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Richard Pryor


» Audio

  • Richard Pryor, "Supernigger" (MP3)
  • Richard Pryor, "Exorcist" (MP3)
  • Richard Pryor, "Monkeys" (MP3)
  • Ricahrd Pryor, "Ali" (MP3)
  • Richard Pryor, "Southern Hospitality" (MP3)
  • Richard Pryor, "Wattstax Monologue" (MP3)

    » Book Excerpt

  • Richard Pryor with Todd Gold, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (.pdf)

    » On the Web

  • Richard Pryor's official Web site

  • Once, in northern California in the early ’80s, I saw Richard Pryor perform live and I’ll never forget it. Most of the concert was a compilation of his greatest hits (he even took requests), but at one point he impersonated a junkie nodding off, and the moment was staggering. Pryor captured the doper’s blissed-out state with such obvious precision, slowing his performance rhythms way down and melting his sibilants so they sounded eerily sexy and androgynous, that he laid bare the seductive secret that three decades of cautionary addict movies had staunchly denied: people shoot up because it feels like heaven. Some of the audience became so agitated that they shouted at him, "You stop that! You stop that now!" I’ve never heard anything like that audience response, before or since. (Pryor recreated the routine in his third concert film, Richard Pryor Here and Now, which came out in 1983.)

    Pryor, who died of a heart attack December 10 at the age of 65, was the natural enemy of sanctimony and editorializing. His stand-up routines about sex and race were so disarmingly honest that they were — and continue to be — truly liberating. I don’t mean that they challenged censorship by fetishizing obscenity, the way Lenny Bruce had before him: Pryor had no interest in making a political statement about language. And I don’t mean just that they opened doors for the comics who came after him, like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, who haven’t had to struggle, as Pryor did, to write and perform the kind of earthy comedy he felt defined him. Sometimes the way contemporary stand-up (like Sarah Silverman’s) luxuriates in what used to be called foul language comes across as puerile, like a child playing in the mud, but with Pryor it never did. He used profanity to bond with his audiences, not to shock them or make them giggle or proclaim that he could. And many of his routines achieved that same end, like his impressions of what goes on in the mind of a macho lover privately terrified of not satisfying his partner, and his famous distinctions between the way blacks and whites curse or walk through the woods. Somewhere along the spectrum of the characters he brought to life in his solo concerts, you had to recognize yourself.

    And of course you recognized Pryor, who made his own life into his richest comic material. His discussions of his relationships with women, to pick a potent example, admit so openly of his own shortcomings that neither men nor women have to feel guilty about laughing at them. The performer to whom he’s most often been compared is that other genius among performance artists, Lily Tomlin — the seemingly boundless energy, the panoply of characters she can draw out of her head at will, the mysteriously relaxed, in-the-moment focus. Tomlin’s filmed stage show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, is as pure an expression of her gifts as Richard Pryor Live in Concert is of his. (Released in 1979, it was the first of his three concert movies.) Both have tended to present in a comic mode what would certainly seem tragic with a shift of tone (Pryor also wrote material for Tomlin). The difference is that Pryor’s greatest pieces are undisguised representations of his own life — confessionals. In Live in Concert, he dramatizes his own heart attack; the centerpiece of Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) is a 20-minute routine about the freebasing accident that set him aflame and came close to killing him. Unhappily, and for obvious reasons, he couldn’t draw on the last tragedy of his life: he was diagnosed with MS nearly 20 years ago. All he could do was wind down his career and enter the final sad phase of his life in public silence. (His final film appearance was in 1992, with his favorite co-star, Gene Wilder, in Another You.)

    Aside from his concert movies, he made three dozen feature films. Most were junky farces that capitalized on his skill at funny faces — he could set every muscle to work so it looked as though some alien worm were slithering underneath his facial skin — and that hilarious way he had of pursing his lips to pad the consonants on an explosive word like "motherfucker" and pitching his voice to sound like a castrato’s. Hollywood rarely knew what the hell to do with that him. He had some wonderful, loose exchanges with Diana Ross in the 1972 Lady Sings the Blues, where she played Billie Holiday and he was some made-up character called Piano Man; pathetically underwritten as his role was, he got a jazzy rhythm going with her that made it seem as if they were making up their scenes as they went along, and very likely they were. He had one great bit in the moronic comedy Silver Streak (1976), trying to teach Gene Wilder how to walk like a black man. In the charming John Badham picture, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (from the same year), which is about the Negro baseball leagues in the late 1930s, he gets to sport a fatuous pencil-thin mustache and pretend (part of the time) to be a Cuban named Carlos Nevada — his character thinks the scam will get him past the color bar and into the major leagues — and he makes a confident, robust third with the two leading men, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones. Some of his scenes in Superman III (1983) highlight an inspired crackpot quality, especially when the director, Richard Lester, lets him amble off, apparently, on his own — as when, with a tablecloth draped over his shoulders (he’s been imitating Superman for his boss, the corporate villain played by Robert Vaughn) and a pair of skis under his feet, he trudges up a snowy trail, forgetting he doesn’t know how to ski.

    He didn’t tend to make dramatic films. One exception was the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which he wrote and directed, but it was a disaster, because he wasn’t a filmmaker and he wasn’t a dramatic writer. Moreover, it was superfluous, since anyone who’d gone to his first two concert movies had already seen his brilliantly stylized version of his own life. Earlier, in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), he did a straight role as an auto-factory worker who, with two buddies (Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto), robs the union safe, steals a notebook that incriminates the leadership in illicit activities, and betrays his friends by trading it back for a cushy shop-steward job. He’s so good in the movie — his performance almost, but not quite, transcends the pointed, preachy fatalism of the ending — that, watching it after all these years, you’re amazed that he never got the opportunity to do anything like it again.

    But Pryor’s concert movies remain his real memorial, especially Live in Concert. In the course of 78 minutes he plays (among others) a white couple returning from intermission to find their seats have been appropriated by African Americans; his own mother invoking God when she finds her son sniffing coke at the dining-room table; himself as an erring child taking the long walk into the woods to find a switch for his grandmother to whup his ass with; a shitting horse; a horny monkey; a Doberman attacking a burglar; a deer reacting to the sound of an approaching human; Leon Spinks fighting Muhammad Ali; and — most extraordinary of all — his own heart locking his body in a vise and forcing him onto his knees and then flat on his back. Has any comic in history ever matched the bravado of the heart attack routine, or made agonizing pain so excruciatingly funny? Beset as he was with demons, laid low by the treacheries of his own body, and wrecked by Hollywood, Richard Pryor was yet one of the great idiosyncratic American artists of the last quarter of the 20th century.


    Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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