The Political Life of Richard Pryor

Politics Without a Key

by Alistair Rey

This article originally appeared in Analiza București in 2015. It was ostensibly written with funding provided by the Romanian Ministry of Culture in 2013. The Romanian government denies ever commissioning the work. Now out of print, we are making it available here.

Conference Room C of the Detroit Marriott looks as though a tornado has torn through it. A long banquet table anchored on either side by two half-drained punch bowls sits in the corner, its surface littered with paper plates, upturned wine bottles and discarded plastic cups. The tablecloth, pristine white earlier that morning, is now dotted with crumbs and maroon punch stains. Patches of the vermillion colored carpet are discernible through the refuse of over-sized placards, posters and leaflets haphazardly strewn across the floor. The janitorial staff mills about in resigned agitation, waiting for the remaining guests to vacate the premises. The scene is reminiscent of a dwindling party, that last hour when the crowd has thinned leaving only a few late night stragglers with no particular place to be. Something has obviously happened here.

Marty Feinstein, the organizer of this afternoon’s rally at the Marriott, is slumped in one of the plush armchairs astride the podium. He is a man with a youthful face and curls of blonde hair he likes to keep concealed beneath a worn Tigers baseball cap at all times. The first thing you notice about him are his large hands—“worker hands,” as he likes to say, holding them up, palms out, and wiggling his fingers like a puppeteer warming up for a big show. Given his employment history, it has hard to refute his claim. Advancing from the assembly line to managerial posts in the mid-1980s, Feinstein eventually rose to become a notable union organizer connected with the city’s dying steel industry. Yet in the midst of economic recession, egregious municipal corruption scandals and anti-union politicking from congressional representatives, the once-dedicated union activist abandoned his responsibilities in 2009. “I saw that the game wasn’t fair anymore,” he says, explaining his choice in a deliberate voice as though choosing his words very carefully. “Something needed to be done about it.” At present, political campaigning is his new game.

The pamphlets and placards strewn about the floor of Conference Room C tell a story. Marty Feinstein is a part of this story. Their bold, colorful fonts are uniform in their injunction. There is an urgency to them that is hard to deny. Amongst the refuse—a literal paper trail of campaign manifestos, attention-grabbing slogans and goal-oriented calls for action—that checkers the carpeted floor, the message is clear. “The Time is Now!” “Politics or Poli-Tricks?” they scream. And then, beneath these catchphrases the central message of the campaign: Richard Pryor for World President!

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Marty Feinstein’s story reads like a biography of America in many ways. He comes from a family with deep roots in the Detroit area that has never hesitated to identify itself as “working class” or “blue collar.” These epithets are declared with a sense of unflinching pride, boasting of a generations-long association with the Michigan manufacturing and steel industries. His grandparents and parents were all dedicated to trade unionism and, as would be expected, devoutly Democratic in their political leanings. “Some people are raised Catholic or Baptist,” Feinstein jokes. “I was raised Democrat.” Yet Feinstein cast his last ballot for a Democratic candidate in the 2008 presidential election, contributing to Barak Obama’s victory over John McCain. Since then, he has favored Independent candidates and representatives of fringe groups. He no longer refers to himself as a Democrat when talking politics. He is now a Pryorist, a term which Feinstein himself takes credit for coining.

While Feinstein is reluctant to discuss what he considers his “conversion,” he is not reticent when it comes to talking about his overall aims or intentions in politics. In 2011, he initiated a movement in conjunction with other politically-minded citizens of Detroit to have the name Richard Pryor placed on ballots in the upcoming municipal elections. When the office of the county clerk refused to add the name, citing the lack of necessary petition signatures to validate the inclusion of a non-affiliated candidate as grounds for exclusion, Feinstein and several other self-declared Pryorists mounted a public action campaign aimed at encouraging voters to cast write-in ballots supporting the unofficial candidate. In the municipal elections of 2011, some 652 ballots were cast for Richard Pryor. The following year, he received over 2,000 votes in the city council elections and in 2013 garnered some 6,700 votes in the Detroit mayoral primary. The increasing number of ballots cast for the unofficial candidate was due exclusively to the footwork and canvasing undertaking by Feinstein and his organizers. “We’re on a mission,” he tells his canvassers every day before sending them into the field armed with clipboards and bundles of pamphlets. “Don’t you forget that, and don’t forget to remind people of that.”

