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Pryor Experiences

Skip Heller By

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If it seems like everything is being anthologized into a box set these days, that's because it is. While on a trip to Amoeba Music (the enormous record store from where I live about a block), I took stock of all kinds of box sets. There was even one of the Mitch Miller Sing Along With stuff. Oh joy. The thought of being trapped in a room with someone who could get through even one disc of that... Horrors.

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 television—Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May, Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothers—anymore 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 comedy—a comedy entirely based on community, story, and language—had 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.


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