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Getting the Shmootz on Yiddish

In his new book Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, Michael Wex explores the history and culture of Yiddish: its complaints, curses and codes.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on October 12, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 12, 2005: interview with Michael Wex; Obituary for Richard Pryor.


DATE December 12, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author Michael Wex on his new book, "Born to Kvetch"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If you like a bagel with a schmear but don't care bupkis for wearing a tight
schmatte that could press on your kishkas and make you look like a schlemihl,
well then you already know some yiddish and you're about to learn some more
from Michael Wex, the author of "Born to Kvetch." Wex is a teacher and
translator who also does a one-man show called "Sex in Yiddish." He's
translated Irving Berlin songs and "The Threepenny Opera" into Yiddish. He
lives in Toronto.

Kvetch means complain, but for a more complete definition, listen to this joke
that Wex tells in his book, "Born to Kvetch."

Mr. MICHAEL WEX ("Born to Kvetch"): You know, it's a very old joke but it is
the classic definition. A man gets onto a train. He's going, say, from, you
know, New York to Philadelphia. Opposite him is sitting an older, Jewish man
who gets into his chair, sits back down and as soon as the train has pulled
out of the station, leans back into his chair, looks up at the ceiling and
says, `Oy, am I thirsty.' Ten second pass and he says it again, `Oy, am I
thirsty.' By the time he gets to the third, `Oy, am I thirsty,' the person
sitting opposite him knows that there's no hope. He's stuck with this unless
he gets up and actually does something about it.

So he makes his way down to the end of the train where they have the little
thing of water with the conical paper cups and he pulls down a conical paper
cup, he fills it up with water, turns around, starts to walk back down the
corridor of the moving train, stops and thinks for a second. Goes back at the
second conical paper cup of water. So now he's walking down the middle of the
moving train, balancing two of these cone-shaped cups, trying desperately not
to spill anything on himself or on the innocent passengers that are sitting
along the way. This man with the cups, he hands one to the old man who looks
up at him with eyes full of gratitude, swallows it, has a big grin of
gratitude on his face but before he can say or so anything, the other man
hands him the other cup and says, `Here, drink this one, too.' Thirty seconds
later the old man pushes himself back in the chair, looks up at the ceiling
again and say, `Oy, was I thirsty.'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. WEX: And this, of course, is the essence of kvetch. The Yiddish kvetch
has overcome the satisfaction barrier. Among other peoples, I think, if
somebody has a complaint, they want a glass of water, you give it to them,
they drink it and they're happy. Only the Yiddish-speaking Jewish people have
learned how to complain their way through satisfaction as well.

GROSS: What is the origin of the word `kvetch'? What does it literally mean?

Mr. WEX: Well, literally if you were to look in a Yiddish-English
dictionary, if you looked up `kvetch' in the verb form, it would say, `to
press, to squeeze, to urge.' So if you make orange juice in Yiddish, you
kvetch the orange in order to get the juice out of it. If you shrug your
shoulders, you kvetch ...(unintelligible), you kvetch, you squeeze with your
shoulders. But in the meaning of complaint, it comes from the one further
meaning of kvetch that you don't always see in the dictionaries. This is the
reflexive. If you kvetch yourself, it means you're squeezing or pressing in
upon yourself because you neglected, shall we say, to eat your prunes this
morning and you're trying to do something that should normally come a lot more

The connection here is between the tone of voice. The person who's kvetching,
has exactly the tone of voice of someone who is striving to eliminate what
shouldn't be there.

GROSS: Now a word that you used a lot in the joke that you tell is `oy.' `Oy,
am I thirsty.' Why is oy such a commonly used Yiddish word and what does
it--you know, how is it used in Yiddish? What does it mean?

Mr. WEX: Oy basically means oy.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WEX: It's like one of those Louis Armstrong words. That if you've got
to ask you're fortunate enough that you'll never know. Oy is basically an
exclamation of shock, dismay, discomfort, disapproval, displeasure or any of
the other normal Yiddish emotions, all of which have the English prefix `dis'
attached to them. It actually is one of the oldest words in the language. It
comes from the Bible. It's an ancient Hebrew word that's still used, of
course, in modern Hebrew as well. And is this kind of expression of just
overwhelming physical or emotional pain. It's, of course, been weakened, I
guess, a bit by overuse to be at the beginning of almost any sentence in a
normal Yiddish conversation. But the basic meaning is like, `Oh, hell,' `Oh,
my God,' something like that.