In total, Richard Pryor has run for six electable offices in Detroit between 2011 and 2014. He has never managed to win any of the seats for which he has been nominated, but poll numbers have revealed a steady increase in support over the last three years. More interesting, however, is that these poll numbers seem to be growing proportionate to the sinking support evident among more established candidates with traditional party affiliations. Feinstein and his collective are not blind to their successes. This is grass roots political activism at its finest, and Feinstein is well aware that grass roots activism is a “slow but progressive march,” as he is fond of reminding.

“Some people think we’re nuts, sure,” he admits as we sit down to talk about his turn to campaign management over beers and sandwiches at the Ivan Hoe Café, an iconic working-class haunt locally known as the “Polish Yacht Club.” “But politics is a nutty game. That is what this movement is all about to begin with. To show just how nutty it can be and return some of the power back to the people. To get them engaged. When people ask what do you think you’re doing? I spell it out to them clearly: hey, I tell them, we’re building a movement here.”

If Feinstein shows little hesitancy in pegging his politicking as part of a “movement,” this is because Pryorism (to use Feinstein’s idiom) is a veritable movement. Since 2010, Richard Pryor has run in more elections that any single political candidate in history, at present totaling 487 campaigns in search of political office. These campaigns have included municipal and city positions, mayoral and gubernatorial races, an election bid for Los Angles comptroller in 2012, a controversial nomination for Prime Minister of Hungary, a contested seat in the British House of Commons, and an electioneering strategy aimed at destabilizing Belgian parliamentary elections last year. Feinstein is correct to assert that his politicking is part of a larger movement, one stretching from local politics in the United States to the national elections of Europe. In short, Richard Pryor is the most well-traveled political candidate of the current decade and is slowly assuming a leading role as an understated trailblazer inspiring calls for alternative political participation, populist engagement and a return to “people power” one voter at a time. That said, he has also been dead since 2005.

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During the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was arguably one of the most successful standup comedians of his generation. Known for his ribald sense of humor and willingness to address pertinent social and racial issues of the day, he stood as an iconic figure who was never above provoking laughs at his own personal misfortunes, which included drug addiction and numerous divorce proceedings. “I’d like to make you laugh for about ten minutes,” he once told an audience “though I’m gonna be on for an hour.” It was this type of self-deprecating, not-holds-barred humor that became his trademark métier whether on stage pursing his standup routine or on the big screen. Yet one thing Pryor was not was overtly political. If anything, his jokes about the Reagan administration were tame. His critique of politics was best expressed in his cult-classic movie Brewster’s Millions in which a newly-minted millionaire runs a farcical mayoral campaign with slogans such as “I’ll buy your vote” and “vote none of the above.”

It was, however, the tacit absurdity of politics that Pryor touched upon in Brewster’s Millions that has recently motivated a new generation of activists. Pryorism is, if anything, the anti-politic. It is the admission that votes can, indeed, be purchased; that the much-debated “neo-liberal” agenda in the West is a cover for big business and political elites; that politics is no longer about the people or the “common man.” In such circumstances where special interests groups, powerful lobbies and entrenched politicians toeing party lines seem to dominate the political scene, Pryorism is attempting to sell itself as an alternative which is not an alternative at all, a popular movement without a candidate and a political idea with a symbol that rejects politics as such. In its broadest statement, it declares the need to vote “none of the above” because it is only the absence of politics that will allow for a return to the grassroots organization and democratic populism lacking in the current political milieu.

