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Kings of Comedy: Richard Pryor and Robin Williams

In writing Pryor Lives!, I had to talk to Robin Williams, because I knew how close they were.

In the early Seventies, when Richard came Hollywood, he would go to the Comedy Store on Sunset to work out new material, become acquainted with other young comics and to perform. There at the comedy club he met Robin Williams.

Richard and Robin were alike in many ways, but they were also very different. Robin was born to wealthy parents and staunchly middle classed. But Richard was born to lower class people. As far as we know, Robin never had to struggle to support himself on his path to stardom. Richard struggled all the time. Robin had no innate beef with society. Richard was pissed off with society.

Yet they were both great artists.

I first met Williams was in 1974, when Richard was the headliner and star at the Comedy Store. I would sometimes accompany Richard as he drove to the venue.

When we approached the club, a blonde-haired white dude would often run up to him. He always said, “The King of Comedy is here!” He would make a mock bow as if he were a footman saluting a member of the Royal Court. “The King is here!”

Richard would chuckle and enter the club. When he came to the stage, Robin would already be up there when he would often introduce Richard.

When Richard became a star through the Richard Pryor Show, he took all the comedians from the Comedy Store with him, including Robin Williams.

On May 25, 2008, I went to Mill Valley, California, to talk to Williams about Richard Pryor.  After seeing his brilliant show at the Throckmorton Theater, I send word backstage that I would like to talk to him about Pryor. Not more than five minutes passed before I was ushered through cluster after cluster of adoring fans and upstairs to a softly-lit, all white, upper crust, private party—and finally! —to Robin.

“Yeah, Cecil Brown,” were his very first words. Kind, words. He remembered me.

I didn’t have to remind him that I met him often with Richard. Then the book party in 1995, when Richard was in a wheelchair. Robin was there at the table with Richard.

But I didn’t bring any of that up. Instead, I said: “I was sent by Obama—He wanted to be sure there was at least one Negro in Mill Valley!” Something that Richard would say. This was back when Obama was running for office.

He gasped. Yes! He laughed. He liked the joke and opened up. It is a racial stereotype—and it was also true. That was the humor that moved him—and Richard.
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Then he went on to another joke that that one had remind him of. He was spritzing and ready. “It’s like the guy, who…”

“When was the last time you saw Richard?”

He glanced up at me. His face was relaxed, clear. He was not kinetic, as he was on stage. He moved at a normal pace.

“Oh, at the Kennedy Center…”

Both he and Richard had been honored by the Kennedy Center, where, of course, they were very glad to see each other

“You were the first person Richard would see when he was coming to the comedy store in the seventies…”

“Yeah, man. I’d say, ‘The King! The King is here!’” he joked, “It was true, he was the greatest!”

Then he turned to the six or seven women, who were listening like groupies, that there was this club in the mid-seventies, the Comedy Store, and he was the MC and Richard Pryor could come by and do his act and sometimes try out new material.

I reminded him of his first lines on TV when he was on the Richard Pryor Show. In a skit of Richard going to Africa to find his roots, Robin plays a young reporter. He asks Richard, “Do they have hot dogs in Africa?”

Robin cracked up over it and he told a story with a more ridiculous line than that one.

Apart from giving him a boost in his career, Richard became a very close friend to Williams. They didn’t work together again, but they remained in touch over the years. They were both honored at the Kennedy Center for their singular contributions to comedy.

When Richard became too sick to drive himself to the movies on Fridays, as he liked to do, Robin stepped in. He would take out the time to drive his mentor and friend to the movies.

We drank and laughed and toasted in Richard’s honor. I told him about a script I wanted him to read: a hip-hop version of Cyrano De Bergerac, and he would play Cyrano. Williams started doing takes on Cyrano doing rap instead of poetry, and had us all laughing. Over the objections of a white guy standing there, he took my script with him. It enough for me that we shared the idea and the laughter.

Robin told me that you could make a good movie nowadays without going to Hollywood. Then came his latest television sitcom: The Crazy Ones. I thought we’d never see him again, because he would be back in Hollywood.

As the years passed, I kept thinking, one of these days, I’m going go over to Tiburon and ask him what he thought of that script…

Then I saw on the television that he had killed himself. He’d been right here in Tiburon all the time. If only I had known.

Having driven Richard to the movies on those Friday nights, Robin must have had a lot of time to contemplate how dreadful a disease like MS or Parkinson could be. Perhaps this was on his mind, too, during his last days.

May God bless him. Along with Richard Pryor, Robin Williams was a gigantic force in our culture.

Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.

 

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