In those pre-Seinfeld days, standup comedians made live albums (roughly one per year), played Vegas showrooms, toured nightclubs, appeared on television talk shows, and maybe appeared in movies. Big maybe. Few big standup stars really made the jump to formidable big screen careers. Not that they have lately, for that matter. In this respect, Woody Allen is more than unique.
This doesn't lessen the impact of the great standup starts to emerge in the wake of televisionMort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May, Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothersanymore than it should it explain why the transition is so hard to make.
In the post-Bruce comedy world, the first major voices to emerge were really George Carlin and Richard Pryor. There were other exceptional comedians (David Steinberg and Robert Klein leap to mind) who did wonderful and influential work. But Carlin and Pryor dominated the game. They were the Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson of comedy, and now they are both history.
Shout Factory! has just anthologized Pryor's (largely unreleased) recorded canon and his three standup feature films into a mammoth box, seven compact discs, two DVDs, and a sixty-page hardbound book. It's called No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert. Between this and the Rhino nine-disc box set ... And It's Deep, Too: The Complete Warner Bros Recordings (2000), Richard Pryor is now fully dealt with.
Although the Warners releases were the official body of work, every great comedian worth his salt is at best only mildly represented by his official releases, and Pryor is arguably the greatest. The work collected here dates all the way back to 1966, predating anything on Deep, Too by two years.
Just as the Jay McShann recordings of a pre-bop Charlie Parker fascinate us by showing us glimpses of genius in formation, so, too, do these early Pryor recordings. He does not arrive in 1966 fully formed from the first note like Freddie Hubbard seems to have. His pre-1974 output brings to mind something more like the development of Miles Davis. Each man started as a product of his respective time, and then proceeded to discard what wasn't his own voice, refining his elements organically into a true, unimpeachable voice. In both cases, it took years to develop, but guys like Miles and Pryor are so compelling that we can't look away, even from the awkward moments. In fact, we examine and reexamine the work, looking for clues.
In May 1974, Pryor released That Nigger's Crazy, first on Stax Records' Partee label. Stax unfortunately folded soon after, but the LP went to #1 on the Billboard R&B albums chart and won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album that year . Pryor had worked hard cultivating his standup style for a decade, and his act was shaped and sharpened like a utensil. He connected with black audiences in a way no comedian yet had. True, he stood on the shoulder of giants, but he was as grand as any of his comedy ancestors.
Crazy was pitch-perfect. In Pryor, Black America found a master storyteller whose ability to seamlessly match language to subject matter had never before been equaled by any other comedian. Not even Yiddish comedya comedy entirely based on community, story, and languagehad a virtuoso on parity with Pryor.
To us children of baby boomers, Crazy was a forbidden pleasure. Everybody's older brother seemed to have a copy of it, and when the house was empty, you listened to it, maybe with a friend, definitely pretending to get the jokes, and carefully returning it to wherever you were not supposed to have known it was.
My favorite thing on that album was "Have Your Ass Home By 11:00," where Pryor discussed the disheartening realities of being a kid with a curfew, explaining that nothing cool happened until 11:30.
I loved it.
As he went deeper into his art as a standup and also as a film actor, his personal problems too often landed him in the public eye. 1974 should have stood as the year of his hit album and Grammy, but it was also the year he spent ten days in jail for tax evasion. Four years later, he shot at a car his wife was driving. There were heart attacks. Everything he did was news. In 1980, he set himself on fire while freebasing and drinking, which was certainly news.
It all became the stuff of his work.
But instead of painting himself as a cartoon bad boy, he went deeper into self-examination, expressing his frailty in a way that made his worst moments forgivable, almost lovable. And he told some horrible tales about himself. The 1978 concert film Live In Concertfilmed just south of Los Angeles in Long Beachwas likely his first masterpiece. If Crazy was his The New Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige, 1956), this is his Milestones (Columbia, 1958). The style is taut but not stiff, the pace brisk but not rushed. He moves through a variety of voices and imitations, my favorite being his rendering of what the heart attack told him as he was struck by it. The two-record set of the show, Wanted (Warner Bros, 1979), is very good. But the film is the whole nine yards. Pryor's face and body are as wildly expressive as they are expressively wild. He alternates the collected, streetwise voice with the manic one in what would have likely been the greatest filmed comic performance ever had he not topped it with Live On The Sunset Strip (Warner Bros, 1982), released as a single LP and also as a full-length film.
Strip is his Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959). This is the performance people mean when they speak of Pryor as a genius, and they're right. He's unflinching, whether dishing hard luck romance stories or talking about life in the burn ward after his freebase incident. Instead of his heart attack talking to him, now we hear his freebase pipe giving him advice. The whole 82 minutes is a masterstroke of timing, pace, tone, language, grand laughs, and cheap ones.
The unfortunate realization is how little standup he did between the two concert films. While the pre-1978 phases are always great, he hits his stride in with the 1978 film, but distractions ranging from making Hollywood movies to substance abuse seem to have put live comedy performance largely on hold during his most powerful phase.
He would make one last concert film in 1983, Here And Now, that catches the end of a great period, much as Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961) catches the end of the fifties Miles reign. Each is a pleasure, but each carries its former glories with it. And those glories overshadow all things subsequent.
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he spoke about it as frankly as he did about cocaine, heart attacks, bad love, and growing up in a Peoria whorehouse.
When I first moved to LA, in 1995, Pryor appeared for a few nights at the Comedy Store, on the Sunset Strip. I took the bus two nights in a row to see if I could get in, but by this point, Pryor's condition was known in show business circles, so it was sold out both times I went.
MS ravaged his body and speech. I get the sense Pryor very little of the money he earned, because he spent his last years living in a relatively modest San Fernando Valley house. He remarried his ex-wife Jennifer Lee, and she was his caretaker for the final ten years or so of his life. I spoke to her around the time Rhino issued their box of the Warners recordings. I asked her what Richard liked to do, since his physical condition was then deteriorating. She said they went to the movies a lot. I asked if he watched any comedians anymore. She said he didn't, but that he still really liked the Cold War era hipsomatic orator, Lord Buckley.
I was just then writing liner notes for a Buckley box set that wound up never coming out, and I told her I had some Buckley that Richard Pryor had likely never heard.
"How quickly can you send it?" she joked.
I was at the post office the next day.
He died in December, 2005. I remember it well. I lived in the Valley at that point, and I was sitting in a diner on Magnolia Blvd, and I heard someone yell from the kitchen "Hey! Richard Pryor just died! I heard it on the radio."
Within a few minutes, the waitresses had told everyone in the place, and I could hear pieces of conversations through the place, talking about cocaine, favorite parts of his movies, even a few lines from standup bits.
George Carlin brilliantly twisted the grammar of life into objective comedy, but Pryor was subjective and self-referenced. To Pryor, freebase addiction was funny. His own heart attack was funny. Burning himself up was funny. Ali was funny. Even the Mafia was funny. Life could be funny even as if was painful. And you could deal with the uncomfortable realities if you made your frailty funny.