GROSS: And in its full use, it could be `Oy vay iz mir.'

Mr. WEX: Yeah. Oy vay iz mir, this is--vay iz mir is literally `woe is me.'
So what you get here, you get Yiddish in a nutshell where you have a Hebraic
version of a particular phenomenon or emotion followed immediately by a
Germanic version of exactly the same thing. So vay iz mir is almost as it
were the translation of oy, which is interesting because the whole Jewish
school system for a good millennium ran on the basis of translating Hebrew
text outloud into Yiddish. So any kid confronted with the word `oy' in the
Bible and asked by the teacher to stand up and say what oy means, would stand
up and say, `Oy vay iz mir.' And this just became codified as a way of
expressing, you know, horrible disbelief or discomfort or whatever.

GROSS: Do you think it's any coincidence that there's so much kvetching and
oying in Yiddish?

Mr. WEX: Oh, no coincidence at all. Again, Yiddish is simply taking
something that is present in Jewish life long before language developed and
kind of run with it. If you look in the Bible, from the time of the exodus
from Egypt in the Book of Exodus, the entire plot of the Bible is the children
of Israel kvetch. God does them a favor, they kvetch. Sometimes they
misbehave and get punished, then they kvetch. Then God does them a favor and
they kvetch some more.

If you look in a standard English translation of the Bible, you'll see it
always says, `And the children of Israel murmured.' Murmured is the fancy,
17th century word for kvetch. So there's a famous passage in the Book of
Exodus where it's just as the Red Sea is about to split. So these people have
already witnessed 10 horrible plagues that have really caused the Egyptians a
great deal of suffering and loss of life. Moses has told them everything's
cool. God's with us. He's taking us out. They're standing at the lip of the
Red Sea. Moses is up in front, Pharaoh, as portrayed by Yul Brynner is coming
up behind. The children of Israel look up at Charlton Heston and they don't
pray, they don't say `Thank you,' they say, `What? There weren't enough
enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out into the desert to die.'

This already--this is at the greatest biblical miracle ever. You know, the
whole religion defines itself at this one moment. And what's going on at this
one moment? Every adherent of that religion, with the exception of Moses
himself, is kvetching and they haven't stopped since.

GROSS: How much do you think that the amount of kvetching that happens in
Yiddish is connected to, you know, all the real troubles that Jewish people
have experienced, the history of--through most of the history of Judaism?

Mr. WEX: Oh, I think there...

GROSS: The persecution and the exile, yeah. Mm-hmm, ...(unintelligible).

Mr. WEX: Oh, yeah. I think they're pretty closely connected.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WEX: Yeah. Partly this was just the way of powerless people, people who
really had very little control over their own destiny and not at lot at stake
quite often, over the conditions of their own lives. You know, they were only
allowed to live in certain areas, in some places they had to be shut back up
at night. This was a way of blowing off steam in situations where there was
nothing else. You know, they had nowhere else they could go to. You know,
the big thing about exile, which is kind of the defining idea of the Jewish
religion since the destruction of the second temple, is, of course, there is
no where else to go. If things are bad here, there's no there for you to go
back to. And I think people in that situation developed this kind of verbal
home where the language and the complaining and everything else served almost
as a stand-in or a substitute for a place that they could go to. You know,
rather than go to a physical place, they could only go to this mental, verbal
place and that's sort of where they went for whatever R&R they could manage to

GROSS: OK. Another Yiddish word, `kineahora.' What does that mean and how is
it used?

Mr. WEX: It means literally no evil eye and the Jewish belief an evil eye is
an evil spirits and bad luck is very, very strong. So the idea of your saying
anything nice without somehow qualifying it is very, very frightening. Like
if I were to say, `What a beautiful child you have,' in Yiddish and not
qualify it with something like `kineahora, no evil eye,' this would be
virtually a curse on the kid. It would be like wishing that it should get
ugly or something horrible should happen to it. Because these demons are
always there lurking, waiting for a kind of opening where they could come in
and mess things up.

