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Remembering the Forgotten Richard Pryor
He related the hidden world of Black Americana he came from to the mainstream one he was entertaining
For a man known for his ferocious verbal skills, it’s easy to forget what a gifted physical comedian Richard Pryor was, not just early in his career when he still had the crossover appeal of Bill Cosby but later during his brief foray into network TV, his first successes onscreen with his melanin-challenged doppelganger Gene Wilder, and even his string of embarrassing films in the late 1980s. That’s why he returned three times to the medium of the concert film. It was one thing to listen to a Richard Pryor on a turntable–as many did in clouds of weed smoke in basements during the Nixon Years. It was another to watch him: the friezes, the eye-popping but honest fear (despite his “street pimp” swagger he was a maestro of vulnerability), the strutting, the slit-eyed, nervous laughter mixed with dangerous anger. Even Mudbone’s subtle facial expressions and trademark lip-smacking was just as vital as the words that came out of his filthy, brilliant mouth.
No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert, which came out yesterday on SHOUT! Factory, utilizes the now-ubiquitous CD/DVD format to place both the verbal Pryor and the physical Pryor in close proximity, combining his LP triumphs like That’s Nigger’s Crazy! and Bicentennial Nigger (which now sound like prototypical rap album titles) alongside concert films like Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip. Splayed out across nine discs and twenty-four years (including two hours of unreleased material), the collection is more like a visual and aural biopic where you can experience a man’s private life develop in his creative work. There are the classics: Mudbone (“I looked at this titty lookin’ at me, and I swear to God it winked at me!”); the wounded 10-minute riff on LAPD violence in the film Wattstax (“How do you accidentally shoot a nigger six times in the chest?”); his first heart attack; Supernigger (“Equipped with x-ray vision that can see through everything except whitey”); drunkenly shooting his own car on New Year’s Eve; his years of freebasing; setting himself on fire; his life-changing trip to Africa; a wino dealing with Dracula (“What kind of name is that? Why don’t you get your teeth fixed?”). And yet, as this collection attests, there is still much we have forgotten about Richard Pryor.
Even during his clean-cut collegiate years he could not help but be honest about his Dickens-by-way-of-Iceberg Slim childhood, like when he admits his grandmother, a truly fearsome character with size twelve feet who ran a whorehouse and secreted a straight razor, “made us get undressed before she whipped us. She was weird.” He had to learn to work a room; in fact, some of the most fascinating parts of the early years are when Pryor isn’t exactly killing but struggling through the stonecutting silencio of half-empty clubs (in one track, there’s nearly 20 seconds of unbearable silence where you can almost hear his flop sweat). He didn’t try to be Bill Cosby but Jonathan Winters, taking improv suggestions from the audience that didn’t quite gel. (Like Winters, these were often tethered to the times as when Pryor does a lisping Batman and racist Asian imitation.) He couldn’t suppress relating the hidden world of Black Americana he came from to the mainstream one he was entertaining (“Hugh Hefner? In my neighborhood, they call him a pimp!”) and he was already perfecting his pinched, nasal, constipated “whitey” voice (“I see you’re getting your refreshments there — wonderful“) that would become much imitated by everyone from Eddie Murphy and Robert Townshend to Dave Chappelle and the entire Wayans clan.
Most of all, he was unable (later, unwilling) to contain his raw and wounded emotions over sex and race. “You have nothing to fear from the black man — except thoughts,” he says with sinister calm after telling a woman in the audience, “Funny, you don’t look like a whore.” This was a man working up to a nervous breakthrough. He eventually had it, live on stage at the Alladin in Las Vegas in 1967 when he told the crowd of rich white swells, “What the fuck am I doing here?” In the new Showtime documentary Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic, a friend remembers his explanation. “He spotted Dean Martin sitting in the audience and said, ‘I saw myself through his eyes looking like a damn fool.'” He saw his future — and it was Sammy Davis, Jr. He dropped the mike, left the stage, and never looked back.
For the complete review, go to StompBeast