[15 November 2004]
Richard Pryor is the greatest stand-up comic of the 20th century. Sure, arguments can be made for the free speech fights of cats like Lenny Bruce, or the stupor-shaking consciousness of a verbal locomotive like Bill Hicks, but no one is as incisive and fearless as Pryor. Pryor’s social commentary, which implicates and engages its audience, often starts out funny, then turns stone cold sober.
Such insights are dangerous to a nation ruled by taboos, confronting “unmentionables” like race relations and sex, provoking listeners to laugh, then think about the impetus behind their tears. Pryor’s quest for truth is as much a reflection of his own self-doubts as it is a projection of his targets’. “It’s hard enough being a human being… just to walk through life decent as a person,” Pryor once said in his act, and it’s a telling encapsulation. Pryor’s comedy is expresses the pains and joys of daily existence.
Unfortunately, the 40-minute Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! merely skims the surface of Pryor’s larger-than-life persona. The celebratory program, which originally aired last year on Comedy Central, is more a parade of colleagues’ shout-outs rather than a study of Pryor himself. A multitude of comedians (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Denis Leary, Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Harvey, and D.L. Hughley, among others) regurgitate well-known observations concerning Pryor’s groundbreaking routines. An exercise in quick-cut talking-head narcissism, the program recalls the pop culture twaddle of I Love the ‘70s or Best Week Ever. Interviewees finish Pryor’s jokes or repeat their favorite punch lines; in other words, their appearances are edited to offer us less of what we really want: Pryor in action.
We are given only quick glimpses of his career, in the form of clips from the landmark concert films Live in Concert (1979) and Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), NBC’s short-lived The Richard Pryor Show (1977), and mainstream films like Stir Crazy (1980). I Ain’t Dead Yet spends more time on its interview subjects, who perform like elementary school children. Asked to describe Pryor in one word, each has a ready answer (Jon Stewart: “transcendent”; Wanda Sykes: “Oprah”); elsewhere, they’re asked to respond to Mitch Albom-isms like, “What would God say to Richard when he gets to heaven?” These inquiries are not only a waste of time, but they also reduce Pryor to buzzwords. When they do expand beyond a shallow quip, most of the interviewees make self-evident points: Mos Def says that, instead of talking around race, “Richard talked to it” and Robert Townsend muses on Pryor’s ability to “make you laugh so hard, and then break your heart.” Valid perceptions, but nothing that alters or enriches the impressions we already had.
Ironically, some of the most insightful commentary is relegated to the DVD’s 30 minutes of bonus interviews (the only bonus feature on the disc besides commercials for other Comedy Central products). Here, subjects start and finish complete thoughts without the intrusion of a trigger-happy editor. Dave Chappelle, speaking about the “definitive difference” between blacks and whites, invokes his theory of “control vs. adaptation”: “Everybody looks at the moon, but only a white man says, ‘I’ve got to go there.’” Here Chappelle reveals one aspect of Pryor’s brilliance, as he never sought a showman’s control over his act (set-up, punch line, set-up, punch line), but instead adapted to each crowd, molding the act’s diversions and nuances into something unpredictable and powerful. Both Goldberg and Sykes cite Pryor’s brazen refusal to be judged; as Sykes says, “He didn’t give a fuck.” This, too, is a valid point, for some of Pryor’s most affecting bits revolve around soul-baring personal problems, most notably, his heart attacks and addictions. The program itself lacks such provocative contemplations, in favor of efficient, yet trivial, pats on the back.
I Ain’t Dead Yet doesn’t pretend to be definitive; nonetheless, it is an insubstantial program about a substantial figure. It seems merely the sort of vapid cross-promotional product used to tie in to a new movie or comeback tour. Sadly, Pryor (who, since 1986, has been battling Multiple Sclerosis) has nothing of the kind on the horizon, leaving I Ain’t Dead Yet to stand as a superficial pre-mortem exaltation. Frankly, Pryor deserves better.