When you step on the glass at the end of a Jewish wedding, which is a custom I
think most people are familiar with, even if only from television or movies,
they'll tell you now that the reason for this is to mourn the destruction of
Jerusalem. But if you look back in the really old commentaries, there's a
passage in the Talmud that describes a rabbi going to a wedding and seeing
that the other rabbis were having too good a time, and that's actually what it
says. It says, `They were enjoying themselves more than they should have
been, so he took an expensive glass goblet and smashed it in order to dampen
their good spirits.'

The commentaries say this is the origin of the custom of breaking the glass at
a wedding. That is, you give the evil spirits, the evil eye, whatever you
want to call it, you give them their due by making sure that something has
already gone wrong. So they can then say, `A-hah, our work here is over and
we can go on to the wedding next door and wreck that and leave you in peace.'

GROSS: So you say in your book that, you know, part of the reason for the
kineahora is that there's this fear that liking something is the first step to
losing it and that if they know that you love something, they will try to take
it. Is `they' just the demons, the dybbuks, or is `they' also the non-Jewish
people who you are afraid of because they have the power to oppress you and
put you in ghettos and things like that.

Mr. WEX: Oh, yeah. It's definitely that they, too. And it's also even
other jealous Jewish people.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEX: It's virtually anybody outside of that tiny nuclear family of
yours. There is this...

GROSS: And maybe the nuclear family, too. Probably, right?

Mr. WEX: Well, especially them. But...

GROSS: Can't really talk about Yiddish without getting into some of its more
colorful curses. One of the curses in Yiddish and I'll give the English
version that you have in your book is, `You should swell up and suffer from
varicose veins.' That's I think an interesting one.

Mr. WEX: Ah, (Yiddish spoken). And you can even go farther and say,
(Yiddish spoken). `You should swell up with varicosity, like a mountain.'
Again, the word for varicose veins here is almost never used in Yiddish
outside of this curse and medical treatment. And it's interesting, a lot of
the Yiddish curses can basically be looked at as subdivisions of medicine.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. WEX: I think it's no accident that you--and I think a lot of people went
to med school just to find out what their mothers had been yelling at them all
these years.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Wex, the author of "Born to Kvetch."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Wex. He's the author
of the new book, "Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its

You describe Yiddish as the original jive, a way to talk without others
understanding what you're saying. Would you elaborate on that?

Mr. WEX: Yeah. Much of Yiddish arose--of course, you know I think most
people know that most of the Yiddish vocabulary comes from some form or other
of German and yet Yiddish and German are two languages that have almost
nothing in common despite the fact that they share about 80 percent of their
vocabulary. And I think to a large degree, Yiddish arose as a kind of German
in which you could be living the Middle Ages, a time when religion was the
defining force of Western European life, you could live then and be able to
deny the divinity of Jesus without getting yourself killed any more often than
might have been strictly necessary given the circumstances. So there are all
these Yiddish phrases, all these Yiddish terms that are--many of them are
very, very common, still in day-to-day use that many people don't realize
reflect negatively on the culture around them.

So if I can give an example, there's a way of describing something as utter
nonsense or total BS in Yiddish. You say it's (Yiddish spoken), which means,
`It didn't climb up and it didn't fly.' If you ask virtually any older Jewish
person from Europe, `What didn't climb up and where it didn't fly?' They'll
tell you it was Jesus who did not ascend to the cross and did not subsequently
fly off into heaven.

This is a very, very common and slightly vulgar day-to-day term for, you know,
yelling at somebody. An intelligent German speaker could get all the words
easily because they all exist in one form or another in German and probably
from context be able to work out that this means, you know, `Don't feed me any
of that garbage. Don't tell me any stupid stories.' But it's very unlikely
that they would be able to see the connection between this phrase and the
denial of the Christian religion. And Yiddish is just full of this kind of
stuff, from top to bottom.

GROSS: What's another example?

Mr. WEX: Another example, you--there's a similar phrase that also means
something--you know, an argument that doesn't hold water, (Yiddish spoken),
`to be a substantial or have a substantiality like that of the God of the
gentiles.' Where basically what's going on here, the word that's used,
`substance' or `substantiality,' is a clear dig at the notion, or the
doctrine, I guess, of transubstantiation, which is, of course, pretty much the
defining doctrine of Catholic Christianity and for most of the history of
Yiddish, it was Catholic Christians, whether they were Orthodox or Roman
Catholics, amongst whom Yiddish speakers were living. So that there was a
great deal of this.

