Richard Pryor Stand-Up Comedy Double Feature
November 13, 2005
It’s safe to say that without Richard Pryor there would be no Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle—comedians who mine a lot of the same territory that Pryor had already covered in the 1970s. I was never a big fan of his feature films. They always seemed to keep Pryor’s brand of comedy reigned in. His stand-up comedy was where it was at: pure, undiluted Pryor. This new DVD set captures two of his live concert films, Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) and Here and Now (1983) and present two fascinating snapshots of the man at different points in his career and life.
Live on the Sunset Strip was done at the time when stand-up comedy films were in vogue and Pryor was at the height of his popularity. It was shot at the Hollywood Palladium by famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He is introduced and walks through the adoring crowd to get to the stage. Once there it is as if some flipped the “on” switch and he comes to life.
His material carries on in the proud, taboo-smashing tradition of Lenny Bruce. Pryor talks about things that aren’t supposed to be discussed in public: masturbating, religion, and politics in a frank and very funny way. He also employs the same kind of hipster-speak shtick as Bruce but updated for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Pryor also has the same improvisational quality, able to react to a spontaneous comment from the audience without losing his cool.
During the course of the movie he talks about dealing with fame and new found wealth (i.e. accountants and lawyers). It becomes obvious that Pryor’s humour comes from a deep reservoir of anger and pain that he channels through his routines. He also talks about the challenges of being married and how it differs from just dating someone. Even though he is playing up the comical side of things, there is truth to what he is saying as he describes the pain you experience when a woman breaks your heart: “It either kills you or makes you fat.”
Released a year later, Here and Now was recorded at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans and was Pryor’s directorial debut. It starts off with the obligatory ego-stroke as people from the pre-show audience gush about him. Compared to the Sunset Strip show, Pryor seems a little more subdued, that is, until he hits the stage where he feels most comfortable. Even his outfit is more sedate. Gone is the flamboyant red suit in favour of an outfit that Seinfeld would be known for: suit jacket, shirt and jeans.
This is Pryor post-drugs and alcohol—hence his less than manic self. He even addresses his rejection of alcohol in a funny bit: “I got tired of waking up in my car drivin’ 90.” This show feels like he is out to prove that he’s still got it. He certainly knows how to deal with the crowd, including latecomers as he tells one of them, “See, you sat in the right seat ‘cos when the show don’t be funny I take my dick out and piss.” This Pryor truly in his element: dealing with drunken hecklers by quickly cutting them down in size.
With a biopic in the works (it should be interesting to see how it compares to his semi-autobiographical movie, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling) there will no doubt be renewed interest in Pryor and his work. These two films document two specific points in his life and show the man in his prime. They also reinforce how influential he was on the contemporary comedians who idolize him.
Live on the Sunset Strip features a vintage trailer for the movie.