Befitting the seeming absurdity of the Pryorist phenomenon, the movement itself first emerged in 2006 when the acting Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was implicated in a political scandal that drew wide-spread criticism throughout the country. Nationwide demonstrations broke out that autumn with protestors expressing their disapproval not only of Gyurcsány and his Hungarian Socialist Party, but of all major Hungarian political parties across the board. In the fledgling post-Cold War democracy, a general sense of disillusionment had pervaded national political life. Demonstrators were quick to note the desire for change sweeping through the country in the fall of 2006 but also lamented the absence of any serious alternative candidates. Old guard conservatives and self-fashioning elites catering to European Unionists in the West appeared all Hungarian politics had to offer, presenting a quandary for voters keenly aware of the dearth of political choice in the country and pundits alarmed over the growing disillusion accompanying Hungary’s relatively-recent turn to democracy.

That November, András Nagy, editor of the left-leaning political magazine Neue Zeit, proposed a bold gesture. In a feature story, Nagy called for changing the country’s electoral laws and allowing for the direct and popular election of the Prime Minister. His suggestion for reform was coupled with a campaign advertisement announcing the candidacy of “the American comedian and renowned actor” Richard Pryor. “Consider the alternative,” the ad’s tagline urged readers, suggesting that in an era in which political experience amounted to stale and unattractive policies, no experience at all might be preferable. Conceived as pure political farce, the proposal was intended to draw public attention to the sad state of Hungarian politics, using humor and satire to animate young voters. To drive the message home, Nagy and his colleagues decided to push the joke to the limits of absurdity and actually run a Pryorist ticket for the 2010 general elections. “It was meant to be funny,” Nagy recalled in an interview, “and it felt like everyone who associated with the left was in on the joke.” Yet it was more than just the left who found Nagy’s “alternative” party appealing. Activists groups saw the implications that a non-aligned candidate had to offer while conservatives eager to discredit the current Hungarian political establishment proved willing to throw their support behind what appeared to be a single-candidate party that could not assume office for obvious reasons. People who had neither heard of Richard Pryor nor seen any of his films turned up at the ballot boxes to cast their vote in his favor as a symbol of general opposition to the status quo. Through a mix of clever campaigning, political frustrations and a collective willingness to affect change through subversion, the unimaginable occurred in 2010: Richard Pryor, the only member of a nominal Pryorist party, won multiple seats in the Hungarian parliament, theoretically obliging the Hungarian president to nominate the party leader as Prime Minister. “I just never thought it would happen,” Hajna Gorchek, Nagy’s associate who worked on the first Pryorist campaign, claimed when the results were reported. “Everyone just stood around in silence, shocked.”

The Pryorist victory was, of course, immediately contested. An American national could not legally assume political office under the Hungarian constitution nor could one person run for multiple parliamentary seats. Moreover, as a spokesman from the mainstream Conservative Party flippantly reminded the press with a slight chuckle, “A deceased person cannot hold office.” In reality, however, nobody was chuckling. While the seats won by Pryor were given to the second place candidates affiliated with national parties and the Pryorist victory was deemed illegal, things were hardly business as usual. Through a stroke of political brilliance, the Pryorist victory brought the very legitimacy of the new government into question. None of the parliamentary members given seats could claim they held office by virtue of a democratic mandate, since the non-aligned candidate Richard Pryor had technically won the seat. His inability to take office was seen as inconsequential by Hungarian “democrats.” Critics immediately drew attention to the “authoritarian” character shown by the government. Protestors assembled outside the national parliament on Kossuth Lajos Square, holding up placards calling for the “appointed” MPs to step down and for the government to respect the will of the people. Cardboard cutouts of Richard Pryor were hoisted in the air as symbols of protest while calls of “Demokrácia Most!” (Democracy Now!) echoed through the night. What began as a political farce had blossomed into a political crisis.

Nagy’s subsequent accounts of the protest movement are instructive. In the wake of the victory, he understood clearly that activists did not expect Richard Pryor to assume power. A vote for Pryor was a protest vote, pure and simple. “It was a way to express discontent with the current system,” he claimed. “A way of saying ‘NO!’ to political parties we do not agree with or to candidates we do not necessarily want.” Support for Richard Pryor embodied the power of the people and fundamentally challenged the legitimacy of the state in a way that no actual politician could ever conceivably do.  This was both “the power and appeal” of a political Richard Pryor, as Nagy tells it. He offered the potential of expressing opposition to a political system that was largely felt to be out of touch and disconnected from the everyday interests and concerns of the people.

