Before illness struck, Richard Pryor was the fastest, the hippest, possibly the greatest of stand-up comedians. Clive Davis hails a new DVD
June 03, 2004
IT IS a chastening thought, but there must be many people under the age of, say, 40 who know Richard Pryor only from films as lightweight as Brewster’s Millions and Stir Crazy. (A few lucky ones may have caught him in the occasional TV showing of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar.) Surveying much of the comic’s screen work, you are reminded of the wry explanation that his spiritual heir, Eddie Murphy, once gave for appearing in a particularly inept but lucrative movie: there was a knock at the door and four men came in carrying a cheque.
Outspoken and hyperkinetic in his prime, Pryor, 63, has progressively been silenced by the onset of multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed nearly 20 years ago. He had already come close to death in 1980, when he suffered serious burns after setting himself on fire while “freebasing” cocaine.
His epic consumption of the drug since the Sixties is no trade secret (“I bought Peru,” he once confessed). Characteristically, he turned the accident into stand-up material. MS has proved a more unforgiving enemy.
There will, it seems, be no second act for Pryor. But there is a chance to become acquainted with his stream- of-consciousness, thanks to the belated reissue of his celebrated stand-up show, Richard Pryor: Live In Concert. Recorded in Long Beach, California, in 1979, the DVD captures him at his most irreverent and scatological, lampooning black and white sensibilities and, in one of the most memorable sections, recounting his experience of a near-fatal heart attack.
In his telling, Death arrives much like a vicious street robber, gripping the helpless victim by the chest and muttering threats in his ear. The account is so free of self-pity that it is impossible not to think of Bill Cosby’s oft-quoted observation that in Pryor’s act the line between comedy and tragedy is as thin as one could possibly paint it.
It is hard to believe that the eminently respectable Cosby used to be one of Pryor’s role models when he set out to conquer New York in the early Sixties. TV appearances followed, but by the end of the decade Pryor turned his back on what he called “white bread” humour.
In an episode that has become part of comic mythology, his frustrations came to a head in the middle of a routine in Las Vegas. After shouting “What the f*** am I doing here?” he disappeared into the wings. He settled in Berkeley, that
West Coast centre of counterculture. The Black Panther leader Huey Newton was a friend, and by the time Pryor emerged from his self- imposed exile he had a fresh persona, part street radical, part hustler.
He honed an obscenity- filled voice that spoke to a new generation. The title of his 1974 hit album was eloquence itself: That Nigger’s Crazy.
All the while he played games with racial taboos. Pryor had been born on the margins — the son of a prostitute, he spent part of his childhood in brothels run by his grandmother — and knew all about social pathologies. As the American cultural critic Richard Grenier pointed out at the height of the comic’s fame: “Richard Pryor, on stage, plays the very caricature of the irresponsible black man, the embodiment of almost every single stereotypical trait that traditionally consigned him to the bottom of the social order. But he transcends the character. We have had Stepin Fetchit and Butterfly McQueen playing seemingly bona-fide black idiots. We have had Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory ‘talking white’ to white audiences . . .But Richard Pryor for the first time has taken the ‘black’ character at its most regressive and made us laugh in a new way.”
That anarchic spirit found its way into Mel Brooks’s classic film parody Blazing Saddles, on which Pryor was credited as one of the screenwriters. Mainstream cinema success beckoned with Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, and by the early 1980s Pryor could lay claim to being the most in-demand comedian in Hollywood. Even before his illness took hold, however, his chaotic personal life was already beginning to undermine his talent, and it was not long before Pryor’s career entered its slow fade.
The new DVD also includes early performance footage, as well as extracts from his short-lived but cultish 1970s TV show. To many comedians, Pryor remains the greatest stand-up comedian ever.
How well has Live In Concert stood the test of time? Pretty well. If you saw the film on its original release — as I did — you will still be impressed by the acute mimicry. If Pryor’s free- ranging style no longer seems quite so original, it is partly because it has spawned so many imitators in the past quarter-century.
The endless profanity also seems less clever now that it has become the lingua franca of every tub-thumping rapper on the block. There is a faintly embarrassing moment, too, when Pryor asks for the houselights to be raised so that he can greet his guest of honour, his old friend Huey Newton. Since we now know that the Panther-in-chief was, in fact, a coke-addicted thug and extortionist — he later met his end in a drug-related shooting — Pryor no longer looks quite so cool and streetwise.
We are all older and wiser. Pryor’s status as a pioneer, though, is beyond argument.
Richard Pryor: Live In Concert is out now on Revolver
Copyright © 2004, Times Newspapers Ltd.