GROSS: You say that Yiddish really flourished from the time of the Crusades
to the time of the Holocaust. Why do those two catastrophes virtually define
the beginning and end of the language?

Mr. WEX: I think in this case, it's basically on the one side, an unhappy
accident that Yiddish was--Yiddish and German-Jewish culture were just really
beginning to come into their own at the time of the first Crusade at the end
of the 11th century. And all of a sudden the rug was just pulled out from
under all their cultural assumptions. They knew they were in exile, but they
had always been in exile. They knew that they might have to move one day, but
they hadn't been there that long anyway. This was the first mass murder of
Jewish people for no other reason than that they happened to be Jewish. And
it had a profound effect, not just on Yiddish but on general European Jewish
culture, of particularly the religious culture, and a lot of the negativity
that I was just talking about originates from feelings of hostility and gender
by this kind of treatment.

Of course, at the other end of things, with the Holocaust that took place in
the 20th century, you have simply the utter elimination of most of the people
who spoke the language. And, you know, subsequently they came to North
America, they went to Israel, some of them did remain in Europe, but all of
them were in circumstances now where the relationship of the Jewish people and
the larger culture around it was very, very different than it had been even in
1939. And Yiddish simply began to lose momentum for any one of a number of
reasons. You know, part of which is, of course, the establishment of the
state of Israel and the sort of new assumption that modern Hebrew would become
the international Jewish lingua franca.

GROSS: And that hasn't really worked, has it, I mean, outside of Israel?

Mr. WEX: No, it hasn't. You certainly don't find too many groups of Jewish
people who aren't Israelis getting together and speaking to each other in
Hebrew as a matter of course. You can still find people who do that with
Yiddish, though. And there's growing numbers, I guess.

GROSS: Michael Wex is the author of "Born to Kvetch." We'll talk more in the
second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Yiddish)


GROSS: Coming up, we continue our interview about Yiddish with Michael Wex
and we remember Richard Pryor and listen back to an interview that we recorded
in 1995.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Wex, the author
of the new book "Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its

You credit Lenny Bruce with bringing a lot of Yiddish words into the American
English mainstream. What are some examples of words that you think Lenny
Bruce helped popularize?

Mr. WEX: These are all--they all tend to mean the same thing--schmuck, putz,
schlong, schwanz. These are all vulgarisms for the male member. I think he
used farshtaist, some things like that a bit, too. But primarily--oh, and
toches. He was very big--I can't forget toches, the buttocks. He was very
big on stuff like that for the simple reason that, of course, the people in
Iowa, from Standards and Practices in 1956, had absolutely no idea what these
words meant and didn't realize how vulgar they actually are in an Yiddish
rather than an English context.

You know, I think today a lot of people don't even realize that words like
schmuck and putz refer to a specific part of the anatomy, and are not words
you would ever use, say, in front of your parents if you were speaking
Yiddish. They're really, you know, vulgar. They're dirty in Yiddish. Lenny
put a lot of that stuff into circulation. I think The Three Stooges helped,
as well; words like mishegoss, which frequently fly around in Stooges things,
also tended to penetrate from there. Early MAD Magazine had a lot of Yiddish.
You know, everything in old MAD Magazines was farshlugginer. `I want that
farshlugginer door closed,' or whatever. So there was a great deal there,

GROSS: And what does farshlugginer mean?

Mr. WEX: Loosely, `damned,' you know? `Close the damn door.' `Close the
farshlugginer door.' Its literal meaning is different but that's the way it
would be used idiomatically in Yiddish, too.

GROSS: But that is considered a relatively clean term. I mean, that's

Mr. WEX: Oh, yeah, that's...

GROSS: ...parents would use that term all the time talking to their kids.

Mr. WEX: Oh, oh, absolutely, absolutely. And, I mean, for `shlugginer,' it
has a number of meanings. There's an old Louie Prima song where he actually
says, `I'm farshlugginer nutty in the noggin.' You know, `I've gone wild over
you,' basically.

GROSS: Do you think, like, words like schmuck and putz have the same meaning
in English now as they do in traditional Yiddish?

