FEBRUARY 9, 2015
POETS, ROCK STARS, and Method actors may go to emotional extremes for their art, but we require a little more sobriety from stand-up comedians. Our contract with them is tight: we pay them for laughs — not to go off exploring their souls. At their best, Carlin, Murphy, Rock, Cho are commentators on our absurd times; if they want to discuss the darkest moments of their own lives, they can — but preferably offstage. There are exceptions, of course, most famously Richard Pryor, whose material drew continuously from what was, even by the standards of fame, a chaotic and bizarre life. His most recent biographer, Scott Saul, accurately describes his act as that of “a single man alone on a stage with just his microphone, his talent, and his demons for company.”
I discovered Pryor in reverse order, as it were, through the movies he made in the 1980s toward the end of his career. As kids, my brother and I used to perform skits from Silver Streak and Superman III for our parents and their dinner guests. If there’s something discomfiting now about the idea of a nine-year-old channeling Richard Pryor, it also speaks to the triumph of the American entertainment industry to have so sanitized one of its most subversive voices. This was the decade during which Eddie Murphy would set the gold standard for comedy with two masterpieces, Delirious and Raw, both of which were loose essays on childhood, sex, race, fame, family, violence. In the 1990s, Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain (1996) and Bigger & Blacker (1999) pushed the form further, with keen, severe, and hilarious disquisitions on the day’s news in contemporary America: the Simpson trial, the Columbine shootings, the Lewinsky scandal. But it wasn’t until I was in college, when I finally saw Pryor’s Live in Concert, that I understood that Murphy and Rock and almost every other stand-up of note were inconceivable without Richard Pryor — and never as good.
Where a supremely confident, leather-clad Murphy, or a sharply turned out Rock, seem to have complete control over themselves and the audience, Pryor evoked physical and emotional fragility. He writhed, he fell, he crawled. If Murphy and Rock are as candid on issues of race and sexuality, both also convey a sense of privilege or superiority to their audiences. They only become emotionally involved when something offends them. But every time the voice and the temperature rose in Pryor, we heard what Hilton Als described in a 1999 profile as “the voice of injured humanity.” If the darkest times were behind him, there seemed always the potential of a relapse. That panic-stricken childlike yelp, so familiar from his movies, was not only funnier on stage than in the films (where the effect was slapstick), but also chilling. Pryor always seemed two jokes away from jail or the loony bin. Of the superstars that followed, Robin Williams came closest to that brand of vulnerability, barely concealed in his over-the-top horseplay. (May he rest in peace.)
Live in Concert gloriously eclipsed the Richard Pryor I had grown up with, the one the studios and networks had divested of genius in a battle that would form one of the major struggles of his career, and is at the center of the 2013 documentary, Omit the Logic. The documentary came out around the same time as a nine-disc set of Pryor’s radio shows and concerts entitled No Pryor Restraint, as well as a biography, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him, published later that year. So eight years after his death in 2005, the great comic was rising again. And his ascent continues with Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor, released in December, which, as we complete a decade without him, will hopefully encourage fresh considerations of Pryor’s work.
It is fitting that the Pryor revival has coincided with that of Bill Cosby. If Cosby wasn’t quite Richard’s comedic father, he was at least an older brother, the first major black comedian to cross the color line into the mainstream. But after some initial years of imitation, Pryor would part dramatically from the kind of comedy Cosby represented. In a much recounted moment in Raw, Murphy phones Pryor after being chastised by Cosby (also on the telephone) for cursing on stage; Pryor responds, “The next time the motherfucker calls, tell him I said suck my dick.” Even if not based on fact, the joke gets to the artistic rivalry between the square Cosby and the confrontational Pryor.
But Cosby’s public respectability is one of the reasons that the outrage following recent sexual abuse allegations has been so animated, whereas Pryor never intended to acquit himself honorably, onstage or off. With regard to his relationships with women, he was the first to admit he was no day at the beach. In an early scene in Live in Concert, for example, literally urged on by his drink (more on that later), he shoots up his Buick to prevent his wife from leaving the house after a fight. (The segment was based on a real event.) And even if, as noted in Saul’s book, Pryor’s hideous treatment of women surpassed anything he reveals in his art, given the nature of his act it’s not surprising that, though documented, his brutality has hardly registered a response.
