sidney and Gene weren't very nice to him. It just broke my heart. And he'd be working in that 120 degree heat and he'd be running to the trailer and basing. He was surrounded by it. He and I were broken up at the time, but we spoke to each other every now and then. But he was so, on drugs so badly, that you can't have any relationship with somebody on drugs. It's just a really, really sad period for me. It was a tragic thing and nobody wanted to do anything and I kept screaming and yelling at everyone, "Would you please help me?" and nobody did. And that's what begins when you get into fucking fame. I mean, fame...people will ‘yes' you to death, you know? If you have celebrity money, people will just let you march to your death. Really true. And the fire happened after he left. That's when he did it. After he left "Stir Crazy." June 9, 1980. It's just really, really a painful thing and I don't know...I thought it was a stupid movie anyway, I probably shouldn't say that.

No, it's understandable. I think fame is its own disease.

JP: Oh God, isn't it?

Yeah, I really do.

JP: I do too. I think it's so corrupt. I think it can destroy people, it really can. Unless you are a rare person who's really got their head screwed on right and has such a solid core that they can withstand all of that bullshit that comes with it. And there are those who can. I'm sure if we all thought about it we could think of five people maybe. I think Seinfeld does a good job of it. I think Paul Newman did a good job of it. I think there are certain people who can handle it and understand the myth of it all and the ridiculous phenomenon that celebrity is. And you know it's a disease when you look at someone like Paris Hilton! I mean that talented genius. Paris Hilton. We know how absurd it is. It has nothing to do with substance really. And when it does, it's a real double edge sword then because your substance is intruded upon in a major way.

Absolutely. They can't handle it. Did he ever do a show sober?

JP: Yes, oh yeah, there were sober periods in Richard's life...perhaps not consistent. He would vacillate between those two goals: sobriety and drug addiction. When we'd go to Hawaii and have long extended periods of sobriety. Certainly now we've had a long extended period of sobriety!

I'm sure. How is he doing?

JP: It's rough. We face the fight everyday. We climb that mountain everyday. There are good days and bad days. We're enjoying a relatively good period right now. We have a whole new team of doctors and new medicines. We're feeling pretty optimistic. He's undergoing some new experimental speech therapy. Let the vocal cords work, to strengthen the muscles that have weakened in the throat so we're feeling optimistic, but we're always optimistic. We always have a sense of hope. Richard's really enjoying what's going on right now. There's a lot of activity right now with the DVD and the three-piece anthology that's coming out in February and the pilot that we did. We just finished the pilot for Showtime.

What's the pilot about?

JP: It's about his life; it's based on his life. I just got back from Canada and we've been shooting it for a couple of weeks now. It's based on his life, in 2004 though. It's Richard Pryor in present tense.

That's great

JP: Some of it has been fictionalized, but the core of it is Richard.

Now everyone always asks how he's doing, but I want to know how you are.

JP: Aw, that's so sweet. I go to therapy once a week and my dogs give me lots of love and support. Right now I'm feeling a little tired, but I'm really energized as well and really excited about what's going on and I'm good.

Well good, I'm glad to hear that. You look great on the DVD.

JP: Thank you so much. That was really fun to do.

It looked like a riot. How much fun did you have talking to these different comedians?

JP: You know, it was great. And it was only laughter and tears. Extreme laughter and tears cause what they were saying, you know, they came with such love in their hearts. We actually had to talk to every one of them about not getting too sentimental or too reverential. This wasn't a eulogy. We wanted to keep it very celebratory, very present tense. Margaret Cho got so emotional and so did Bill Maher. We said, "Margaret, this is not a funeral. We're not eulogizing Richard." And that's why she's only in it for two seconds because she starts up like the Queen of England. We couldn't get it. She's got the pearls and she was doing Bill Maher (impersonation). This wacky, wonderful woman. Richard loves her stuff. He watches her in-concert DVDs all the time. He loves her work. Then she just stood up and acted like Mary Poppins. It was so bizarre.

Oh my goodness.

JP: I know. That's just making reference to how we really wanted to make it not a eulogy. We wanted to keep it upbeat and fun.

And it carried that balance well. At times it would be a little sad, but then it would pick right up again.

JP: But that's very Richard, too. On the other hand, I mean, Richard always had that message that you couldn't ignore. His father beating him is hysterical, but how sad, too. It definitely seems to be in context. It truly is.

Why is it that everyone always waits to do documentaries after someone dies? I'm so glad that you did it before anything severe happened.

JP: And that was my whole intention of doing it. Why the fuck do people wait till people are dead? And then suddenly everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Let's do it now! Let's let Richard enjoy it. Let's encourage him. Let's include him. Let's let him participate in his work, in his wonderful material, in his life. That was really the inspiration for doing it. I'm so glad you agree. I'm glad that's very clear.

It is very celebratory and it's not sad. It's needed because he touched so many lives and careers.

JP: Exactly. And it's so important, too, to keep reminding people this is the source, guys. When that's Jamie Foxx, there's a line that he stole from Richard. It's not right for people to steal. It's not right. It's not right for people to be derivative, but I guess everything's derivative eventually. But to understand the source is really essential and important especially when it's so big and huge. Richard is a force. It's important that people know that.

I also feel like it takes away from Richard's career when Jamie Foxx or some other comedian uses his stuff to boost their career -- enjoying the fruits of Richard's labor.

JP: Exactly. And that was so much fun; too, I enjoyed watching people give it up for Richard. Especially the big egos, mind you. These are big narcissistic men and women talking about him. And of course you notice the only person doing stand-up was Richard. We made them all sit down. "You sit down, he's standing up." I think it was wonderful to see Steve Harvey admit to signing Richard's name.

Yeah, that was hilarious. Definitely one of the best parts in the DVD.

JP: And Jamie Foxx admitting that he stole. I did get gleeful with some of those moments; I have to tell you, besides just enjoying it in its entirety. There were a couple moments where I was like, "Yeah, motherfucker!" You've got to give it up to the man because he's the man no matter what!

My final question is: who is your Mudbone?

JP: Oh my god! Who is my Mudbone?

Uh-huh.

JP: Aw, well...it's Richard. Yeah, do you mean like who did I grow up with as my Mudbone?

Just in general now, after going through everything you have and accomplishing so much and having this beautiful love with Richard, who do you think of as your Mudbone?

JP: You know I was going to say Richard, didn't you!

I had a feeling!

JP: I have to tell you that the two most important people in my life were my father and Richard. And those people were complicated, I have to tell you. My dad is 91 now and still a great force and Richard is obviously still such a giant force in all of our lives and obviously especially in mine. Not only has it diminished, but it grows, its deeper, it's more real, it's fuller, it's Richard.

Well that's so great to hear. I send my love to both of you as I'm sure many other people do as well.

JP: This was really a lovely interview, I have to say. I want to thank you for asking some really wonderful questions, deeper questions, tough questions, and whatever filthy stuff.

- Danielle Henbest

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