Mr. WEX: Yeah, because, besides their anatomical meanings, they are used by
extension to mean somebody that you would call, I guess, a jerk, in normal
English. The big difference in Yiddish is anybody can be a schmuck. You
could say, `Oh, there I was, poor schmuck, standing out in the rain without my
wallet.' You could never describe yourself as a putz, though. A putz is
always somebody else. A putz is vicious; a schmuck is just sort of a goof.
So, you know, a driver who cuts you off because he really doesn't see you is a
schmuck. A driver who cuts you off out of viciousness is a putz.

GROSS: I didn't know that. I thought a putz was more like a nebbish.

Mr. WEX: No, that's more of the schmuck. We could debate this endlessly,
couldn't we? No, a putz in Yiddish...


Mr. WEX: A putz is sort of the schmuck rampant.

GROSS: So what do you think it means, in terms of the history of Yiddish,
though, the language a whole culture speaks in a regular way has virtually
died out, that words stay very much alive?

Mr. WEX: Oh, yeah, very much so. I think, you know, all of these words, you
look at them, they convey something that the basic English translation just
doesn't have in it. You know, there's an emotional coloring, if you want to
call it that, that you just don't get from talking about, you know, somebody
being a glutton, for instance, in English. It's not the same as calling them
a chazzer or a fresser. And...

GROSS: I know if somebody's wearing something that isn't very cool to call it
a schmatte.

Mr. WEX: Yeah, well, again, a schmatte or schlock, there's a good one...

GROSS: Schlock? Yeah, uh-huh.

Mr. WEX: ...which originally refers to what you used to use to make the
linings of, you know, say a jacket with.


Mr. WEX: So it was the material that wasn't good enough to be seen, you

GROSS: I didn't know that.

Mr. WEX: ...second- or third-rate goods become schlock, which, again, I think
everybody uses in certain...

GROSS: And schmatte? Where did schmatte come from?

Mr. WEX: Schmatte originally is a Slavic word. It means a rag.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WEX: So, you know, you're in the schmatte business, the rag trade, as it
were. And, again, you can call a newspaper that you don't like as a schmatte
also, the same way you would call it a rag in English. So, yeah, a lot of
these things have come in because they have--because people in Yiddish tend to
scream at each other a lot, Yiddish words tend to have this very high
emotional baggage that they bring with them. And, again, because so much of
Yiddish life was devoted to dealing with frustration in a way that, I guess,
anticipated a lot of, you know, modern North American life, there's this open
space for it to enter in and fill up those gaps that, you know, English, which
was once a very polite language, just doesn't seem to have the words to fill.

GROSS: Michael Wex, how did you learn Yiddish?

Mr. WEX: Actually, I have the rare distinction of having grown up speaking
it, with my parents, who were from Europe, although I should stress they
actually came before World War II. I grew up in a fairly small town in
southern Alberta, in western Canada, called Lethbridge, and later moved from
there to Calgary, which is a somewhat bigger town in the same province and,
eventually, ended up in Toronto. But there was a Jewish community in
Lethbridge, and because of the immigration patterns in Canada, even the
post-war--or the prewar immigrants tended to be first generation people who
had come from Europe, generally, as small children or teen-agers, but who were
all equally comfortable in Yiddish and English.

GROSS: You know, we've talked about, you know, like curses and complaints in
the Yiddish language and how Yiddish is so caught up in curses and complaints.
Let's end with some nice terms of endearment from Yiddish. What are some of
your favorites and what did your parents call you? What terms of endearment
did they use for you when you were a child? Or none? Am I hearing a laugh?

Mr. WEX: No, I think we're back to the curses. Yeah, we're back to the
curses there, which a lot of that was to avoid these evil eyes. It was easier
to call you an idiot when you knew that idiot meant the opposite, because then
you didn't have to start spitting and kineahoraing all over the place.

GROSS: But as a kid, did you understand that if they called you an idiot?

Mr. WEX: If I were in therapy, I'd say ask my therapist. I really don't
know. It was--that's how you spoke. I mean, there are lots of endearments,
really, and--ketsele, ketsinu, all these things that, literally, mean `little
pussycat' are very big. Again, the Gershwin song, "I've Got a Crush on You,
Sweetie Pie" in Yiddish comes out as "Yevedika Copola Feddera, Katsinu," "I'm
a Chicken That you Wave Around Your Head Three Times, My Little Pussycat."
And, I mean, I think that's Yiddish because it's perfectly idiomatic.