Cosby’s Joe Q. public persona nevertheless haunted Pryor, not as a standard he aspired to, but as the one executives tried imposing on him. His is the familiar story of the artist versus the industry. Pryor fought back — heroically and hilariously — as in the famous intro to his 1970s TV show on NBC, when he assures viewers that he’s made no compromises with the network and the camera zooms out to reveal him naked with genitals missing; or in the conclusion of another show, when prison bars slide shut in front of him as he says goodbye. The tragedy, however, is that though he made his comebacks, he was so often at war with himself — the excessive drug intake, extreme violence towards wives and girlfriends, regular run-ins with the law, and, perhaps a culmination, his deliberate self-immolation in 1980 while drinking rum with his security guard.
Back to that yelp. What did it mean? Where on earth did it come from?
The short answer, probably, is Peoria, Illinois, where Pryor grew up, a sin city that his own family epitomized: his childhood home was a brothel where his grandmother, Marie Carter Bryant, was the madam and his mother a prostitute, and where the threat of physical abuse, from family in the house to street bullies outside, was everywhere. Later in life, as Saul recounts in his book, Pryor told a reporter, “Anything you want to know about fear, you got the right person.” He credited his peculiar brand of humor to “the fact that I was scared.” On stage then, the mere mention of Peoria provoked that cry, as if Pryor were a terrified child still begging for rescue.
But if Marie Carter Bryant was perhaps his most important influence, her grandson was essentially her opposite: according to Saul, she was “a force of nature: a woman who protected herself with her own big hands and took no gruff from anyone, whether they were lovers, husbands, shop owners or policemen.” But there was nothing noble, nothing brave, about Pryor’s later violence. If she was a lioness, then he was a wounded beast.
Trauma aside, Peoria gave him the long cast of characters he became famous for: the crackpots beyond salvation, the desperadoes and washed out prophets of the street corner with one last tale to sell. Saul recounts a family legend, in which Marie’s father, a railway worker after whom Richard was named, was crushed between two train cars and, instead of seeking medical attention, “staggered to a nearby speakeasy and ordered himself a drink,” dying a few hours later. That spirit, of the man who wants just one more before the Reaper comes, pervades Pryor’s work.
According to Saul, Pryor “might be said to have initiated the autobiographical turn in stand-up comedy.” Except he did have a precursor in Lenny Bruce, whose art also drew from the repugnant stuff of his life, and where the line between public and private persona became exquisitely vague. The legendary critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote appreciatively of Bruce as “a disease of America. The very existence of comedy like his is evidence of unease in the body politic.” (Someone once asked Lenny how many times he’d been arrested. His response: “In which state?”) He also tapped a deep public vein. One of my favorite evocations of him is in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, when during the Cuban Missile Crisis a petrified Bruce distils America’s fears with an oft-repeated wail, “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!”
George Carlin and Chris Rock, too, are geniuses at translating our collective outrage. Rock’s method is repetition. At a fresh scandal involving Michael Jackson, he rages, “Another kid? Another kid? That’s like another dead white woman showing up at O.J.’s house!” He says again, “Another kid?!” Carlin, meanwhile, already hunched, would stoop further towards both the microphone in his hand and the audience below and, whether he was talking about the absurdities of political correctness or the Christian craving for capital punishment, this physical posture compounded the throaty outrage in his voice to say, Are you fucking kidding me? Carlin described himself as an “observer of the shitshow,” and the same can be said of Rock: they’re commenting on the world as it loses its mind, and hits the iceberg. But Pryor’s sense of horror is different. Like Bruce, he’s going down with the ship, facing damnation not just for America’s sins but also for his own.
Moreover, anything can turn on him at any time, because, in Pryor’s act, everything has a voice: a runner’s cramp announces in a sports commentator’s baritone, “Hello, I’ll be fucking with you for the next hour or so,” promising, “when you drop dead, I will leave.” After being punched in the gut, a gasp of breath leaving his lungs, blurts, “Fuck it.” The earlier mentioned vodka he’s drinking while he’s firing at his car, urges, as coolly as a pimp, “Go ahead, shoot somethin’ else.” The effect is to feel trapped with a man on a bad trip: he owns and controls nothing, least of all his own body and soul. And yet he kept coming back to us with more horrors to share — about jail, drug and alcohol addiction, a heart attack, even a suicide attempt. And we kept laughing.
