Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

Richard Pryor - Live in Concert (1979)In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the eponymous great comedian drops what has become euphemistically known as “the N-word” forty-two times. The word, in Pryor’s hands, becomes a rueful acknowledgment of fellowship, of shared indignity and terror and general craziness connected with being black in a racist white society. Occasionally he puts it in the mouth of a white person, but most often Pryor uses it interchangeably with “brother.” (As a man in the ‘70s, Pryor was not especially enlightened on matters of feminism — but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned with women’s struggles, either.)

Eventually, in his later concert film Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor talked about his trip to Africa, and said “I ain’t gonna never call another black man a n——. You know, ‘cause we never was no n——s. That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness.” In the 1979 film, though, Pryor is (and would later remain) conversant with his own wretchedness — his embarrassing, screwed-up humanity, the ways in which he was down in the dirt with the rest of us. He was the first to call himself out, and he fashioned his foibles into poetry. Live in Concert is not art as filmmaking — director Jeff Margolis, who has helmed TV specials and awards shows for decades, basically just keeps Pryor in focus. It’s the text, the material, that I value as art, as literature, as hilarious and heartbreaking memoir.

Pryor flits from subject to subject, but the jewel in the crown of Live in Concert is his account of his heart attack, in which Pryor famously gives voice to himself and to his own aggrieved heart (“You thinkin’ about dyin’ now, ain’t you?” the organ growls as it goes into cardiac arrest; “You didn’t think about it when you was eatin’ all that pork”). Pryor will occasionally lapse into a truism — “The hospital ain’t no place to get well” — and then chase it with “You can die in there and nobody give a fuck,” something so bleak and blunt it forges its own hilarity. In reviewing Sunset Strip, Pauline Kael — a big fan of Pryor — somewhat uncharitably noted that his routine about his self-immolating suicide attempt (which he passed off then as an accident) couldn’t help but be a pale echo of the earlier heart-attack bit. But Pryor so often abused his own body, as if in twisted solidarity with his abusers from his childhood, that it was inevitable that he should work up comedy about his own physical self-disrespect.

When Pryor hops from being Pryor to being his heart to being an indifferent phone-operator angel in heaven, he’s firing on all cylinders and doing what he did better than anyone — breathing life into people and things, animate and inanimate, raising monkeys and dogs and deer and car tires to his own level of awareness — sharp, paranoid, lowdown and unsentimental. Pryor, especially here, doesn’t do anything so mundane as tell jokes. He embodies; he inhabits. Sometimes, not to get offensively voodoo-mystical about it, he seems to channel alien consciousness and reinterpret it through his own wounded yet tickled human experience.

Pryor creates for us an entire world, in seventy-some minutes, with just a microphone — a world of danger and rage, yes, but also one of mitigating ironies. “I woke up in an ambulance, right,” he says after his heart punks out on him. “And there wasn’t nothing but white people staring at me. I said, Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” For Pryor, whose art and viewpoint were so snugly connected to his experience as a black man, ending up in white heaven (“Now I got to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days”) would have been the ultimate indignity and joke. Pryor’s comedy draws on deep African and African-American traditions of folklore, storytelling, playing the dozens, anthropomorphism. He was an original, a visionary, a crowded house of voices — an American sangoma, healing with visions and laughter and empathy, divining by throwing his own bones.

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