25 years on, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is still genius. He e-mails Stephen Armstrong
May 30, 2004
When I was growing up, Richard Pryorís Live in Concert video was like a samizdat newsletter ó passed from hand to hand on school playgrounds, like drugs or porno-graphy. We would watch it in gangs, commit whole sections of it to memory and recite it like Python bores. Three years ago, I met a black South African stand-up from the Cape townships who had had a similar experience. For him, of course, it was slightly different. The video was banned by the apartheid regime. Just for watching it, he could face prison.
Pryor was banned because he was the first. The first black comic to stand up and talk about race to a white audience. After a few years on the circuit in the early 1970s as a poor manís Bill Cosby, delivering corny material in Las Vegas clubs, he decided to stop. In the middle of his act. He paused after a joke ó paused three, four times too long ó then said, out loud, ďWhat the f*** am I doing here?Ē, and walked offstage. He came back with material almost too risky to get gigs. He talked about racism, about his personal life, his battles with drugs, his marriage collapse and the way white and black people saw each other. The stuff was so damn funny, however, that by the end of the decade, he was the highest-paid comic in history, with a string of movies to his name. Take Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock ó any black comic in Hollywood. Pryor was the first.
If his comedy is exceptional, so is his life. The son of a hooker and a pimp, he was raised in his grandmotherís Illinois brothel, watching ma turn tricks with the mayor. He was raped as a kid, beaten up in gang violence and expelled from school at 14. When he hit the big time, he hit the crack pipe, shooting his wifeís car when she tried to leave him, serving time in jail, dousing himself in cognac then torching himself in a suicide bid. In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Today, he is wheelchair-bound and, not to put too fine a point on it, facing death.
In a bid to claw back his reputation after a string of schmaltzy 1980s movies, Pryor and his wife, Jenny Lee (once an ex-wife, along with Pryorís four others), are rereleasing Live in Concert, a full-length gig recorded in Long Beach, California, in 1979. When you watch it today, every joke seems fresh and alive, every routine immediate and radical. Itís either a condemnation of contemporary comedy that 25-year-old material still seems way ahead of the pack, or a sign of Pryorís brilliance.
Probably both. I have shown the DVD to people who donít go to stand-up and who profess a lack of interest in comedy. Without exception, they have loved it.
ďLive in Concert was the first thing I saw on Channel 4,Ē says the stand-up comedian Ed Byrne. ďPryorís material was so personal ó his coke addiction, setting himself on fire, his women problems. No big-time comic has the balls to expose themselves in that way these days. And itís still so fresh. If you look at Eddie Murphy material recorded more than 10 years later, it seems far more dated.Ē
Offered the chance to interview Pryor ó by e-mail, as he now has trouble speaking ó I felt like an awestruck kid. There are few stars in the world that could make me nervous, not because Iím such a tough-guy hack, but because ó well, because it was Richard Pryor, goddamnit. Writing out the questions, I was aware of choosing them in a bid to make him like me. At the same time, I was aware that this might very well be the last interview he ever gives. Nonetheless, there was only one place to start.
What was it like growing up in your grandmotherís brothel?
It was beautiful and sad and scary for a kid to see all that. But thatís where I landed, and I made a silk purse out of a sowís ear. They were all wonderful characters, even if they werenít all good people.
Did you ever resolve things with your parents?
No, I never did. I did get to see my mother and buy her a dress and a new purse for my Ed Sullivan Show performance when she came to New York. She knew that I loved her. I put a $100 bill in my fatherís pocket when he was in the casket. We had a rough relationship. I miss them.
Are you a religious man? If so, are you angry with God at the way things have turned out?
Iím not religious and Iím not angry with God at all. Iíve been angry with people. And yes, my life was always a struggle.
Speaking the way I did, a lot of people didnít want to hear. But then they loved it. Yeah ó always a struggle, even when it didnít need to be. I brought a lot of that on myself.
Whatís your opinion on drugs these days?
Donít do them. Anything can happen and it did, right here.
Why did you choose to walk off the stage in the middle of your Bill Cosby act and then do that race material?
I didnít have a choice. It was something I had to do to save my life. I was a joke, a bad joke and a liar, doing all that phoney material. After I lived in Berkeley for a while, I found my real voice, then I had no choice ó I had to use it. Race had to be talked about openly and honestly after all that had happened to us in white America.
What was the audienceís reaction like when you started doing that material?
Black people got to look at themselves honestly, the same as white people did, and the stuff I talked about helped them do that. They loved it. Probably some sort of relief to both races that they could finally be honest about their shit.
Has the condition of black Americans changed?
Things have improved, but the fight never ends. Look what the Bush administration is doing to minorities, to women, to the world. We all must stay vigilant ó and fight, hit the streets, whatever, when we need to.
Your performing persona seems to be so joyous about life, yet parts of your life story have been fury and pain. Which is the real you?
Both sides are me. Many parts. Jenny calls me demon-angel.
Complicated people have both sides, the light and the darkness. You just have to keep an eye on that darkness, so that it doesnít swallow you up. Just let it feed the art you wanna make and things you gotta say.
What do you think of white people now?
What do I think of white people now? Some good, some not so good and some downright stinkiní.
Which comedians do you admire?
I love Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Colin Quinn.
Was fame good for you?
Fame was fun, but it was definitely another drug.
When were you happiest?
Living in Hana (Hawaii) with Jenny was one of my happiest times. Going fishing. That first trip to Africa with Jenny was special.
Do you have any regrets?
Yeah, motherf***er, I wish I (had)nít set myself on fire. Is that enough of a regret for you?
Are you afraid of death?
Yeah, I ainít lookiní forward to the grim reaper. Iím gonna try to kick his ass again when he comes.
Your bodyguard once said: ďThe problem Richard had was what happened when he was a kid. It created a void so big, it didnít matter how famous he got.Ē Is that true?
F*** the bodyguard: Ray Charles can see that it all comes from my childhood. Then idiots like my bodyguard made it worse by talking about my shit. I tried to fill myself with all kinds of things that didnít work. Now I am full of MS, and Jennyís back, and, believe it or not, I have some sense of peace. What a life. And I ainít dead yet, motherf***er.
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is available on VHS and DVD from tomorrow
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