During the so-called Stand-Up Comedy Boom of the late 1980s, I tended bar at a joint called A Comic Café. It straddled the dividing line between Marietta, the affluent Atlanta suburb that gave us all Newt Gingrich, and Smyrna, the less-than-affluent suburb where being able to spell “Smyrna” is an indication of genius. There I got to see many of “America’s favorite comics,” like Drew Carey and Brett Butler and Sinbad, before they landed TV shows and became painfully unfunny. I also encountered lesser-known talents, like Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show) and Will Durst (political comic and columnist for Mother Jones), who greatly influenced the way I look at the world. Most importantly, I learned three vital facts of the comedy business:
1. There is a special circle of hell reserved for AM drive-time DJs who steal nightclub comics’ bits;
2. Comics don’t care how well your joke went over with the boys in Risk Management, they’re not going to use it;
3. Never allow yourself to be called or worse, billed as a “funnyman.”
The difference between “comedian” and “funnyman” is stark. A comedian is a wry observer of the human condition who tells stories and, in the best of circumstances, uses his or her gift to drive home brutal truths. Lenny Bruce was a comedian. George Carlin. Bill Hicks. Chris Rock. Eddie Izzard. A funnyman is a clown, a purveyor of slapstick and goofy faces. Red Skelton. Jerry Lewis. Gallagher. Martin Lawrence. Carrot Top.
Sometimes the distinction is blurred, never more than in the career of Richard Pryor. At the height of his powers, Pryor was one of stand-up’s true superstars, possessed of industry clout and an air of dangerous hedonism. His act was notorious for rapid-fire obscenities and unrestrained sexual themes. His performance as one of the first hosts of Saturday Night Live was brilliant but tainted by NBC’s precautionary seven-second delay. Originally signed to play the lead in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), his role went to Cleavon Little after the film’s backers balked at Pryor’s reputation (Pryor received a screenplay credit). While Pryor’s difficulties in breaking through may have had as much to do with his blackness as his racy material, the quality of said material and Pryor’s megawatt charisma also crossed racial lines to earn him a wide following.
Though he was known for foul language and blue material in much the same way as Redd Foxx had been for a previous generation, they are not the heart of Pryor’s act. All the “dicks” and “pussies” and “motherfuckers” were window dressing; Pryor never went onstage without observing some hard truths. More than anything else, he was a diarist, a confessional artist whose monologues derived from his own chaotic and frequently self-destructive life, Brother Richard testifying from the lip of the abyss.
Live on the Sunset Strip and Here and Now, newly rereleased by Columbia as a two-disc set, provide a chronicle of sorts. Certainly funny, they both address the end of Pryor’s 20-year stumble through alcohol and drug addiction, which reached its grisly climax when Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine in 1981, sustaining third-degree burns over most of his body. While Pryor ranges all over the map in these concerts, the fire and his subsequent decision to kick drugs are the touchstone to which he returns again and again.
Sunset Strip, filmed at the Hollywood Palladium, was Pryor’s comeback after the fire, a point brought home by the resplendent red suit he wears onstage. The act is fast-paced and upbeat, starting in his traditional mode with a discourse on intercourse and running the gamut of trademark characters and Pryorisms — a pair of cheetahs in Africa shoot the breeze while they give a herd of gazelle a head start; marriage to a white woman is better because she’ll fall for the “it’s a black thing” line; Pryor’s alter-ego, the wino philosopher Mudbone. Perhaps the funniest bit in the film is Pryor’s story of working a Mafia-owned strip joint and attempting to stick up the owners to get paid, which tickles them no end, and suddenly Pryor finds himself the mascot of wise guys and ice-pick killers.
The performance veers wildly from topic to topic, but Pryor deftly wraps it around two confessional pieces. The first describes his trip to central Africa, his “roots” journey, where he was awestruck by the equanimity of Kenyan society. After three weeks there, Pryor found he had not used the word “nigger” once, “because there are no niggers there,” and here he vows he will never again call another black man by that name. The moment earns him an ovation form an audience that includes Jesse Jackson.
The film’s climax comes with Pryor’s harrowing description of his addiction to freebasing, played out as a dialogue between a weak-willed Pryor and his alpha-male glass pipe, who cajoles Pryor through the loss of friends and loved ones and a last-ditch attempt at an intervention by Pryor’s friend, football legend Jim Brown. The spiral is rendered with the darkest humor, culminating in the explosion (“When you are on fire, people will get out of your way”) and Pryor’s hospitalization, all in grisly detail. Suddenly the film becomes the funniest “Scared Straight” documentary there is.
It appears to have worked for Pryor. Here and Now, filmed at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, seven months he’s quit drugs and alcohol. The clean-and-sober Pryor is still funny, but this show has a slower pace, not as much edge, and is more deeply confessional. Pryor directed this film himself, with personal commentary at the beginning. The extended bits are of a kind — the hell of coming home drunk and trying to make it through a spinning house at a slow crawl; the realization that Pryor’s dick isn’t nearly as big as he thought it was when he was high; meeting ugly women he has no recollection of sleeping with. For the final bit, he characterizes a neighborhood kid who appeared to be just the coolest dude until young Pryor realized the kid is on smack. Long and tragically funny, it’s more a dramatic monologue than a comedy bit, and if one ignores the fact that it stops the concert’s momentum stone dead, it’s really a fine performance piece.
The serious tone is a problem, however. Relatively subdued, Pryor is in poor command of his audience, who are restless and rude. He frequently has to stop for hecklers, many incredulous of his sobriety. It’s clear that this is not what many in the crowd expected of a Richard Pryor show.
It’s an unfortunate but familiar scenario for fans of people like Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, William Blake and Aerosmith, fans who must ask how closely linked the artists’ works are to the stuff they ingested. There’s something unconscionably icky about admitting that these creative minds may well have produced their best work on drugs, because it’s tantamount to being complicit in self-destructive behavior, to telling them we liked them better when they were killing themselves. Do we prefer the in-your-face Richard Pryor of the drug years, of Sunset Strip and his first, best film, Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979) or the fully functional but not as outrageous latter Pryor? Do we prefer the crowd-pleasing funnyman or the truth-telling comedian?
Pryor retired from active performing in 1986 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but as the front page of his website says, “I ain’t dead yet, motherfucker!” He’s still out there, and he has no regrets.