I watched an old Richard Pryor standup show last night--thanks to A. who lent it to us--called "Here and Now." I have to admit that my most recent memory of watching Richard Pryor was seeing "Brewster's Millions" about 10 years ago or more, so I'm not a Pryor expert. But the man had something to say, and made me realize how conservative, intolerant and regressive the USA has gotten in the past two decades.
"Here and Now" came out in 1983, when I was 11 years old and somewhat politically aware--I had wanted Mondale to win the Presidential election, more because he was an underdog than because he represented anything meaningfully for me--but not so aware that I understood how Reaganism was quickly and decisively shaping this country's image and ideology with right-wing reactionary sound-bites, full of vague visions of a "City on a Hill" and other such crap. In the meantime Reagan's policies helped to rapidly create the now-ubiquitous urban "homeless problem", and secured the US's reputation as an imperialist, war-mongering world superpower.
So if I'd seen "Here and Now" when I was 11--my parents let me watch R-rated movies now and then--I wouldn't have understood the political references that are sprinkled throughout, such as Pryor's quips about:
US intervention in El Salvador: "Yeah, we be sendin' advisors down there and shit. It's like [gestures as if taking out a gun and pointing it towards an invisible victim] BOOM! 'That's how it goes, son. Take my advice and do it that way.'"
Meeting President Reagan-: "I met the President, and I'm tellin' you, we in trouble...I could tell the man didn't like me....He's look like a dick. Not even a hard-on. But just a dick with clothes on. That's why he want them MX's and shit, so he can get off: 'Shoot one of those big babies off!'"
After spending time in Africa: "I know how white people feel in America now--relaxed. 'Cuz you hear a police car comin' and you know it ain't comin' after your ass."
On how Mexico lost much of its territory to the US: "Fucked around negotiatin' with white folks, lost all that shit...they shoulda just kept they mouth shut and say, 'No, this is mine and I don't want no deal or nothin'. Keep yo' shit.'"
Although I love Dave Chappelle and his show, as well as Chris Rock, I can feel that they're both way more radical than they can come off on screen, partially because they probably have to tone down their politics because we live in such conservative times (just look at the smack-down Bill Maher got for calling the US 'cowardly' in the face of terrorist suicide bombers).
Richard Pryor was living and working in a different time, before corporate media consolidation and censorship were taken as givens and the left still had some kind of base. Pryor could get away with saying some cool shit and still be biggest standup comedian of the 1980s.
Of course, he is funny as fuck. After an hour of watching him, I could feel my heart swell with hope--hope that laughter can help us see some of the big truths about ourselves and the world we live in that we'll need to survive these crazy times.