It’s probably not the word the right word to call Richard Pryor an “underdog”, is it? One of the most financially successful stand-up comedians of all time, as well as celebrated – recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998; named the #1 Greatest Stand Up Comedian by Comedy Central in 2004. So what is it about the man that still compels fans to defend and protect his legacy? Is it that every fourth slob you meet who only knows him as “the black guy in that Superman movie”? Or is it because Pryor’s endearing and enduring genius was in his frequently honest and vulnerable revelation of pain? His stand up, at its best, was of an intensely intimate expression – chronicling his beloved banes of women and cocaine, but frankly, confessionally, showing the raw roots of these desires in his own emotional traumas, guilts, jealousies, shames and insecurities. But never self-pity. Like a great jazz or blues musician, he was capable of conveying a palpable inner pain, but with a dignity in bearing it. Pathos without being pathetic. And you’d be too busy laughing to cry anyway. This was his unique alchemy to transubstantiate his emotional trauma into absurdist elation. His re-enactments of abuse, both parental and spousal – the receiving and giving ends respectively, manages to work as transcendent comedy because his delivery lets us temporarily overlook the horrible reality of it. Rich is always the idiot, “f’ckin’ up”, and he never bothers with lame defenses for his weaknesses. This unflinching honesty, as well as the clarity of his wit, is where he finds his courage, rather than in insincere braggadocio. I believe this is why Pryor’s fans will never stop wanting to throw their arms around him and protect him.
Pryor, the sensitive and scared little boy, is the predominant image that lingers after seeing the documentary Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic, directed by Marina Zenovich, and currently airing on Showtime. This film provides the most intimate look into his life and troubles, although interestingly it still doesn’t go quite as far as Pryor’s actual autobiography, Pryor Convictions (written with Todd Gold), recommended if you can find a copy. We see little Richard raised in his grandmother’s Peoria brothel, his father a pimp and his mother a prostitute. His book mentions that more than one customer would seek him out for pleasure from time to time. His first exposure to white people were the men who paid for his mother’s services. (An old theory was that “honkies” got their name because some white customers would wait in their cars.) Adding to these insecurities, Pryor’s mother would abandon him at 10, and his first girlfriend would become impregnated by his father.
I’ll leave the rest of the biographical details for the documentary. Rather, I’d prefer to assess the work that Pryor produced in his life.
Most die-hard Pryor fans were turned on by listening to his classic LPs, usually at a precariously pubescent age. All of these albums are helpfully collected into the 2-CD Evolution/Revolution and the mammoth 9-CD box …And It’s Deep Too. (The recently released 7 CD set, No Pryor Restraint, collects the highlights from both and adds two DVDs, including all three stand-up films with two hours of unreleased footage) The former one collects all of the material recorded for the low-budget Laff Records, who, despite having only a couple hours of material, managed to release a couple dozen recycled cheap records – practically bootlegs – even throughout the ’80s. The material is interesting to fans, of course, but there is one essential LP, and Pryor’s first real masterpiece, Craps (After Hours), which is included in full. The album is centered around said craps game, but it is a full-flowered ghetto portrait – the pool hall, the barber shop, Pryor’s alpha-pimp father, police brutality, and as always Richard’s own inability to keep out of trouble with the ladies. One of the more fascinating features of this album is its small club setting, where throughout its run we can become acquainted with a couple dozen distinctive laughs as if they’re sitting in the tables around the listener. The intimate rapport that Pryor has in these small venues can be electric. Here is one clip of Pryor dealing with the police, ending up in a line-up, which he describes as “like showbiz.” (NSFW, obviously)
…And It’s Deep Too picks up the rest of Pryor’s recorded catalogue with That Nigger’s Crazy, Pryor’s first Grammy winning album, which is actually a re-release of another small club recording. This album continues in the same vein, showing glimpses of winos, junkies, gangs and even more police, and adding in some aliens, devils and vampires for good measure. Ralph Bakshi couldn’t have made a cartoon this vivid.
At this point, Pryor’s film career was still restricted to small, low-budget films. Some of them, such as Lady Sings the Blues, The Mack, and Uptown Saturday Night are now highly regarded, even if Pryor is only a supporting actor in each of them. Uptown Saturday Night, which also features Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson and Calvin Lockhart, is now considered one of the very best black comedies of the 1970s. Pryor had been hired around this time by Mel Brooks to co-write the script to Blazing Saddles, but Brooks failed to convince Warner Brothers to hire Pryor in the lead role, leading Pryor to kill all his fish and change management.
Returning to his stand-up, and a lucrative Reprise contract (ironically owned by Warners), his venues got bigger, but the LPs started to get more erratic. And by erratic, I mean pasted together from multiple performances, some of which fell flat, and others are among his finest performances committed to posterity. Is It Something I Said? shows the division, despite being his best-selling record. It’s hampered by some lazy stereotyping, redeemed only, again, by his scathing portraits of dealing with women and cocaine (almost tragically in hindsight, Pryor would always refer to his cocaine use in past tense, and no doubt he’s quit many many times). Of the positives, they’re glorious, including the introduction of his character Mudbone, a Missippi negro who’s harder than the times of ’29. Here, he escorts a friend who’s cursed with “that ‘POW'” to a local witch who can quell his ailment. What follows is Pryor the writer at his most imaginative, with plenty of spiders and monkeys and “Little Feets.”
Bicentennial Nigger has a similar gap from stuff that’s mildly amusing, to the absolutely brilliant. Most famously is his recollection of his first acid trip, but the twin titular “Bicentennial” pieces are where Pryor shows his real genius. In the “Prayer,” Reverend Pryor shoots the Beast, scolds the choir, and warns the handicapped to stop knocking over things in the church. And finally, as the album’s parting shot, the title track has Pryor revealing the origin of “black humor” (in both the African and ironic/sardonic senses of the term), and chills the nerves with coal-condensed rage.
