Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) — Profane and Offensive in the Best Ways!
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, it’s time to witness the birth of the theatrical stand-up comedy film, from one of the greats who made the artform a playground all his own. From 1979, directed by Jeff Margolis, it’s Richard Pryor: Live in Concert! Let’s get into it!
Let’s take a moment to orient ourselves in Richard Pryor’s life to this point. The man has been through some shit since his birth in 1940, growing up in a Peoria brothel to abusive pimp and prostitute parents, regularly neglected and abused by the grandmother who owned the place, sexually assaulted at a young age, and more than familiar with prisons of both the civilian and military persuasions by maturity. He’s gone through an entire early career as a wannabe Bill Cosby, pitching softballs to white audiences on late night telly and earning himself a Las Vegas residency that he quit mid-set on realizing how go-nowhere his career had become. The preceding decade has seen him reinvent himself from the ground up, pushing from middlebrow comedy to profanity-laden blue humor about all manner of shocking and taboo topics, bringing everyone and everything within arm’s reach for a verbal rough ’n’ tumble live on stage, burnishing his reputation as a bluntly honest and uproarious comedian with every set. Across the 1970s, he’s formed and broken ties with Laff Records (who continued leveraging rights to his older material anytime something notable happened in his public life), released numerous highly successful live albums in his new style through multiple labels, featured as comedy MC for Wattstax, cowritten Blazing Saddles and lost the lead thanks to his controversial public image, hosted Saturday Night Live and starred in one of their best-loved sketches, produced his own self-titled short-lived variety series, and begun his acclaimed film partnership with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak — not forgetting the numerous other feature film starring roles, three of eventually seven marriages to five women, and the production of a rough early attempt at live comedy concert film in Live And Smokin’!
As you might guess from the run-on sentence, it’s been a busy and lucrative 1970s for Richard Pryor. This here picture’s before his eye-opening trip to Zimbabwe led to him dropping the n-word from his vocabulary, before his self-immolating freebasing incident, before numerous ill-conceived movie projects and a rush of younger comedians imitating his style robbed him the essential cool factor what made him so hot ticket an item for a solid decade. Certainly long before the serious effects of abusing hard drugs so long and the onset of multiple sclerosis wracked his body. Here, in December 1978, on the Long Beach leg of his latest tour, aged 38, we’ve a comic in his prime, all the kinks worked out and the routines well-rehearsed without coming off as overly familiar and the audience fully on his side. Richard Pryor is big and successful enough to make an hour twenty of his set into a film and have it land with such an enormous splash on release the next month, it convinces a large enough body of comedians on the value in theatrical bookings for recorded live comedy that even Bill Cosby, his original inspiration, got in on the act. With all this cultural context and public affection at Pryor’s back, it’s braindead easy to guess how ’n’ why Live in Concert made an impact and earned itself a slot in the Registry. It is therefore the more immediately interesting question to ask why the film and thereby Pryor’s set work so well as they do.
…besides the easy answer of “because they’re funny.” Naturally enough, that’s the easy and simple idea behind any renowned comic, if subjective as with all humor topics. It’s plain more interesting for me to write and hopefully you to read if we pick at Pryor some and try at understanding the skill behind the laughter.
To the obvious first: Pryor’s set here covers a broad range of topics, and he displays impressive dexterity at hopping from subject to subject. In his time onstage, he covers matters of police brutality, marital problems, heart attacks, the grieving process, his experiences with childhood discipline, pet ownership regarding monkeys and horses and dogs, hypothetical means of dealing with rapists, his relationship with his own children and their lying process, contemporary heavyweight champ Leon Spinks, the difficulty of staying in shape, the joys of being in nature, the terror of being in nature, his struggles during sex, his experiences while traveling abroad, and the ever-popular observation of differences between white people and black people. All involving in the moment, all complete anecdotes or narratives unto themselves, all so casually linked by a single dangling thought at the close to each. Pryor doesn’t just rely on rehearsed routine to get from place to place, though; fairly often he’ll feed off his audience’s reactions, use a heckler or particularly amusing action from the front row to flip into his next bit, and it’s equally smooth as when he controls the flow himself. In combination with the varied order on the related Wanted: Live in Concert album of the same tour — and not just in track order drawn from three different performances, each track with multiple routines also seen here features differing orders and connections between each segment — it’s clear Pryor has these ideas so interwoven in his head he could stroll through the lot on a different route every night and still hit all necessary beats without stumbling.