GROSS: What a lovely thing to say.

Mr. WEX: Isn't it? Isn't it, though? It's, again, only in Yiddish can you
reduce the plot of "Wuthering Heights" to something to do with poultry.

GROSS: Now why a chicken that you wave around three times? What's the
significance of that?

Mr. WEX: It's a ritual that some people still do just before Yom Kippur.
It's called kapparahs or atonements in which you take a rooster or a hen,
depending on whether you're a man or a woman, you wave it around your head
three times, and you say, `This is my substitute, this is my stand-in, that
this is my atonement. Let the chicken die and I should live.' And then you
take the chicken off to be slaughtered. And because it's such an odd ritual,
it's spawned all kinds of Yiddish idioms, one of which means to get a crush on
somebody. The idea is you're so besotted with them that you'd let them pick
you up by the legs, wave you around the head three times, have you killed and
then distributed to the poor.

GROSS: Michael Wex, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WEX: Oh, well, thank you. It's great to be here.

GROSS: Michael Wex is the author of "Born to Kvetch."

Coming up, we remember Richard Pryor. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Richard Pryor discusses dealing with MS

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Richard Pryor made us laugh while speaking about race and class in ways that
performers had never talked about it. He said that he started his comedy
career by imitating Bill Cosby, but he knew his days of pretending to be as
slick and colorless as Cosby were numbered. There was a world of junkies and
winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, friends and family screaming inside his
head trying to be heard. As he developed those voices and his own, as well as
his thoughts about being black in America, he became one of the most
influential performers in the history of comedy. His performing was virtually
ended by multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1986. It was a heart
attack that took his life on Saturday. He was 65. Here's an excerpt of one
of his most famous performances, "Live on Sunset Strip," recorded in 1981.
He's talking about a time early in his career when he worked at a club run by
the Mafia.

(Soundbite of "Live on Sunset Strip")

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): I worked with a lady named Satin Doll, a
black--man, I think Duke Ellington had written a tune about her. She was
beautiful, man. She was 60 then. No, but she was fine. Lean on her and
(censored) on her, man. She was crying. I said, `What's the matter?' She
said, `They're not going to pay us.' I said, `Not going to pay who?' Those
(censored) paying me?' And I had a blank pistol. Now dig how ignorant I was.
I was 19, man; I didn't know. I had a blank cap pistol. I bust in the
office, `You mother (censored), get out the money,' doing my best black
(censored) dude 'cause that usually scare the average white mother (censored),
you know.

You know how it is, when you do something that you can feel there's something
wrong, and you got the gun. And you're saying, `There's something wrong.
There's some look missing in this mother (censored) face.' You know? And I'm
sure that them men are still there today laughing, 'cause he started laughing.
He just looked and went, `Ha, ha, ha, this (censored) kid. Hey, come here,
come here. Hey, wait a minute. Come here, come here, come here. Hey, Tony!
Wait a minute. Come here, do it again, Richard. Put the gun up here. Hey,
Tony! Stick up! Ha, ha, ha! Come here, you (censored) ...(unintelligible).'
I'm, like, `Ah!' `Look at the pair of goosies on him. Oh, you (censored)
stick up. Ha, Ha, ha, ha. Come here. Hey, Tony, was you scared? Ha, ha,
ha. Come here. Hey, you want something to eat?'

GROSS: I spoke with Richard Pryor in 1995 after the symptoms of MS had
changed his life. He told me that a physical therapist named Marie worked
with him at home. I asked what his therapy was like.

Mr. PRYOR: Oh, man, some days it's, like, I don't feel good, you know, and so
I don't want to do it. But she says, `But you have to do it.' So three times
a week, that's what I put up with.

GROSS: Was it, like, moving arms and legs and things like that?

Mr. PRYOR: Man, there was a time I couldn't move any of them. I was in bed
like that for a while; I couldn't move.

GROSS: What did you do to pass the time while you were in bed and couldn't

Mr. PRYOR: Good question. I'm trying to think, `What did I do?' Oh, I
remember. I smoked some base. No, I did.

