If there's anything Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy had in common besides their sadly coincidental deaths on the same day last weekend, it is this: Both men understood the value of humor as a sweetener of persuasion.
Both men were amusing mavericks who reshaped our political and social landscape in a time of turbulent change.
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, who was 65, reinvented standup comedy in the 1970s with a gumbo mixture of Dick Gregory's political edge, Bill Cosby's folksiness and Lenny Bruce's profanity-laced social commentary.
The less-acidic wit of Eugene Joseph McCarthy, who died at age 89, nevertheless helped the scholarly Minnesota senator rise quickly from relative obscurity to pursue the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. His strong showing in the New Hampshire primary brought opposition to the Vietnam War into the political mainstream and helped drive Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House.
"Being in politics is like being a football coach," he said in 1968; "You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."
"The two-party system has given this country the war of Lyndon Johnson, the Watergate of Nixon, and the incompetence of (Jimmy) Carter," he said in 1978. "Saying we should keep the two-party system simply because it is working is like saying the Titanic voyage was a success because a few people survived on life-rafts."
My column-writing colleague David Broder famously deemed unsuccessful candidate Morris Udall, a Democratic senator from Arizona, "too funny to be president." McCarthy, by that reckoning, was probably too honest about his true feelings to be president. Still, like Adlai Stevenson, he was great for thought-provoking laughs.
So was Pryor. Comedy comes out of one's experiences. Pryor used his experiences growing up in a world of hustlers on the edge of Peoria's criminal underclass to bring the humor of low-income urban black America into the ritziest living rooms of mainstream America.
Unlike Bill Cosby, who had broken through to mainstream acceptance previously unknown to black entertainers by the late 1960s, Pryor did not have a "Cosby Kids" kind of upbringing. He was raised in a Peoria brothel where his paternal grandmother was the madam and his mother was one of her employees. His father, a former boxer, worked as a bartender in the family bar where his mom moonlighted as a waitress.
When little Richard was enrolled in a local Catholic school, according to his 1995 autobiography, he was kicked out after school officials learned of his family background, despite his good grades and good behavior.
Yet, re-listening to my collection of his comedy monologues, I can't help but notice a strong moral undertone. Beneath his salty talk, you can hear his quest for redemption, whether from drugs, failed relationships or from his self-hating use of the N-word, most notably on his early best-selling comedy album, "That Nigger's Crazy."
Hearing his vivid descriptions of how, while addicted to cocaine, he could hear the voice of the pipe he used for freebasing ("I'm here, Richard," the deep baritone voice intones. "Over here. Waiting…") will give any sane person second thoughts about ever going near the stuff.
So will his poignant recollections of ex-football star Jim Brown's intervention on the freebase habit that almost took Pryor's life. Hearing Brown's voice ask, "What's 'free' about it?," the audience breaks into a knowing applause that may well make you want to applaud, too.
It's those not-so-funny moments that elevate Pryor's humor above that of so many other wanna-be's. His recounting of his experience in Africa may have brought a new awareness of black heritage to black America unmatched by anyone since Alex Haley in "Roots."
It was there, having seen a vibrant and proud world of black Africans that, "I left enlightened," Pryor said in his autobiography. "…I also left regretting ever having uttered the word 'nigger' on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren't funny, even when people laughed. To this day, I wish I'd never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn't get what I was talking about. Neither did I."
Recognizing the self-defeating nature of the word, even when used in a brotherly street sense, he vowed he's never use it again. It's unfortunate that too many pretenders to Pryor's throne in the comedy and hip-hop music worlds seem to have kept very little from his legacy but the foul language. He tried to leave a lot more than that. For some of us, at least, he succeeded.