Pryor was as much a product of his times as of his local milieu. At heart a radical, and therefore ill suited to the sober Las Vegas acts where he found his early audiences, and where he was still channeling the upright Cosby. Unsurprisingly, after walking offstage midway through a set at the Aladdin, his career there ended. In the late 1960s, he moved to the rousing San Francisco Bay area, whose anarchy yielded countless acts and rebellions, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests, to the Grateful Dead to, perhaps more relevant to Pryor’s story, the Black Panthers, whose leader Huey P. Newton became a friend. As Joan Didion wrote in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The center was not holding,” and “San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up.” It finally showed up in Pryor’s work, too.
As Saul argues, an act like Pryor’s became possible in the cultural space opened by Deep Throat, pornography, peep shows, sexy underground nightclubs and, perhaps most importantly, the devolution of “obscenity” (by a 1973 Supreme Court ruling) from a federal to a local community issue. Then, too, this was a time when other black artists were staking their claim in the mainstream, from Jimi Hendrix in his all-white band to the Blaxploitation flicks whose appeal trespassed racial lines. Even in this climate, Pryor made himself the exception. It was for his role on Saturday Night Live that NBC established the five-second delay to allow for the censor’s beep, a protocol so familiar today that it’s strange to credit a single performer. But it’s true: the honor belongs, singularly, to Richard Pryor.
His most direct affront to the conscience of the times was his use of the “N-word” (to defer to our contemporary political correctness) over a decade before the arrival of gangsta rap. Omit the Logic dwells more than Scott Saul on Pryor’s history with the word. As his sometime collaborator Paul Mooney puts it, Pryor knew that words were powerful, and much of the Pryor menace was in his calculated use of that particular word, a challenge to a post–civil rights America that was supposedly moving towards normalization. What was a comedy album titled That Nigger’s Crazy doing atop the 1974 RnB charts (above Marvin Gaye) and winning a Grammy? It’s amusing to watch clips of talk show hosts raising the issue uncomfortably, avoiding actually enunciating the word, only to have Pryor blurt it straight out. It took a eureka moment on a trip to Africa for him to publicly renounce its use in 1981’s Live on the Sunset Strip… to the disappointment of many of his supporters.
Interestingly, Saul’s new biography ends with the 1979 performance of Live in Concert, devoting merely a short epilogue to Pryor’s work of the 1980s. As such, his account can be read as building up to that seminal event, the way, say, a profile of Joyce might focus on the writing and publication of Ulysses; or a biopic of Ali will climax with the Rumble in the Jungle. But like Joyce, who hadn’t yet written Finnegan’s Wake, and Ali, who still had the Thrilla in Manila to fight, Pryor wasn’t yet through. In both his life and art, he had significant experience to come after Live in Concert — not least his self-immolation in 1980, to which Saul devotes only a page in the epilogue. This book, therefore, is best read in company of earlier works, especially Omit the Logic, which tries to explore the moment, the pain, and the inspiration to deliberately set himself aflame. One of its funniest, and most disturbing moments is an eerily quiet dialogue between Pryor’s heart and his brain at the moment of his near-death, against images of the rush to a hospital and a close-up of a burning match: “You’ve been naaaaughty,” murmurs the heart, barely audible. “Drop dead,” replies the brain, sleepily.
At another poignant moment in Omit the Logic: Pryor is onstage for 1982’s Live on the Sunset Strip, looking far more haggard than his 41 years, when he becomes disoriented and hesitant, finally mumbling that he’s forgotten his act and leaving the stage. Although he makes a comeback the following day, he gives us a significantly less nimble, less volatile Pryor than the one in Live in Concert, only three years before. Granted, the guy did set himself on fire in the interim. And that experience alone enriches his act profoundly: Sunset Strip concludes with sincere thanks to his fans for their expressions of support during his recovery only to be immediately subverted by a hilarious lampoon of this horrifying event. While he would later give a straightforward account of the incident in his autobiography, Pryor Convictions — what he felt, what his smoldering chest smelled like — onstage he wasn’t going to let things get somber. “That shit will sober yo ass up QUICK,” he says. The next revelation is comical for its simplicity: when there’s a burning man running down the road screaming people get out of the way. But then the kicker: there’s one person who doesn’t, who happens to be a drunk trying to light his cigarette on the flames. Pryor goes on and on, about his painful recovery, making us laugh, and yet all the while, we know that the event — setting himself on fire — did actually happen. The horrors accumulate, and somehow turn into art.
