The NYTimes has the best obit; Digby and Shakespeare's Sister have appreciations you should read.
NPR had a good piece on him this morning, including a mention of his trip to Africa recounted in the magnificent 1982 performance film "Live at the Sunset Strip," but they missed the crucial point: The Africa trip was a turning point--he describes it as the moment of realizing that airline employees ruin your luggage, no matter what race they are or what country you're in--that made him drop the word "nigger."
When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, "Richard, what do you see?" I said, I see all types of people." The voice said, "But do you see any niggers?" I said, "No." It said, "Do you know why? 'Cause there aren't any."What was most engaging about Pryor--most human, most admirable, most difficult for the rest of us to measure up to--was his ability to take you with him as he relentlessly examined his own failings, and let us watch the progress he tried to make as he slowly learned from them. And yet to do it with raucous humor.
Lord knows he was funny, though. My undergraduate days had a lot of those moments that are etched as landmarks now: Armstrong landing on the moon, my draft number getting called, some others I won't get into here--and the first time I heard "That Nigger's Crazy." It made me laugh hard; feel hip (probably hipper than I was; wouldn't surprise me); feel really, really white; and "get" things I didn't get before.
I've often thought about the fact that he nearly starred as Sheriff Bart in "Blazing Saddles," which he co-wrote. Cleavon Little was very good . . . but I can't help wondering what would have happened if that had been Pryor's first film co-starring with Gene Wilder. (I've always thought Mel Brooks directed Wilder better than did his later directors--in his later films, Wilder apparently believed that all lines were funnier if they were delivered in a hoarse shout. But that's another story.)
And, once you got away from some of his dumber films (his part in Superman III leaps quickly to mind), you can be reminded just how productively dangerous Pryor was. Even with the unprecendented five-second tape delay on a putatively "live" show, his appearance on the first season of "Saturday Night Live"--thirty years ago this week, in fact--left viewers feeling like they were watching people juggle hand grenades. The raw edge of the job interview sketch isn't completely apparent from the transcript--you have to see Pryor and Chase both seeming unsure just how far this was going to go, but taking the safety catch off and going for it. (SNL was a whole lot more dangerous in those days, too.)