GROSS: Did you really, or are you...

Mr. PRYOR: No, I'm serious. And my ex-wife, Flynn, came to visit me, and she
went through my stuff and she found it. And she said, `What is this?' I had
a rock, you know, and she said, `What's this?' And I didn't tell her 'cause I
was scared. And she said, `Is this dope?' I said, `Nah.' I said, `It just
looks like it but that's not really.' And she threw it out.

GROSS: So have you stopped?

Mr. PRYOR: Yes.

GROSS: Was there a turning point that got you to stop?

Mr. PRYOR: Yes.

GROSS: What was...

Mr. PRYOR: It's called being broke.

GROSS: Now let me ask you an odd question, I mean, about free basing. It's
bad for your health, right? But, I mean, your health isn't good anyway so
would it being bad for your health not be likely to inspire you to stop? Do
you know what I'm saying?

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah. You're making sense is what you're saying. And if I was
that type of person that made sense, I wouldn't be where I am 'cause I never
made no sense. You know, it's like life to me was, like, you're not supposed
to make sense 'cause, hey, it's--I don't care how you slice it, you ain't
getting out alive. So enjoy it as much as you can.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, I mean, some of the things you did were really
self-destructive, the free basing, the--setting yourself on fire...

Mr. PRYOR: That was a definite. I agree...

GROSS: That was self-destructive, yeah.

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: So, but, you know, and it's the kind of behavior that you're warned is
going, you know, to really kill you, and you survived all of that. And now
you have a disease, MS, that has absolutely nothing, as far as I know, to deal
with, you know, quote, "bad behavior." Do you know what I'm saying? So it
just seems like such an irony that all of the things people warned you would
really hurt you...

Mr. PRYOR: It was the MS.

GROSS: Yeah, it had nothing to do with you getting MS.

Mr. PRYOR: No. It's just like God say, `Oh, really? OK, here, boom.' He
said, `Try that on.'

GROSS: Well, do you think it's God punishing you for things you've done? Is
that what you're saying?

Mr. PRYOR: No.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. PRYOR: God don't work like that.

GROSS: Yeah, so, I mean, you could have lived this absolutely exemplary life
and still gotten MS.

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PRYOR: It's a blessing, though.

GROSS: Getting MS?

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: How so?

Mr. PRYOR: Because it pushes me forward. I'm going through the therapy, and
I'm understanding some things about life I never understood.

GROSS: Anything you'd care to talk about or is that too personal to discuss?

Mr. PRYOR: There's nothing so personal as when you can't walk the way you
want to and then you have to depend on others to help you. And I go, `Oh, my
God.' And that's what it is. It's depending on people and you have to learn
to trust them, which is very hard for me, very hard. But here I am.

GROSS: Are the people who are taking care of you, are they professionals,
family, both?

Mr. PRYOR: They're professionals. The lady that comes three times a week,
Marie, she's a definite professional, but she's a very nice lady. I call her
the little Nazi.

GROSS: She works you hard, huh?

Mr. PRYOR: Oh, yes.

GROSS: You know, I think it's--when you're the kind of person who doesn't
like to be helped by other people...

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS:'s nice to have professionals.

Mr. PRYOR: Yes.

GROSS: It's different, isn't it, than having to rely on, you know...

Mr. PRYOR: Yes. Yes, abso...

GROSS: ...a friend or someone in the family...

Mr. PRYOR: Yes, 'cause that makes me sick to have a friend come over and go,
`Oo, look at him, and he's not moving so well.' You know, I don't need it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And professionals, they know how to deal with somebody who
has MS. They come in...

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...they help you and you pay them. So...

Mr. PRYOR: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: don't owe anybody a favor or anything.

Mr. PRYOR: There you go. That's true.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1995 interview with Richard Pryor. We'll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering Richard Pryor and listening back to a 1995 interview
recorded seven years after he was diagnosed with MS.

You are so important to so many people. I mean, so many people have, like,
looked up to you for so long. Do you feel that you have to try to handle your
illness now as like a role model? Do you know what I mean? Like, when you're
a public person like yourself and people are looking at you, do you feel like,
yeah, that you need to do it like a role model? Not that you've been a
traditional role model to anybody in the past.

