Richard Pryor was angry. It was 1972, and Pryor was in the south of France shooting a movie called Hit! with Billy Dee Williams. He brought his girlfriend Patricia Heitman along and, at one point during the trip, she allegedly walked in on Pryor in bed with a hooker. According to biographer Scott Saul, Pryor then invited Patricia to join in the action. When she declined, Pryor flew into a rage, expressing his displeasure by beating her, tearing her clothes off, and throwing her out of the room. Patricia, not one to be cowed, got back at him later by sprinkling rat poison in his socks and underwear.
It was hardly the first time Pryor had mistreated a woman (he once beat his first wife for serving him potatoes he didn’t like), and Patricia’s rat poison stunt would hardly deter him from it going forward. Back in LA, he would again rip off Patricia’s clothes and toss her out onto the street, naked. While she was locked out, desperate for clothing and shelter, he burned her coat in the fireplace. Later in life, Pryor confessed to beating women on air to Barbara Walters and explained himself thusly:
“They pissed me off. I’m sorry to say that. I know emotionally inside of me, because I was weak. That’s really the reason. I was weak.”
In a way, Pryor got lucky because even as he confessed to his monstrousness in public, the bulk of his career came at a time when such transgressions were, unforgivably, easily shrugged off by the media and powerbrokers alike. He was still revered, rarely shamed by anyone outside of himself. Perhaps the public regret he expressed to Walters was enough to merit some measure of forgiveness, and perhaps people also took into hard consideration the fact that Pryor himself was abused as a child, at the hands of both a boy who molested him in an alleyway, and his own grandmother, a Peoria madam who would beat him regularly when Pryor’s father wasn’t around to do the job himself.
Or perhaps fans just didn’t want their memories of the man tarnished. Regardless of whether or not Pryor truly earned absolution, it came to him anyway. He was given the Mark Twain Prize in 1998, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2006, and a fawning Comedy Central retrospective in 2003. He remains, both in work and reputation, the most admired comedian in history.
Louis C.K. is in deep shit. The New York Times dropped a bomb on him last week that details, in what has become exhaustively typical, the exploits of a man leveraging his power to subject unwilling women to his own strangely specific sexual urges, and essentially daring anyone to stop him. This comes just as C.K. was poised to release the horribly titled I Love You, Daddy, a film that, going by initial reviews, appeared to serve as part-confessional and part-justification. Or maybe it’s just the work of a narcissist seeing how far he could push things before getting caught. That movie’s release has now been cancelled.
The stories about C.K. were not new. Until last week, they lingered in the ether and bounced off of C.K., in part because his accusers had yet to formally go on the record, and because of C.K.’s enormous standing in the comedy community, where his accomplishments arguably match that of Pryor, his forebear in both confessional humor and, apparently, demeaning the opposite sex.
Now let’s talk about that community for a minute, because it is very insular and VERY protective. If you go by the list of greatest comedians of all time, it’s a community that has harbored a great number—perhaps a disproportionate number—of misogynists, abusers and shitbags. Dozens of women say Bill Cosby is a rapist. Woody Allen’s daughter says he raped her, a claim he has denied. Actress Tisha Campbell filed a lawsuit against Martin Lawrence claiming sexual harassment and battery on the set of Martin, harassment so severe that she apparently had producers ban him from the set of his own show. Given what we know about Hollywood these days, it’s a wonder that they accommodated her request.
These are not sad clowns. These are all very famous, very powerful men who in hindsight, appear to have used comedy to mask the truth more than illuminate it. In fact, it’s telling that C.K. fell upon the “I have issues” defense when one woman said she confronted him about jacking off in front of women. When confronted, comedians have a nasty habit of defensiveness, and of playing up the background issues that drive them to crave yuks. And, for too long, the comedy world has indulged that ruse, letting a guy like C.K. invite your pity if he can’t get laughs out of you.
Drew Magary regular contributor to gq