Given his strengths as a biographer, I do wish Scott Saul had extended the timeframe of his book by a few years, at least to the Sunset Strip. Still, to stop at Live in Concert is to honor its originality. As David Felton wrote of the film in a 1979 Rolling Stone cover story, “Nothing was edited or rearranged. [Bill] Sargent [the promoter] slapped the film together and put it on the market in just one month […] In the process, he has created a low-budget, short-order masterpiece, a powerful argument for spontaneity in mass entertainment.”
It’s hard to choose a defining moment in the concert (though worth noting, in view of recent events, the part when Pryor describes how police chokehold black men to death. “That means you be dead when they through.” After hearing a snap, one white officer turns to his partner and says, “Oh shit, he broke. Can you break a nigger, is it okay?” Checking the police manual, they decide that you can). But let me identify two: one of them comes when Pryor dismisses male claims of sexual potency by referring to his own lower standard of performance. First, he says that he can “fuck for three MINUTES.” Once that settles in our heads, he starts again: “Three minutes of serious fucking” — another pause — “and then I need eight hours SLEEP.” He then adds as an afterword, “and a bowl of Wheaties.” It would be funny enough, finishing on the eight hours sleep. But the bowl of Wheaties is one of the finest strokes in all of Pryor. Just as the joke seems over, his tone becomes much more intimate so that his desire for Wheaties sounds more like an admission to himself than to us. Post-coital, he’s a child in need of looking after. This was not the message of the Sexual Revolution.
In another classic scene, Pryor brags, momentarily, about how good he was at boxing — in the gym, that is, because in the actual ring he started having problems. Unlike the punching bag, a human opponent could duck and sway and shift. In that high pitched yelp of the haunted child, he petitions his trainer, “Say coach, what’s this shit here?! This nigga’s moving!” The moment more or less encapsulates Pryor’s comedy of fear: all’s well until the nigga starts moving.
After Live on the Sunset Strip, with the N-word behind him, Pryor’s performances on film became vacuous affairs, a far cry from the edginess of Lady Sings the Blues, Blazing Saddles, and other movies he did in the 1970s. A brief restitution of the old genius came with 1983’s concert, Here and Now, available in the No Pryor Restraint set, which, of all the concert films, seems the most spontaneous, and includes a chilling 10-minute segment told from the perspective of a junky getting his last fix. Otherwise, it was a depressing decade. So complete were his concessions to Hollywood that it wasn’t even ironic that his best-paid gig was his supporting role in Superman III. The scene my brother and I took turns acting out is the one where, pretending to be a general, Pryor presents Superman with what is supposed to be a token of the country’s appreciation, but turns out to be Kryptonite. I don’t know why we found it so funny, but I’d like to take comfort in the fact that its benignity allowed Pryor into the house where, Doubtfire-like, he would reveal his secrets when we were ready.
We laughed non-stop again in 1988’s Moving, when Pryor flips off his boss with the wrong finger — flashing the index rather than middle digit — and agonizes about it later, repeating the gesture to himself in dismay. Today, that seems more tragic than funny, a metaphor for his peace accord with the studios. Wrong finger indeed.
All told, Pryor belongs with the “easy riders and raging bulls” of the 1970s, moviemakers like Polanski and Scorsese who did battle with the studio system and took some mighty blows, but made highly personal, provocative, and transformational art in the process. Damon Wayans once said, “If you haven’t borrowed from Richard Pryor, you’re probably not that funny.” It’s true: the best, from Murphy to Rock to Chappelle, have, indeed, copiously borrowed.
And the Pryor revival, which so far includes the documentary, two excellent biographies, and, especially, the hours of archived material, is a gift that keeps giving — and we should keep taking what we can. As Scott Saul writes, “the brilliance of the act was not enough to save him.” It could, however, still save us.