However, if Nagy and his colleagues claim to be the brainchild behind this peculiar opposition movement, it is hardly one that they themselves have authored or been able to contain.  In the midst of the 2010 demonstration, independent activists took up public subscriptions to finance the construction of a Richard Pryor statue on Kossuth Lajos Square. The government has systematically refused to recognize these subscriptions, which have raised some $46,000 over the past three years, and has repeatedly dismissed the numerous petitions on file to commemorate the non-candidate, referred to in some circles as the “true” Prime Minister. In 2012, protests groups staged a sit-in on the square and more radical participants engaged in acts of vandalism, tearing up large pieces of earth and transporting a mock “shrine” to Richard Pryor made from papier-mâché to the site. Although Nagy has moved on to other political issues, every single year Richard Pryor has regularly run in local and national elections, typically demonstrating an ability to garner more votes than his opponents associated with national political parties. In Hungary, Pryorism has attained the force of a serious political movement bent on challenging the government and undermining the authority of the state.

It has also served to mobilize Hungarian youth politics to an unprecedented degree since the end of the Cold War. “It’s fun,” a young protestor sporting a “Pryor is My Man” campaign button tells me in English. “It is the absurd humor of politics thrown back at politics.” If hard-nosed, politically-minded cynics have used Pryorism as a battle ram against state and parliament, university students and left activists have found a more expressive dimension in the movement: a “Dadaist” manifesto for politics. Pryor is the candidate that can seemingly represent all interest groups and communities, precisely because different groups and communities are capable of projecting their own aspirations and agendas onto him. “Politics in a new key,” as one Austrian journalist recently dubbed the movement in an exposé. A more accurate description, however, might be “politics in no key.”

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In the spring of 2014 I took a trip to Los Angeles to meet with local Republican representative Barnard Jones. He is a middle-aged and affable man with an office in the Downtown Metro area of the city. He is fond of indicating to reporters and guests that he owns a home in the liberal West Hollywood district, an admission that borders on the taboo for a conservative politician. As I sit down and sip at the cup of coffee his secretary offered me upon entry, I notice a Playmobil diorama assembled on the windowsill. Jones follows the direction on my gaze and shrugs. “I have an eight-year-old,” he says with a smile, as though compelled to excuse the presence of the toys in a professional work environment.

After a brief exchange on his current urbanization initiative and some playful speculation on his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, I segue into the issue that has brought me to Los Angles. “So, the Republicans aren’t considering Richard Pryor as a candidate?” I ask with a slight grin. Jones returns the grin and puts up his hands as though to say “not you too.” “I don’t know if anyone is sure what to make of that,” he tells me, knowing full well he is on the record. “My thoughts on the matter are simple, though. Politics is a serious business concerned with issues that are important to people. They obviously don’t see it that way.”

In 2012, Richard Pryor was put forward as a write-in candidate on numerous ballots in the city and state-wide elections. It was one of the first Pryorist assaults on a major US city and left many Republicans and Democrats scratching their heads. The following year, the process was repeated with greater success, with candidates in some municipalities and county districts being given a run for their money. Joel Blyth, a Democrat running for a seat in the California State Assembly, was forced to pump an additional $140,000 dollars into campaign advertisements when it looked as though the non-candidate might actually win his district through write-in ballots. Other candidates took similar precautions. One candidate even addressed the Pryorist threat head on in a television ad, a tactic that seemed to give an odd legitimacy to the Pryorist platform and signal the growing sense of alarm evident among both parties in California.