Mr. PRYOR: That's right. God...

GROSS: Not that you've taught us to behave in socially accepted ways in the

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah. Hey, God gave me this and I can almost say this truthfully.
God gave me just a little bit of it, you know. He said, `Slow down for a
minute. Take a break. You know, take a break and look at things
differently.' So I do. Richard's not a bad person and this disease is just a
disease, and I have it. So that's what I deal with.

GROSS: So what gives you the most pleasure now? What do you enjoy doing the
most, or enjoy listening to the most?

Mr. PRYOR: I like listening to the Gypsy Kings and some Miles Davis, some
Marvin Gaye and sometimes Mozart.

GROSS: Do you ever listen to your own records or watch your own films?

Mr. PRYOR: No. But I have them. I have them.

GROSS: I know you keep a gun next to your bed?

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: What for?

Mr. PRYOR: Because the boogeyman might come in some night.

GROSS: Who are you expecting?

Mr. PRYOR: The boogeyman. I mean, come on, there's such terrible things
going on in the world. People are crazy. You know that place in--Where was
it?--in Oklahoma. That's crazy. That's different than anything I ever knew
about America. It's like not America, you know. They got--they're serious
about whatever craziness it is, and I don't want to be caught in no trap and
not be able to get off one shot.

GROSS: I mean, excuse me for asking this, but would you be able to even use
the gun if you had cause to?

Mr. PRYOR: No. I think the hard thing I could do is having to cock it,
'cause it's a 9mm. And the bolt is real hard for me. So they would--I'll
say, `Wait a minute, please. Just a minute!'

GROSS: Right. `Help me out here.'

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah. `I'll be with you in a minute,' you know.

GROSS: So, but, really, what's the point of keeping it then if you can't even
use it? Isn't it, like, more dangerous to you to have it there?

Mr. PRYOR: No. No danger. I did my best at the suicide. That's over with.
God gave me one chance and he said, `Well, you didn't make it, so now you've
got to do this.' So I'm here.

GROSS: I didn't think--I didn't mean to imply you were leaving it there for

Mr. PRYOR: Good.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. Thank you very, very much.

Mr. PRYOR: Thank you.

GROSS: Richard Pryor recorded in 1995. He died Saturday at the age of 65.
Here's another excerpt from his 1981 recording "Live on Sunset Strip." This
is about his trip to Africa.

(Soundbite of "Live on Sunset Strip")

Mr. PRYOR: So I went to the motherland. It was so beautiful, just seeing
black people in charge of everything. I'm talking about from the wino to the
president. It was black, blue-black, original black, the kind of black where
you go, `Black.' And it's great to walk down the street in Africa 'cause
every black person in Africa reminded me of somebody here. And they did, man.
I was watching, like, `Doesn't that mother (censored) look like Joe Frazier?'
I say, `(Censored) him.' Right? And he'd be the president of the bank and
(censored). `That mother is Joe Frazier. If Joe Frazier could see this
mother (censored), he wouldn't come out of retirement.' And you see winos
that I knew here, I see them in--they be diplomats and (censored) where you
go, `Look at the wino! Look at this mother (censored). That's what he's
supposed to be!'

And you go into the jungle, like in the country, man, I'm telling you, it's
dis--it's something, like to drive around and see all these animals in person,
'cause it ain't like at the zoo. They be bull (censored) at the zoo, right?
'Cause you get into the jungle for real, it's the real deal. You look at a
rabbit and some tell you don't (censored) with that rabbit 'cause a rabbit
have a different attitude. Like, they know you don't belong there, right?

You say, `Roll the window up, dear.' `I was just (censored).' `Roll the
(censored) window up. I ain't never seen no rabbit look at me like that.'
Right? 'Cause we go in the zoo, we all go to the zoo, (censored) with the
lions and (censored), right? 'Cause you see the lion can't get out and
(censored). And you say, `Hey, lion. Hey, mother (censored).' But when you
see a pride of lions, about 20 of them (censored) hanging out, they have a
different attitude. Like, the lion in the bush, I'm, like, `Yeah, get your
ass out of the car. Bring the camera, too, 'cause we going to eat all that

GROSS: Richard Pryor recorded in 1981.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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