September 24, 2012
Prime Pryor: RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT (1979)

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On an episode of the Pete Holmes hosted podcast You Made It Weird, guest Dana Gould has this to say when assessing the artistic merit of stand-up comedy:

I don’t know if stand-up rises to “art” that often… I think it’s a wonderful craft, and the occasionally it pops over the surface.

Following that, he asked Holmes:

Have you ever seen Richard Pryor: Live in Concert? [Holmes confirms that he has.] That’s art. To get hoity toity—that’s a symphony. What he does in that concert recorded in 1979 has never been approached. No one has ever been that good on a stage. Nobody.

Having re-watched Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (dir. Jeff Margolis), I have to agree with Gould: not even Louis CK’s last stand-up special Live at the Beacon Theatre (which I think is CK’s best stand-up special to date and begins in same manner as RP: LiC) or Chris Rock’s breakthrough 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain hits the high watermark that Pryor set with his first released stand-up concert film.

Yet, to be critical, calling RP: LiC cinema like one would call The Tree of Life cinema is a stretch. Shot in 16mm at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, California right after Patti LaBelle and her band played, it seems that only four camera set-ups were made to film Pryor, each televisual (for lack of a better term) in their nature: a “following spotlight” close-up, a low angle medium shot filmed at the foot of the stage, a wide-shot filmed from the wing of the left of the stage and a wide-shot of the audience filmed from the back of the theater (which is used seldom and seems to serve as cutaway to bridge any lapses of continuity.) And, unless you attracted to him, probably the most visually stimulating incidental element of the film is the bright-red shirt that Pryor wears and sweats in as he does his comedy.[1]

Yet, what RP: LiC documents is arguably the all-time-greatest stand-up comedian (and my own personal favorite) at the apogee of his comedic powers entertaining his audience in a masterful manner, thereby making it a great film even if it is not exactly “cinema.” Granted, I don’t know if the stand-up material-as-a-whole in the film may not be Pryor’s best; his stand-up records have bits and routines that match anything in this film, and Pryor’s folk-tale character Mudbone is absent from the set-list. (Also, the fact that much of the recorded material in this film was released on the Wanted: Live in Concert LP which isn’t considered Pryor’s best album indicates that the material may not be top-shelf.) Yet, there is little room for doubt that Pryor was on a roll as a performer by 1979, so much so that I have to wonder how and why anyone attempted stand-up after Pryor reached his summit while making it seem too damn easy.

If you listen to many comedians be interviewed or discuss their craft through in-depth outlets like the podcasts WTF? With Marc Maron or You Made it Weird, a recurring topic is the need of comedians to harness the audience’s attention as they’re performing so that their craft can be properly reckoned with. Yet, many stand-ups speak of this in burdened or adversarial terms, as if an audience needs to be psychologically dominated or monitored like children. What struck me as I watched RP: LiC is how Pryor had the ability to get an audience’s focus not by sheer willpower or control but by being  charming. Sure, he was profane and addressed taboo subjects that would’ve gotten him arrested 15 years earlier, but when he begins his performance at the Terrace Theatre and the audience right away is eating out of his hand, even while he teases them about not having fully returned to their seats from the intermission, it becomes clear how the man managed to win over crowds or marry seven times: he was downright charismatic.[2]

There’s also Pryor’s physicality. He constantly moves, darts and utilizes the stage space but is always casual and loose. Watching him in his prime, with absolute confidence, makes it tough to believe that Nina Simone once eased Pryor’s performance anxiety as a young comic by rocking him like a baby before he opened for her, or hard to recall how physically limited he became later in life as a result of contracting Multiple Sclerosis.

Likewise, Pryor’s ability to do character voices is a treasure to behold. Whether he speaks as a “standard white person” or is vocally anthropomorphizing animals, he does it with a proficient and natural ease that it never slows things down or feels like a put-on. And his talent with voices and one-man scenes demonstrates that the form of stand-up can be opened up for material that is more personal and/or story-based than the telling of simple jokes. If Pryor can reenact his heart attack in a way that gives voice to his literal, pain-inducing heart, then who’s to say what can’t be done in the stand-up form?

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Subjects discussed by Pryor include sex and race, but there is also personal anecdotes the show how boldly honest the man could be. For instance: he jokes about shooting a car to stop his wife from leaving him, which is psychotic behavior, and somehow makes it funny and weirdly relatable. (See the charisma factor.) Likewise, he talks about being abused as a child but transmutes darkness from his past into empathetic and non-maudlin humor.

But my favorite bit in RP: LiC, and one of my all-time favorite stand-up bits, is when he talks about his pet monkeys (Friend and Sister), their proclivities (constantly having sex), how they died (a gas leak that occurred when no one was home) and what happened when Pryor was verklempt over their deaths (the neighbor’s otherwise mean German Shepherd came over to console him.) It’s a story that bizarre yet poignant, simultaneously off-the-wall and tender, a glimpse into what a hypothetical Disney-animated Richard Pryor film would have been like. And to speak once more of Pryor’s command of the audience, there’s a hush in the audience when Pryor “repeats” what the German Shepherd “said” to him that feels like time and space is being suspended so that the right amount of pathos can be dispensed and shared. To see any performer accomplish a moment like that one is remarkable.

But I could go on gushing, and I don’t imagine that I’m captivating you the reader of this post nowhere near as much as Pryor-as-a-stand-up can captivate.  Also, I understand that the dissection of comedy— which I have down in this review of RP: LiC— may kill it. So I must make something clear about the most important holistic effect of this film: it’s funny as hell. Yes, in one way, it is a symphony, like Dana Gould said. But in another way— to use a phrase of Pryor’s— it’s pretty freaky deaky.


P.S. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert may or may not be on YouTube in its entirety…

[1] Interesting that Jeff Margolis’s bread-and-butter as a workman director for the last 30+ plus has been helming live TV specials like the Academy Awards or the Emmys. But despite a lack of the cinematographic in RP: LiC, I will admit that it’s well edited.

[2] The other thing that feeds into Pryor’s rapport with his audience is his adeptness at seguing riffs and crowd-work with written material, a skill that is damn near seamless and gives a sense of breezy informality to the set. For many comedians, even top-notch ones, transitioning between different routines or from material to crowd-work then back to material in a way that feels natural is something that’s difficult to master but Pryor did.

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