In honor of Marina Zenovich’s enlightening biographical documentary, “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” which premiered on Showtime and is available On Demand, I thought to reprise the celebratory piece from last I wrote for my blogging colleague’s site, Edward Copeland on Film… and More. Robert Lloyd, in his recent L.A. Times review of the documentary, said it well when it came to this extraordinary comedian:
“Richard Pryor died in 2005 at the age of 65 from a heart attack related to multiple sclerosis. The unexpected thing, given his life and habits and health, was not that he died so young but that he lived so long.”
- Stand-up Act
- 1. a style of comedy where a comedian performs in front of a live audience, usually speaking directly to them.
- 2. a comic monologue performed by one person standing on a stage
Take a look around you. Unsettled or distressing times spawn a push back in people. It’s a natural reaction, especially in this country. Comedy thrives in periods of uncertainty. Hell, we even have a cable channel now dedicated to this style of entertainment. I wonder if that indicates we’re in an ongoing epoch of apprehension? Oh well. I’ve read a number of examinations over the years on what and why comedy does (or doesn’t) work. Two aspects draw me. Jokes, and their telling, can date quickly. What tickles today may fall flat tomorrow. Second, insightful jests can be enough to cut the comedian and/or the audience right down to the core.
We crank out comedians fairly regularly in the U.S. It seems, as a population, we feed on them incessantly, certainly enough to fill seven seasons of Last Comic Standing. (Who knew that was still running?) Most of the time, the funny men and women, riff off of other comics that have come before them, just with updated material. A few will bring something fresh, but there have been a very small number of humorists who’ve proved to be both revolutionary and evolutionary with what they brought while standing alone on the stage. Unquestionably, Richard Pryor was one of them. Witnessing Pryor perform his act live, nonetheless, turned out to be one of those rare and rarefied experiences for those lucky enough to catch him.
The closest the large majority of his fans would or did come to this were through viewing the three concert/documentary films of his stage act. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor…Here and Now (1983) and, most assuredly, with Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which marks its 30th anniversary today. Easily, out of the all of them, the concert film of his performance on the Strip remains the most popular and successful of that trio. Significantly, that’s mainly because 1982 was a propitious crossing for the artist, his career and the fans who clearly loved him.
The key reason for that occurred two years prior (you could almost use the word Pryor as an adjective in this case) on June 9, 1980. Addictions plagued the comedian throughout his personal life, and most fans believe his alcohol and drug use reached both a pinnacle and low-point on this date. Whether it was a freebasing cocaine accident and/or dousing and lighting himself with high-proof rum in a drug-induced psychosis, the result remained the same. The comedian sustained burns covering more than half of his body on this day. Since this occurred in my hometown, at his Northridge residence, I still vividly recall the local news coverage and outpouring of shock and emotion this event sparked.
With this, the comedian, writer, social critic, television/film actor had become the most famous burn victim around. He was the poster child of troubled celebrity — almost four years before Michael Jackson’s infamous Pepsi commercial accident. Nevertheless, the comedian’s struggle to survive his most serious injury disappeared from airwaves, as they are apt to happen in American society, in the days and weeks post-accident. Many began to doubt his return. Richard Pryor’s Phoenix-like comeback therefore was what this piece documented, and set the stage for his, and his fans, anxious scrutiny. All the well-wishing from friends and critics since ’80 culminated in this, his reportedly (at the time) final comedy show.
I’m sure to many younger viewers, watching comedic monologues on stage these days touching on various bodily functions, sex and/or other embarrassments (of course, any combination of the first two usually dominate) is so common that it’s old hat (now there’s an idiom that dates me). It’s something barely worth comment. Even so, it’s a belief of myself and others that this type of replicated humor or delivery evolved purely from what Pryor shared with audiences first in the wellspring that were the ’60s and ’70s. He turned personal events (and some misfortunes) into brilliant classic comedy, many profane to boot.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications summarized him best, I think:
“Richard Pryor, comic, writer, television and film star was the first African-American stand-up comedian to speak candidly and successfully to integrated audiences using the language and jokes blacks previously only shared among themselves when they were most critical of America. His career really began when, as a high school student, his teacher persuaded him to discontinue cutting and disrupting class with the opportunity to perform his comic routine once a week for his classmates. Nevertheless, Pryor dropped out of high school, completed a tour of duty in the Army, then began his playing small clubs and bars, anywhere he could secure a venue. His keen and perceptive observation of people, especially his audiences, enabled him to develop into a gifted monologist, mimic and mime.”
Few could write (let alone perform) comedy as deftly and penetratingly as this stand-up. Whether it was for his own stage monologues, film (he crafted Bustin’ Loose, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and even co-wrote Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks) or television (Sanford & Son, Lily Tomlin’s first TV special, Flip Wilson’s series and his own), his talent and personality always seemed to show through (along with his private and society’s demons). His discussions of his relationships with women remain the stuff of legend.