A feat he can accomplish because these routines are immensely personal. Not merely in the sense they’re drawn from his life, for though a great number are and were known news items to his audience in the day, there’s as many exaggerated well past the point of believability to enhance the humor. Chiefly, rather, in the sense Pryor inserts himself as an active participant into every joke. There’s no putting a subject at distance: when someone or something enters Pryor’s story, he’s right there embodying them with an energy he accords absolutely all participants. A heart attack grips him for the first time in his life, he becomes a personified mugger twisting the knife as Richard drops to his knees helpless, and the bored angel manning the switchboard when he tries to put in a call to God. In one swift motion he’s a host of horny animals rawing for a go at his leg and the man scrambling for help that won’t come, he’s both partners in an awkward and mutually dissatisfying fucking session, he’s Muhammad Ali pounding the air right out his lungs and the air escaping and his lungs collapsing and his ribs cracking AND his legs refusing to fall because they’re not the ones taking a beating. People and body parts, crowds and individuals, the famous and anonymous, concrete matter and philosophical concepts alike, they all play out in the vessel who is Richard Pryor. Within this framework, a little of everything gets into Pryor and vice-versa, creating a massive playground for the man to jump around and hump upon and juke ’n’ jive and run all about, transforming his empty stage into whatever or wherever he needs, with the whoever handily filled by one guy. The set envelops all within its far-reaching scope, giving Pryor not only a jumbled network of interlinked personas and ideas to play off, but letting him switch up the power dynamics on the fly too.
This here’s vital for a routine so centrally pegged on having a go at people regarding their identity. Very rarely does Pryor tap into the divide which defines American life and come up feeling like he’s belittling or diminishing people. He’s mean and relentless as fuck, yeah, and he sure doesn’t give anyone quarter for their bullshit when swinging that direction, but few remain dominant powers long. The nerdy out’ve touch white characters can shuffle aside to make room for bass-throated bulllies in a snap, the cool happenin’ black brothers are replaced by withering wimpering cowards (usually Pryor as himself), the mighty Macho Man he-man loses confidence when faced with a woman who won’t orgasm, a prissy woman who won’t piss in the woods gains control and ends the night topping Pryor in bed. Practically the only person not subject to some reversal throughout the routine is Leon Spinks, probably because this is pre-rematch Leon Spinks and beating Ali earned him all the respect in the world (or at least the comedic fear of swift-fisted retaliation). What’s notable and helpful amidst these shifting routines is how Pryor imposes a mostly consistent moral framework atop the lot. Fully aware of the ills of institutionalized bigotry and deeply ingrained racism and casual discrimination then as now, those with greater real world sway are made butt of the joke far more often (white characters regularly come off as ridiculous even when dominant), and those with a lot of ill-gotten power like rapists and police are either humiliated by sphinctering pussies or rendered so ridiculously callous as to wrap back around as funny again. Netflix’s YouTube channel even notes as much in a highlight upload. Vicious as he is, Pryor measures his hits proportionate to how much the target deserves a blow upside the head, and thus transgresses all manner of conventional boundaries whilst remaining true to his own (honestly better suited to modern morals) principles, and funny as hell to boot.