I ask Jones if he is a fan of Richard Pryor. “Don’t know his material,” is all he says. As Jones elaborates though, it is clear that he sees Pryorism as a troubling symptom of a larger problem afflicting American political life: a lack of faith in the political establishment. In an age of partisan “witch hunts,” deep factional cleavages that spill over into the mainstream media and abysmal congressional approval ratings, the threat posed by Pryorism is not negligible. Recent polls have registered a steadily growing dissatisfaction with government in the country stemming from a variety of issues ranging from the forced government shutdown of 2013 to the ongoing revelations of NSA data collection, just to name a few. In a two-party system, voters often complain that there is little actual choice or any genuine means of engaging government in the issues about which they care. Large national campaigns require inordinate amounts of money to finance, shuffling small civic-minded voters with their single-donator campaign contributions to the wayside in favor of cash-rich lobbies and super packs. As a recent study conducted by United Press International concluded, the general consensus is that “US government represents the rich and powerful, not the average citizen.” This view has become especially strong among so-called “millennials” who show a marked penchant for depoliticized settings and remain skeptical of their parents’ “traditional” political allegiances. It is not surprising, therefore, that young voters and college students have become a hotbed of Pryorist support in the past two tears.

A day after speaking with Barnard Jones, I made a visit to UCLA’s campus where, just east of Pauley Pavilion, I spotted a group of coeds handing out leaflets to pedestrians and students bustling about on their way to lecture halls. They resembled the normal variety of college-aged activists, sporting tee-shirts with ironic catchphrases, cargo shorts and worn Birkenstocks. In recent months, the group has gained a fair amount of attention, calling themselves “Booty Stars.” When I ask one of them what the name means, she strikes a relaxed-pose, waves a hand in the air in mock irritation and replies “I ain’t no movie star, man; I’m a booty star,” repeating a famous Richard Pryor quote. Over the past six months, the Booty Stars have received a fair amount of attention on campus and in the Los Angeles press. They comprise a small but dedicated group of young Pryorist activists, primarily poli-sci and liberal arts majors, who work with the university’s student government council and other student organization committees to educate UCLA’s young voters. Most days, they can be found on campus chatting convivially with other students about politics and pop culture, doling out flyers and, of course, staging ad hoc competitions for the best Richard Pryor imitation.

“It’s kind of validating to see how this has grown,” says Seth Mendez, a chief Booty Star organizer who has been with the group since its inception in 2012. “We started with a handful of students who wanted to make a change and I think we are doing this.” In a period of such political cynicism, his optimism is not only welcoming; it is contagious. Booty Star founder Josh Reiner who graduated from UCLA last year with a degree in public policy has undertaken what he calls a “proselytizing” campaign. Since leaving Los Angeles, he has traveled across the country to speak at college campuses and assist student groups with organizing Booty Star chapters. To date, he has made appearances at 38 campuses extending from the University of Washington and Arizona State to NYU and Tufts University on the East Coast. There currently exist 23 Booty Star chapters in the US that are actively working in conjunction with sundry other affiliate organizations and groups in their local areas. Given these interconnected nuclei of student political engagement spanning the country, Pryorism is unquestionably a youth phenomenon with a mounting presence at student rallies and campus events down to fraternity parties and weekly meet-ups at local comedy clubs.

In January, I spoke with Josh Reiner over the phone as he prepared to give a scheduled talk at Loyal University in New Orleans. He told me that the Orleans Parish authorities were attempting to prevent the rally from taking place. A line of police officers were at that moment massing about Roussell Hall threatening to block students from entering. He only had a few minutes to talk. I decided to ask him about the “proselytizing” initiative that had recently become the focus of his professional activities. Did he consider himself the Saint Paul of the Pryorists? There was a pause over the line and then a chuckle. Reiner insisted that his comment did not have any religious connotations. “You know why people use crucifixes against vampires, don’t you?” he asks. “Why?” I play along. “Because vampires are allergic to bullshit,” he says, delivering the punchline effortlessly through a peal of laughter.

Another Richard Pryorism. But it is exactly these types of comic ripostes, culled from the standup and movies of the movement’s eponym, that continue to draw students and young activists to organizations like the Booty Stars and leave political elder statesmen beguiled by the movement’s success. In these parodies and near-burlesque calls to action there is an evident truism that hints at the dire state of cynicism and disillusion taking root in national political life. Millennials are not seeking the perfect candidate for political office; they are seeking an anti-candidate.

