More MS news articles for November 2000

Box set reveals Pryor's complexity

Comedy "And it's deep too! The complete Warner Bros. recordings (1968-1992)," Richard Pryor, Rhino/Warner Archives

Sunday, November 26, 2000

Along with Groucho Marx, Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor is one of the most important comedians of the past century.

Torn by inner demons that drove him to nervous breakdowns, multiple heart attacks, six marriages, severe drug addiction and an infamous suicide attempt when he nearly burned himself to death while freebasing cocaine, Pryor miraculously managed to have a thriving career in the midst of the madness.

It wasn't until the early 1990s, when multiple sclerosis left him physically ravaged and unable to walk, that Pryor finally slipped far from the public limelight and into retirement in Encino, Calif.

The comic turns 60 Friday, and to commemorate the occasion, Rhino/Warner Archives is releasing a lavish, nine-CD box set celebrating his life and wild times. It includes the entirety of his Warner Bros. recordings as well as an additional disc of previously unreleased material from various live shows in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s.

Taken as a whole, the listening experience is staggering.

The 1968 material found on Disc 1 sounds tame in comparison to Pryor's latter-day repertoire, but even his early monologues are filled with side-splitting but stinging takes on rampant racism, like that found on the riotous "Prison Play."

By 1974, his language and style had gotten dramatically sharper, and his frequent use of racial slurs and his favorite 12-letter expletive so filled his routines that they almost consumed them. But beneath the shock value of it all was brilliant commentary focusing on racial relations, social injustice and police brutality during a time when few celebrities dared to touch such topics.

But Pryor held nothing back. And as his fame grew, he brought even more of his real-life trials and tribulations to the concert stage, setting the course for a generation of reality-based comics who would follow. None could top Pryor, though.

The box reaches its peak on Discs 5, 6 and 7, which are culled from the 1978 double album "Wanted/Richard Pryor -- Live in Concert," and the 1982 follow-up "Live on the Sunset Strip."

Playing to huge crowds, Pryor was by then a superstar. He found humor in some of his most tragic personal experiences, from being beaten by his father in his youth, to shooting bullet holes through his wife's car in a fit of rage. The recollection of his heart attack on the fifth disc is nearly worth the price of the box all by itself, as he tells of waking up in a hospital surrounded by white doctors and nurses.

As he looked around the room, he thought he had died.

"Aw I [expletive] around and wound up in the wrong heaven," Pryor says while mimicking sobbing. "Now I'm gonna have to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days."

Death is a common theme, no doubt because the comedian had so many close calls. His 1980 freebasing debacle became a major part of his performances, and he vividly recalls what it was like to see his own death reported on television. With third-degree burns over nearly the entire upper half of his body, he nearly did die but instead began to change his life.

Out of respect for his roots and the African homeland he had visited in 1979, he stopped using the `N' word on stage. He became more introspective, but as heard on the 1982 and 1983 recordings found on discs 7 and 8, he never lost his relevance and never stopped delivering his inimitable brand of outrageous social satire.

Disc 8 also includes a thoughtful and somber, previously unreleased, 25-minute 1983 interview with Pryor, which provides a fascinating glimpse of what he's like away from the stage lights. The final disc concludes with a 10-minute routine lifted from one of his final public performances in 1992. Irreverent as always, he even managed to make the audience laugh while talking about the enormous physical burdens that go along with multiple sclerosis.

Then again, such candor shouldn't come as a surprise. No one ever found as much comedy in tragedy as did Richard Pryor, and the sky-high highs and unfathomable lows of his amazing life all can be found on this set.

-- Kevin O'Hare, Newhouse News Service