It’s worth considering the places where Pryor isn’t quite so successful to understand how this approach works so well otherwise. Stories regarding the feminine perspective and one short bit regarding a stammering Chinese guy come closest to falling apart for my tastes, and I think it’s because Pryor reaches too far from his own experiences. He’s the star of so many anecdotes and has either been in similar shoes to the remainder or gotten close enough to offer a reasonable facsimile (a middle-aged black man of his time has no trouble conjuring the casual white bigot’s perspective), but when he gets into talking about shrill domineering women or persons whose appearance and manner are exotic to his eye, he somewhat forgets the essential quality of using empathy to draw bodies close for the purpose of intelligently pulling them down. Not ENTIRELY, mind — the aforementioned power-swapping gives the sex and love routines solid punchlines, and the Chinese guy goes from an object of ridicule to a means of punishing Pryor for being wishy-washy in a related segment. Not enough to make me laugh, just enough to keep the set from collapse. They’re close, though, and their brief lapses in judgement reveal just how often some of Pryor’s successors operate sans sensible judgement whatsoever. Where he measured and drew the knife carefully while reserving licks for himself, they blindly bumrush in thickly padded armor. How many shocking insult comics can you name who place themselves as the great infallible ego, strode across the world entire, maybe ribbing themselves a little yet FAR more interested in finding targets they deem strange or uncomfortable or othered and ripping into them like they’re hardly human? How many start whipcrack sharp and measured in their observations, before falling behind the curve and turning to bashing those whom society at large still hasn’t gotten the memo about treating right because it’s an easy laugh, until doing so becomes the comic’s entire personality? How many have lucrative exclusive deals with Netflix, sitting right alongside this film which shows them up to the last, completely forgetting the guy who did it first also did it best by implicating himself as the biggest boob of all and never forgetting everyone else is only a few degrees of boobery removed from he?
Sure, Richard Pryor’s funny in Live in Concert. There’s hardly a five-minute stretch in these eighty without at least one snicker-worthy moment, and at least a dozen full-throat laughs throughout whether you’re counting the Exorcist demon doberman or the ear-dicking monkey or the stitch in your side hired to kill your ass or his grandmother’s reaction to snorting cocaine at the dinner table or the deer who live their entire lives wide-eyed in fear. All my higher-minded finagling is ultimately in service of the fact Richard Pryor could spin a yarn and contort his face and fling his body and manipulate his voice into something hilarious no matter the topic at his peak. I wager, however, Live in Concert remains hilarious where a great many of the films it inspired across the next few decades inspire as many twist-lipped “hmmm, dunnow bout that chief”s as genuine laughs thanks to Pryor’s deft navigation of a landscape inspired by careful examination of life drawn all cross his body, leaping with hammer in hand from corner to corner ready to whack via a smart crack and smack himself in equal measure along the way. He’s vulgar without being careless, relentless without being dumb, mean to constructive ends rather than mean for meanness’ sake. He’s out here to get a laugh by highlighting societal shortcomings rather than using them to further his provocative ends. A great deal of challenge has leaked out from his work since his day, for what was challenging forty years back is now the bedrock to the bedrock to the bedrock of a new new new new new comedic generation, but he remains here pointedly capable of spanning the globe entire on a freewheeling verbal tour of his brain’s contents and landing to a satisfying close without any indication he gave you a fraction of everything he had to give. In brief, Live in Concert is funny and likely to remain funny for a long time yet ‘cause the man on the stage was intelligent, experienced, and well-equipped to tackle everything from minor annoyances to major societal concerns with equalizing fervor… and also ‘cause it’s really fucking funny when he brings back the monkey’s chittering in the middle of setting the stage for a scene in the quiet woods.
Another fortnight, another entrant down! They move so fast, don’t they? Better get your comments in quick, then — about Pryor, or stand-up in general, or some third topic pertaining to this film! Leave ’em below, and come back in two weeks for another Registry picture! Next time, we move to the world of documentary film with Sylvia Morales and her video art collage attempt to reverse centuries of women’s erasure from Mexican and Mexican-American histories in 1979’s Chicana. You can find it either through an archive.org copy or through Kanopy with a participating library card. See you then!
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