Tragicomic genius and founding father of black American humour filmed at his peak
Live in concert, recorded at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, California in 1979, captures Richard Pryor at the peak of his powers and his fame as probably America’s most toweringly influential black figurehead of that decade pace Ali, easily eclipsing Jesse Jackson. In fact, in one of the DVD extras here, Pryor plays the first black US President in a sketch from his celebrated but compromised and censored late-’70s NBC TV show. It could have happened.
Pryor wasn’t just hilarious; he had socio-political heft. People may have been laughing, but they took him seriously. This doesn’t happen very often. Sacrilegious as it may sound, Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (1983) probably topped Live In Concert in terms of sheer velocity and viciousness, while Chris Rock circa Roll With The New (1997) offered a yet more brute intensification of Pryor’s breathless, blasphemous rat-a-tat. But you couldn’t imagine Rock or Murphy running for office. Pryor, though, his righteous indignation tempered by a realist’s acceptance of the status quo, one imagines could have gone all the way from the flophouse?his mother was a prostitute, his father a pimp, and he was brought up by his madam grandmother in a brothel?to the White House. If only he hadn’t been derailed by too many bad movies and too much good crack cocaine…
Still, Pryor, now 63 and suffering from MS, has at least left us with Live In Concert, the Live At The Apollo of black American stand-up. Remembering him for his films is as wrongheaded as basing Elvis’ posthumous reputation on Harum Scarum. This is groundbreaking stuff; the missing link between Bill Cosby and NWA. It’s ghetto humour with one foot in the variety era. Pryor, who began his career doing far less volatile material before his transition in the late ’60s to the hyperkinetic all-swearing truth-sayer we see here, filtered Cosby’s benign, observational world view through the profane iconoclasm and profound insightfulness of Lenny Bruce. For all his taboo licentiousness, he still drew as many liberal whites as he did hipster blacks?you can see them all filing in at the start of this show, just waiting to be lampooned by Pryor with all the gentle relentlessness of Jackie Mason at his Gentile-baiting best.
So this is the performance on which rests Pryor’s rep as the funniest motherfucker on the planet. It actually feels earlier than ’79?more Nixon/Watergate-era, more ’73. There’s an over-reliance on “don’t-animals-do-the-strangest-things” routines, all zany monkeys and dippy dogs, when really you just want Pryor in full lacerating autobiographical mode. This was the year, after all, when he got arrested for “killing” his car so that his wife couldn’t take it with her when she left him, and the year of his first heart attack. The full horror of both experiences is conveyed here, Pryor sparing the audience no sordid detail or indignity. That nigger’s still crazy. Hell, yeah.
It’s just a surprise that, considering the torment he suffered in his life, the childhood rape and the addictions to narcotics, how tame much of this seems today. He doesn’t rage quite as hard as you might expect. Remember:this is a man who set himself on fire in pursuit of his cravings. But then, in a way Pryor suffers from being a pioneer, from being first. To avoid anticlimax, then, Uncut’s advice would be to experience the last four decades’ stand-ups in the order in which they happened (Cosby-Pryor-Murphy-Rock) and then see Live In Concert for what it is:the crucial second?and biggest?building block in the foundation of black American comedy.