I got challenged by a few of you for something I wrote in my review of “The Internship,” and, in hindsight, you are correct about the way I said something.
I mentioned that I feel like Hollywood failed Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, and a number of you pointed out that Vaughn has a co-screenplay credit on “The Internship,” which hardly makes him a victim of the system. Owen Wilson has also had
The truth is that Vaughn and Wilson are guys who are still working, even if I think they’ve been put in certain boxes that are short-sighted in terms of what they are hired to do, and they seem to have made an uneasy peace with what’s expected of them. I think there are guys who take to life in the box very easily, and they do it very well, and I think they enjoy what they do. And nobody should be faulted for it. I don’t have to enjoy the films, but someone’s paying to see them.
If we want to talk about people who Hollywood failed completely, we should look at the case of Richard Pryor. This guy should have been working with great filmmakers from the start. When you talk to people about Pryor, you have to sort of establish up front which Richard Pryor you are talking about. If you judge him by the filmography he left behind, then it’s a really unpleasant story. There are some bright spots, and I think Pryor did some very good work at a number of points… but it’s really a story of wasted potential.
In some ways, I think Eddie Murphy started in a better place but fell into some of the same traps that hamstrung Pryor, and it upsets me deeply. In both cases, if you really want to understand what could have been, you have to look at the stand-up work they did when they were establishing themselves. You have to listen to the stories they tell, and you have to really… truly… listen to the way they become different characters. Listen to the way they transform completely. They are gifted, unbelievable performers. There is a huge amount of empathy in the work they did, and that’s what I don’t think filmmakers every really got about these guys.
The difference between Pryor and Murphy, though, is the most important one. Richard Pryor was angry. And he earned it. He was blisteringly, howlingly, out-of-control and off-the-rails angry about the America he saw around him, even as he did genuinely important work as an artist that was helping to change that America. Richard Pryor does not soft-pedal his childhood or the people he saw or the experiences that he had. He was willing to grab a scalpel and open himself up completely for the audience, and then he would turn that same scalpel on the world around him and leave it bloody and breathless and helpless with laughter.
When I was young, comedy albums were my special super favorite possessions, due in some part to the way they seemed to make my dad completely crazy. I bought Carlin, Cheech and Chong, Monty Python, Robin Williams, Steve Martin… oh, god, the Steve Martin… and by far, my favorite and most valued possession for about six months was a greatest hits compilation of Pryor bits from his Warner Bros albums. It was so shocking to me the first time I heard it that I could only really do one track a day. I felt like the authorities were going to burst into the room and shout, “WE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND YOU HAVE TO STOP.” It felt like someone speaking that secret Truth that people did their best to keep supressed, like they should only sell it out of the back room of the record store, in a brown paper bag. Pryor blew my mind in the way other artists like John Irving or TS Elliott or Miles Davis or Stanley Kubrick did. Pryor did his stand-up like he knew he was going to die the next day, like he wanted to get it all in before he was gone, like he wanted to make sure you understood because it was all so goddamn important.
And it was. Richard painted one of the most honest portraits of a extraordinarily colorful and difficult life that anyone’s ever painted. The awards he earned, mostly Grammys and a few select career-oriented honors, were for the work where he was at his purest, where it was just Richard and the audience. That was his great work, his real legacy. Richard Pryor and a microphone. That is his purest, strongest, most unfiltered art.
When I listen to him telling a Mudbone story, I see Mudbone. I know what he looks like. I know what the people in his stories look like. I see the world around them. It is a fully-immersed performance. And if I were a filmmaker at the time that Pryor was doing this work and I heard a Mudbone bit, I’d immediately want to hire Pryor to write and star in that film, and I’d hire someone great, someone with a deft touch for period-piece world-buidling. I’d ask him to capture Pryor’s childhood and his ongoing challenge of racial bias and social order. One of the most interesting near-misses in Pryor’s career is “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling,” a semi-autobiographical film that is revealing not only for what Pryor includes, but also what he does not. If you want to see the difference between Pryor live and Pryor on film, check out his “Live On The Sunset Strip” concert film, where he addresses his infamous freebasing accident that left him badly burned. By the time he did the scene on film, he’d had some time to recast the experience and try to make it more of a suicidal cry for help than the stupid consequences of an addict at rock bottom. Pryor on stage doesn’t care about your sympathies. He has been telling uncomfortable truth for so long that he doesn’t have any filters in place. When he’s speaking, he’s telling the truth even when it’s total fiction. Pryor knows people. He earned his knowledge through hard living.
