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Richard Pryor: Tough, Observant, Funny As Hell

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Richard Pryor, what a toughie. The last time I saw him on television was in the late-1980s, when the multiple sclerosis had already drawn him as tight and thin as a strip of rawhide. I don’t remember exactly how he summed up his situation, but in essence it was — “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve blown through three whole fortunes, I wrecked my marriages, I’ve done everything I could think of. Save your pity for somebody who deserves it”.

That toughness fueled his comedy. He didn’t spare anybody, least of all himself. That brutal honesty was also woven through a strain of surrealistic role-playing that enabled him to embody everything from a cheetah checking out its prey to the winter wind in Chicago, waiting to ambush Pryor as he stepped off a plane wearing his lightweight New Orleans street clothes. His extended routines had enough characterization and incident to work as little movies. Think of that killingly funny bit about his sex-crazed pet monkey, in which Pryor plays himself, the monkey, its mate and a movie executive who gets an unexpected dose of monkey-love in his ear. It all ends with the monkey dead from a household accident and a distraught Pryor burying it in his backyard. The neighbor’s nasty German shepherd, seeing his distress, jumps the fence and comes over to offer some consoling words, then, as he prepares to jump back over the fence, says “You know, Rich, I’m gonna be chasing you again tomorrow just like always.” The first time I heard that routine, I laughed so hard I thought I was going to need surgery afterward.

Pryor made a lot of movies, but Hollywood never figured out what to do with his outsized talent. Of course, Pryor himself had the same problem — given complete control over his choice of film projects, Pryor managed to achieve only mediocrity with Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and much worse than that with his other flicks. Anybody here seen Moving?

The concert movies are where Pryor’s genius came out to play, and it’s no accident that the two best ones — Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip — are built around harrowing descriptions of near-death experiences: in the first movie, his heart attack, re-enacted as a mugging; and, in the second movie, his suicide attempt while freebasing cocaine. I’m not going to try to read the man’s mind, but I’ll bet that of all the indignities inflicted on him by multiple sclerosis, one of the worst was that it left him too exhausted to communicate with total freedom. I can imagine that locked up in his head was a scathing, unsparing monologue, loaded with exacting detail and despite all that, roaringly funny. He never got to deliver that routine, but he left plenty of others on record. If you haven’t checked out his albums or that big multi-disc box set put out by Rhino a few years back, then you’re in for a treat. A big treat.

****

Originally posted at The Opinion Mill.
ed: JH

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About Steven Hart