By this point, Pryor had finally broken through with box office success with a supporting role in Gene Wilder’s chase comedy Silver Streak. Putting his stand-up on hold for the moment, he would alternate from a series of small, walk-on roles in a number of films (Car Wash, The Wiz, The Muppet Movie, Wholly Moses, In God We Trust) and attempts at his own starring roles, including Which Way Is Up?, tailor-made to fit some of his stand-up characters (a Mudbone-like old man, a Reverend), a team-up with Bill Cosby in a segment of Neil Simon’s California Suite, and a couple attempts at dramatic roles (Greased Lightning, Blue Collar) where he showed a great deal of promise. Blue Collar, especially, is a great film, a union drama from Paul Schrader with excellent acting all around from Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto. It’s undoubtedly Pryor’s best film from this time.
Following his successful TV appearances on The Lily Tomlin Show and Saturday Night Live, Pryor was given the chance at his own TV show, but it was ill-fated almost from the start. The resulting four episodes (packaged with a “roast” and nearly full-length stand-up performance on the DVD) are still hilarious, but it was clear he was too far ahead of TV norms of the day. Plus, as we see in Omit the Logic, Pryor’s personal problems were escalating. In the last four months of 1977, his TV show would air and fall apart, he’d invite a Hollywood homosexual benefit to “kiss my happy, rich, black ass,” he would suffer a heart attack, and he would break up with Pam Grier by impulsively marrying another woman whose car he shot up with a Magnum pistol that New Year’s Eve. (They divorced in 1978.)
But from such depravity, Pryor always found inspiration. In 1978, he set out to tour material for his first stand-up theatrical film, Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, which isn’t only easily the greatest theatrical stand-up film, but one of the best stand-up performances period. Again, we see the alchemist at work, squeezing the absurd humor out of his car-killing, heart-choking, monkey-loving, switch-kicking, coke-flushing, macho-manning pains and excesses into poignant, profound self-parody. The soundtrack LP, Wanted, features recordings from the pre-film tour, and has a number of surprising variations, showing Pryor exploring and pushing the material in a number of directions. Like a jazz musician, he “never played the same way twice.”
It wasn’t too long after this that Pryor had two important epiphanies that would form the frame of his second stand-up film: 1) his trip to Africa, where he decided to retire his use of the n-word, and 2) freebase. The “accident” is covered pretty well in the Logic doc, so I’ll skip to his Sunset Strip set. Interestingly, the doc also incudes outtake footage of Pryor’s first aborted performance where he was clearly unnerved by the cameras and the all-star audience expectations. He walked off stage. The next night, he returned and filmed the performance we see in the movie, Richard Pryor Live On Sunset Strip. Although it’s a much stronger performance, he’s still obviously uncomfortable. The soundtrack LP, recorded earlier in San Carlos, is a much more relaxed and confident performance, albeit audio-only and without the kind of material variation of Wanted. It’s still a recommended alternative due to Pryor’s obvious discomfort in the film.
It’s impossible to dismiss the film for these problems (as well as unwanted and unneccesary audience reaction cutaways), because it features his take on his two epiphanies: an extended piece on his trip to Africa culminating in his pledge to never use the n-word again (at least in his work), and his heroic, if coy, revelation about his freebase addiction and subsequent “accident.” As always, Pryor pulls few punches, and reveals more than many more proud comedians would never dare. He stops short, though, at the milk and cookies, but he already had bigger game in mind, which would be his upcoming autobiographical film, and his directing debut.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling got mixed reviews when it was released, with some noting its technical flaws – some odd pacing and camera framing in some scenes, clear indicators of a rookie. Some even called the film, essentially Pryor’s life story told in an hour and a half, a vanity project, which makes me wonder if some people honestly even understand the meaning of the word “vanity.”
*SPOILER* This may be well known to those with even a passing knowledge of the subject, but, significantly, this film is when Pryor decided to finally admit that his freebase accident was, in fact, a suicide attempt. This is made even more clear in the Logic doc, as Pryor frankly states it. (On whether it worked – “Yes it did…yeah, that person’s dead. He was a horrible man.”) In the climatic scene, where we see “Jo Jo” douse himself with 151 rum, we see the same broken, abandoned child. This is no DiCaprio-emoting, Oscar-begging performance (although their shame for not recognizing it is still theirs). Everyone knows it wasn’t even acting at all, but sincerely, helplessly real. He doesn’t flinch.
After this point, Richard Pryor took a more-or-less “kiss my ass” approach to making movies, having already said what he wanted to say. For a while, it seemed each new film was worse than the last. He still made the odd stand-up appearance. Amazingly, he was still using cocaine (“I’ve been snorting 15 years and I ain’t hooked!”), and the doc stops short of his book’s reference to syringe use. Around ’86-’88, Pryor began losing weight at a considerable rate, leading to rumors of AIDS. He was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988. As Pryor tells it, he believes that God gave him MS as a way to get him to stop using cocaine. I honestly can’t think of a more harrowing PSA against that drug than this line of logic from one of its most enthusiastic users.
I’ve spent more than enough time focusing on the ground of hardships in Pryor’s life, and I run the risk of suggesting that these are the fundamentals behind his comic genius. No, there are plenty of folks with these, or worse, backgrounds who are sitting in penitentiaries and asylums. Pryor, as I said, was an alchemist. The all-important solvents that he uses to transform these base miseries into euphoric gold are his essentially joyous soul and incorrigible spirit. That sunshine on his face. When I smile, just thinking of his random moments, I feel it shining on mine.