The Richard Pryor obituaries last weekend admirably sketched the comedian's almost incredible biography—the whorehouse childhood, the public flameouts, the artistic flowering from Cosby clone to revolutionary—and they also rounded up a lifetime's worth of praise. Just about every comic in the world has called Pryor "the best ever," and his 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is widely considered to be the greatest comedic performance ever recorded. But the obituaries couldn't begin to give us the experience of Richard Pryor: the rhythms and intonations, the obscenity and wisdom, the swagger and the damage. Thanks to standards of public taste, most of the obits couldn't even quote his jokes.
The death of Pryor—a great enemy of ignorance—inspired in me a deep sense of my own ignorance. I knew him only as a distant icon: the guy with the sloping mustache, the shifting face, and the arsenal of voices. As a kid I had seen several of his side projects—the famous Saturday Night Live slur-off with Chevy Chase, Superman III, The Toy—but I had never seen his stand-up. So, on the Monday after his death, I went out to buy all the Pryor stand-up I could find. This turned out to be approximately none. New Yorkers seemed to have collectively obeyed their Pryor-hoarding urge about 24 hours before I did. The shelves had been picked clean. It was a touching (though frustrating) homage. Finally, at a mall 80 miles north of the city, I found a single DVD: 1982's Live on the Sunset Strip, his last great concert film. I bought it and settled down to experience the man firsthand.
Click here for a video slide show of selections from Live on the Sunset Strip.
1) The Clips. Unfortunately, copyright law limits us to 30-second clips, and Pryor is probably the least excerptable comedian of all time. His act, at least in this late phase, is devoid of snappy one-liners. He is not even (in any traditional sense) witty. He digresses, improvises, and rambles—just about every one of his jokes could be "improved" by a talented comedy writer and plenty of comics could beat him in the traditional game of setup and punch line. But Pryor deliberately refused to play that game—on personal and political grounds. Once, during a show in New Orleans, he started to tell the audience how cold it gets in Illinois, and about 30 people shouted (in the classic joke cadence) "How cold is it?" Pryor looked at them and said, "This ain't Johnny Carson, motherfucker." It's best to think of each clip as a very small taste of a long and wandering routine.
2) The Cursing. Johnny Carson once said that he wished Pryor wasn't so "dirty" because he was funny enough to get by without it. Carson missed the point entirely. In Pryor's mouth, the word motherfucker becomes incredibly versatile—it can be venomous, neutral, or affectionate depending on whether he enunciates (moth-er, fuck-er), slurs (mahfur), or compresses (mfr). Pryor's humor powerfully inverts traditional notions of obscenity: In his world, profanity is healthy, while seemingly benign things are unspeakably foul—for instance, the kind of self-distortion it takes to tell a one-liner.