All of this has been going through my head as I’ve been listening to Shout! Factory’s amazing new “No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert,” a box set that features seven CDs worth of material taken from the sessions that produced his Laff, Stax, and Warner Bros. records, and some of it is very familiar while some of it has never been heard before. There are also two DVDs, holding three concert films. I saw “Live In Concert” when I was eleven. It was the middle of the night and it was on cable and everyone in the house was asleep. I wasn’t supposed to be awake and I certainly wasn’t supposed to be watching a Richard Pryor concert, but I couldn’t help my reaction. It felt like I got punched in the stomach the next morning because I had laughed so hard for so long. Having that, “Live On The Sunset Strip” and “Here and Now” in the box is a nice bonus, but really… the CDs are the reason to buy this.
The first disc starts with “Peoria,” and right away, we’re dealing with Pryor at his most autobiographical. Listening to the range of material on that first disc, you can hear Pryor starting to really shred the envelope. The crowds are just as amazing to listen to as Pryor is, because you can hear it when he stuns them by saying something they’d never thought before. You can hear when he pushes his increasingly whiter audiences outside of their comfort zone, and Pryor knows full well what he’s doing. He is provoking because he knows that it is important, that he’s changing things simply by expressing a point of view that had never found a place in the mainstream before. One of his defining moments is a cut called “Africa,” and there’s an alternate version of it on disc six, one I’ve never heard before. It is a moment of personal transformation, and I’ve always been blown away by it. But when you listen to five discs of his earlier material before you get to “Africa,” his sudden epiphany about his use of the word “nigger” is a very different thing. He used the word like a chef uses seasoning, peppering it into everything he said, using it to define the world to some degree. There are at least nine tracks in the collection that use it in the title, including “Nigger Babies,” “Super Nigger,” “Niggers & Italians,” “Nigger With A Seizure,” and the scathing “Bicentennial Nigger,” and listening to Pryor’s evolution as a wordsmith, I am genuinely in awe of the way he captured voice. That word was part of the fabric of reality to him, hence its omnipresence in his work, and when he finally had that awakening in Africa, it didn’t render him a hypocrite for everything he’d done previously. It just made it count because he was obviously never above learning or changing. He used the word because he had to. He knew it was a club that could open doors and that could demand the attention in the national dialogue. He used the word because everyone used the word, and he lived Lenny Bruce’s supposition about stealing all of the power from a word by using it yourself.
The book that comes with the set is amazing, full of great archival photos and remarkable photos, and I think the two-page spread showing one of his handwritten set lists is one of the most amazing comedy artifacts ever. I saw Pryor live very, very late in his career. The MS already had hold of him by that point, and when we went to the Comedy Store, they actually carried him out onstage and set him in a chair, tucking the mic into his hand. The MS gave him tremors, though, and as we were listening to Pryor talk, we were also watching him rock, completely involuntary, back and forth, each rock moving him slightly towards the edge of the chair. Finally, one of the people from the club came out and caught him at the last possible moment, returning him to the seat and then staying close to make sure it didn’t happen again. I would imagine other comedians giving up in that sort of situation, but Pryor never broke his train of thought. His body may have been collapsing on him, but his mind was still there. His anger was still there. And when he got onto a roll, his gift was still there.
If you don’t already worship at the altar of Pryor, now’s a good time to start. “No Pryor Restraint” is an amazing compilation, not a best of, and not just a “leftover scraps” thing, either. It is a sampling of the pure Richard Pryor, the one that got cast in garbage like “The Toy” and “Superman III.” If “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Blazing Saddles” had been the norm and not the exceptions in his film career, then maybe I’d be recommending a box set of all of the “real” Richard Pryor movies as well. As it stands, the albums remain the greatest case that can be made that Richard Pryor is one of the essential American artists of the 20th century, his message as potent and as painful today as it ever was.
“No Pryor Restraint” Is available now.