Richard Pryor became known for his comic perceptions, keen and at times brutal as all get out. He’d regularly get his routines across to the point you’d laugh your ass off about them. To be sure, his rise was predicated upon dropping the Bill Cosby shtick he’d adopted in the ’60s. He then managed to merge humor with a “street” mentality that drew audiences of all ethnicities, even when it sounded threatening to some. Once heard by others (black or white), he and this brand of entertainment weren’t about to go back in the genie’s bottle. Without a doubt, he could be dirty, much like Redd Foxx could be in clubs. But where Foxx’s rep lay solely within his own community, Pryor’s genius and impact was far broader. Through words and physical expression, he could deliver a poignancy amid all that laughter. It got under people’s skin for its distinctive awareness (whether that dermis was black, white…whatever).
“Gettin’ your motherfuckin’ heart broke is like, I don’t know. Men cannot graduate till a woman breaks your fuckin’ heart. That is your diploma. It either kills you, or makes you fat.”
The documentary opens with one of those typical aerial overviews panning down on the city. This time overlooking the Hollywood and West Hollywood stretches of the famed (or infamous depending upon your point of view as the ’70s weren’t that far off in the rearview) Sunset Blvd. Somehow, looking above the cheap, seedy motels, liquor stores alongside famous and elegant locations (some now long gone) also seemed a strangely appropriate launch. The sequence even includes a glimpse of the Chateau Marmont, the site of John Belushi’s final reservation. It’s bizarrely and uncomfortably fitting before the camera lands on the shot of the host Hollywood Palladium (where Joe Layton had his ‘directed by’ title splashed).
“There’s not enough fuckin’ going on in America. Americans, when Reagan gets in, you stopped fuckin’. We fucked when Carter was in; we fucked all of the time! Just had…nothing else to do. Hey, let’s fuck. President’s making a speech; let’s fuck. Reagan’s in now and everybody listens to this motherfucker. We can’t fuck now. I say, get them last fucks in now!”
Richard Pryor’s show actually ran two nights in December 1981. Given the numerous cuts and edits in the documentary, there is a sense this concert film is an amalgamation of his best takes from both sessions. Too many times, though, the filmmakers seem caught up in showing audience reaction shots (especially if it included the beautiful people of the decade, and Jesse Jackson in a big afro). Knowing what came before, watching Pryor walk onto the stage, resplendent in a flaming red tux, was at once audacious as ever, triumphant (he’s greeted by a standing ovation) and yet oddly an uneasy thing to behold. Clearly, as he began to deliver his persona and act alone on that stage, before the decidedly mixed audience, it was a nervous start for him. That much is certain. Film critic Roger Ebert in his review of the film captured it best:
“He is back on a stage for the first time since he set himself on fire. That means he is working with the stand-up comedian’s greatest handicap, the audience’s awareness of his vulnerability. Whatever else they do, comics must project utter confidence in their material, and when Pryor had his accident, he also had his whole hip image blown out from under him.”
To an extent, he’s a different man at this stage of his career. The brash and shock he once brought to club scenes and concerts is muted, somewhat. He still was funny, vulgar enough for the ’80s and could pull an audience to his side through the characters he long used in his act. There’s a soundless bit early on with the comedian mouthing a profanity-filled dialogue that’s vintage Pryor, but something was missing in this version at the onset. Yet even that wouldn’t hold him down for long. When it came time, he seemingly reached back into the void during the final act of this documentary to rescue it all. While the first two-thirds of the movie showed a mere shadow of an extraordinary comedian’s act (possibly not helped by the editing), the remainder is what made this factual film a must-see, even three decades later.
“I know I’m doing somethin’ cause there’s too many white folk paying attention to me for me not to be in jail and shit.”
Pryor’s gift of using truth and real life to power his comedy was never more piercing that at this portion of the show (or possibly in the course of his entire career). His drug use, and even the attempted intervention by his friend Jim Brown, was chronicled and acted out on stage with virtuoso style as only this one man could. And when the routine hits the mid-point with the notorious burn accident, “caused by dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat and pasteurized milk, causing an explosion,” it instantly lands with absurd hilarity. While you’re busting a gut in reaction, it strikes you — the audience — with an unsettling awareness. You realize simultaneously that it shouldn’t be funny at all and that he, Richard Pryor, has, clearly, without you first noticing, flayed himself open to put you into that state.
His follow-up post-burn bit may be even more uproarious, still it’s at this point you, the viewer along with the audience, begin to sober up to the facts being put forth and causing that laughter. But that only made his performance in that moment even more remarkable. It’s little wonder Pryor fired up a cigarette afterward (falling back on another addiction purely as a coping mechanism, no doubt, in what the stage effort cost him). Even after re-watching this segment years later, I remain dumbstruck that it managed to elicit the same reaction in me as the first time I witnessed it. Richard Pryor would go on to explore this further in his almost autobiographical film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling four years later. He continued to work on TV and film throughout this decade and the next even as his health declined due to multiple sclerosis. However, none of it ever came close to what the camera captured here with him alone up there on that stage.
“The last twenty minutes is one of the most remarkable marriages of comedy and truth I have ever seen.” — Roger Ebert