It was the measure of the media on Saturday, December 10, 2005. A tale of two obituaries. Two men who had influenced opinion and events had died, both in the same news cycle. A Richard Pryor and a Eugene McCarthy. Who would take precedence in the newscasts? No contest.
The lead was Richard Pryor, described in some scripts as an “iconic” comedian whose style and content forever altered the delivery and content of humor. Well, yes. It was Pryor, dead at 65, who had brought the “F” word out of the men’s room and into the American living room, often in its maternal-combining form. Pryor, who could and did employ the “n” word with impunity because he was, after all, what is now called an African American, and of modest beginnings, raised in the bordello run by his grandmother, to toil a lifetime in the clutches of cocaine and alcohol, to nearly burn himself to death in a free-basing blaze he would later describe as a suicide attempt, married six times, an accused wife-beater. In short, the seeming affirmation of what white supremacists had warned about throughout the pre-civil rights era.
The media loved him for his ghetto humor which required careful bleeping in over-the-air formats where an FCC might lurk but which was given free rein in a cable world, and in the movies to which he gravitated and in which he made millions. Among his writing credits is the baked bean flatulence scene in Blazing Saddles. By the time he won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center, Pryor had made the stage safe for stand-up comics to say whatever crossed their mind, or lower extremities. He had, as they say in TV, pushed the envelope. Best not to peek inside at the contents.
As an afterthought, the Saturday ‘casts displayed much milder and secondary attention to the passing of former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, the Democrat who campaigned against President Lyndon Johnson and his prosecution of the Vietnam War in the ’60s. Many times the writers repeated the shibboleth that McCarthy had forced Johnson out of the race by winning the 1968 primary in New Hampshire. Johnson won, 49 to 42 percent without ever even traveling to the state, but the McCarthy showing energized the anti-war movement and impelled Robert Kennedy to enter the lists as well. A fatal move. Shortly after, Johnson withdrew from the race and the nomination fell to Vice President Hubert Humphrey who would be trounced by Richard Nixon.
What had been a signal moment in American politics could not hope to compete on a Saturday newscast with the passing of Pryor. How could a politician who inspired youths to shave beards and forego libertine behavior in a “Stay Clean For Gene” impulse possibly compete for obit attention with the man who put the “F” word out there to be marveled at and employed? He couldn’t, and in today’s America, he didn’t.