Richard Pryor was the apex of stand-up comedy in his era, and to this day. His influence can be seen in any number of current comedians, most obviously Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s stand-up can be funny, and he is an excellent mimic. But Pryor is a class above. Live in Concert is the first full-length presentation of his act (there was a short film, Live & Smokin’, earlier in the 70s), and it is the best Pryor film, although Live on the Sunset Strip has its moments. Pryor made a few good non-standup movies ... his comedies with Gene Wilder were popular, and I liked him in the drama Blue Collar. But the essence of Richard Pryor is in his standup, and Live in Concert is the place to start.
What is he known for, more than ten years after his death? His influence, to be sure. I imagine a lot of people think of him as a master of profanity, which is true if reductive, or as a master of social commentary in his comedy, which is also true and also reductive. What I think makes him so great is that, even when his anger shows through, he has a basic connection to humanity. His comedy is honest, and we recognize ourselves. He uses words to paint evocative pictures, and he extends his humanity to inanimate objects, which seems odd but which somehow brings out that human side of him even more. It’s not just that he sees the humanity in black people and white people ... he sees humanity in automobiles, and wind, and deer, and shotguns, and bodily organs. His acceptance is expansive.
He is, of course, hilarious. But part of the hilarity comes from the way he personifies the objects in his life. When he has a heart attack, he takes on a number of characters, including his heart and himself, but also including God (his heart gets pissed at Rich for going behind the heart’s back to beg God for mercy). When he goes deer hunting with his dad, he is himself, and he is his dad, and he is a deer, and he is the crunching leaves under their feet. In one of the most famous scenes from Sunset Strip, Pryor becomes his crack pipe, so willing to be Rich’s friend that you understand the addiction, right up to the point where he sets himself on fire.
It’s a remarkable gift. It wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t funny ... Pryor was a comedian ... but it usually is very, very funny. Then you consider the importance of social commentary in his act, both implicit and explicit. Add in his marvelous ability to cuss like a motherfucker. When Richard Pryor was on, there was no one better.
You could do worse than to listen to his many comedy albums. The albums based on Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip are excellent, Bicentennial Nigger from 1976 was a seminal bicentennial work, and there’s even a nine-disc box set of all his Warner Brothers records. But I think he’s best when you can see him, which is why I prefer the movies. And Live in Concert is the best of those. 10/10.