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Back in Detroit, Marty Feinstein and Randal Pastor are having lunch at the Polish Yacht Club. As I enter and scan the interior Marty looks up and makes a slight motion with his hand. “Welcome to my office,” the gesture reads. It is a mild day in mid-June and the afternoon lunch crowd is in full swing. I join the two men, momentarily taking in the murmurous chatter, clanking glasses and sound of metal utensils scraping against plates that permeates the restaurant.

Randal—“call me Randy”—Pastor is an advertising consultant who works for a firm based in Minneapolis. In his spare time he offers his services pro bono to citizens’ political organizations, assisting with campaign strategizing and media coverage. At the moment, the organization Minnesota for a Non-Aligned Candidate (MNAC), the state wing of the Pryorist camp, is one of his chief clients. Last year, Pastor attended a fundraiser organized by Feinstein in the Detroit area. Ever since, the two have been coordinating efforts to form a regional affiliation tentatively entitled the Mid-Western Advocacy Alliance comprised of groups like Feinstein’s Detroit-centered Action Politic and the MNAC, among others. Their objective is to make a statement in the 2020 elections through a combination of grass roots organizing tactics and a strong social media presence. Thus far, their efforts have met with mixed success.

Traveling between Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit and Madison this past year, Pastor has attempted to gauge Mid-Western political opinion (or “tap into the mood” as he likes to phrase it), and what he has learned is nothing short of perplexing. Save for Ohio, the Northern Mid-West has more-or-less been a blue region over the past two decades. Yet, as Pastor is quick to clarify, the area is currently undergoing what he refers to as a “political realignment,” one that is not necessarily perceptible on the surface. “Political analysts look at color,” he tells me as we exit the Mercury Burger Bar where Pastor has stopped to pick up a strawberry milkshake. “They ask whether the state went blue or red. But this question is really an inaccurate one at the moment because it is based only on the two party system, which is an either/or model.” Dissatisfaction with both parties—a fact highlighted in Detroit’s recent municipal bankruptcy scandal—has reached an all-time high in the region, but it has hardly translated into political apathy. Voters have expressed support for non-aligned candidates in public opinion polls and, as Pastor notes, “this doesn’t fit the traditional political map or model.” By his calculation, the area is ripe for a Pryorist takeover.

Whether or not Richard Pryor manages to get on the ballot is a matter of time, organization and direct involvement with constituencies, Pastor calculates. “We’re up against party machines,” he states candidly. “I mean candidates who can tap into funding resources and support networks that are just not available to us.” At present, rallies and fundraisers provide the principal means of combatting these entrenched party machines, and this is precisely why they are so vital to the movement in the Northern Mid-West. They not only win over voters; they also generate the financial resources essential to American political participation. As Feinstein likes to quip, “We’re a single-donor super pack.”

Yet if winning over voters across party lines is the primary goal of the Pryorists in the region, the question naturally arises: “What does Richard Pryor have to offer his constituents?” When I put this question to Pastor he pauses and sucks deliberately on the straw protruding from his milkshake. “Nothing and everything,” he responds, and we leave it at that.

Can a candidate offer nothing and everything to voters and expect to win? A cynic might argue that this is exactly what politicians have been doing for time immemorial. Since the dawn of modern politics, nothing and everything has been the guiding practice and rhetoric of democracy. However, Pryorism has put a spin on this age old routine. The “nothing” it has to offer is a candidate who is not a candidate, an empty seat that is symbolic of democratic choice and the voice of the people. The “everything” it promises is the very realization that the people are not bound to the trappings of a political elitism which has increasingly been pegged as out of touch and unresponsive to popular opinion. It proposes a radical re-conquest of politics by the public, feeding on the growing consensus that the political machine as such no longer workers. In an age of what might be characterized political malaise, the Pryorists are hoping to reanimate a healthy civic society that is not premised on an “either/or,” “best-of-two-evils” mentality.

“Politics is a circus,” one of the Booty Stars told me during my visit to UCLA. “It definitely has its clowns, but they’re not funny clowns. It lacks hilarity.” Running an African-American, crack-addicted standup comedian for a US senatorial seat? Now that’s funny. That’s hilarity. That’s politics without a key.

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