Monday, August 3, 2009

On DVD: "Richard Pryor- Live and Smokin'"

When Richard Pryor took the stage at the New York City Improv on April 29, 1971, he was several years from taking his rightful place as America’s biggest comedy superstar. He first came to fame in the late 1960s, and gained some traction on television and in nightclubs doing clean, innocuous material in the style of Bill Cosby. But he dropped out of the mainstream in 1967 (following a famous incident where he walked off a Las Vegas stage in the middle of a show), moved to Berkeley, and developed an act that was rougher and dirtier, more raw and honest. That new material appeared on his immortal album Craps (After Hours) , recorded at the Redd Foxx Club in Hollywood in January of 1971.

That was pretty much the extent of his career when director Michael Blum filmed Pryor’s brief set at the Improv that April evening in ‘71—he had not yet made a splash with his supporting roles in The Mack or Lady Sings the Blues, hadn’t released his smash Warner Brothers albums That Nigger’s Crazy or Is It Something I Said? , and most importantly, he hadn’t ever done his act on film before. His three subsequent, theatrically released concert films—Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and Richard Pryor Here and Now—pretty much became the gold standard for an entire generation of comics (and won him the respect of reputable critics; the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael said Live in Concert was “probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films”).

But in Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’, his first “in concert” movie, he is clearly thrown by the presence of the cameras; he mentions them frequently and seems to let them throw off his timing. As a general rule, his set is loose and rambling, perhaps a bit too much so—by the mid 1970s, Pryor was stalking the stage and landing comic punches like a prize fighter, and even his most off-hand comment or tossed-off ad-lib packed a wallop. Here, he seems (in places) uncertain, tentative, still finding his voice.

And that is, perhaps, what makes Live and Smokin’ so extraordinary for Pryor fans and students of stand-up. Few comics were more distinctively themselves than Pryor, and the chance to see him at this unpolished, embryonic stage is somewhat remarkable. The trademark Pryor candor is fully intact—he talks about growing up in a whorehouse (“That’s where I first met white dudes—they used to come to our neighborhood to help the economy”), delivers some priceless commentary on race, and even goes into an odd, astonishingly frank discussion of his experiments with homosexuality.

But there is no doubt that there are slow spots, chunks where he wanders aimlessly or improvises unsuccessfully, and his segueways are often abrupt. He finally hits his stride about halfway through, when he enacts a face-off between Dracula and a street brother; he seems to get more comfortable when he can get inside some characters. He follows that up with a funny bit about religion and then moves into the classic routine in which he portrays a neighborhood wino (“Man, I knowed Jesus!”) out on the corner directing traffic (“You better slow that car down! This is a neighborhood, this ain’t no residential district!”) before having a tête-à-tête with the neighborhood junkie (he plays both roles). By the end of the act, Pryor achieves some surprising pathos (somewhat obscured by the peculiar freeze frame that closes the film).

So there’s funny stuff in it, but it is a bit of a bumpy ride (this presumably accounts for the fact that, though shot in 1971, it was first seen in a 1985 VHS release). However, some of the online reviews are overly critical, claiming that Pryor is way off his game and bombs in front of the Improv audience. It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not a problem of poor material; many of those extended bits, including those listed above and his uproarious comparison of white and black dinner tables, are on That Nigger’s Crazy, and he destroys with them. The trouble is that he did those early albums in front of predominately black audiences, and we can presume (based on the venue and some of Pryor’s comments during the show) that in this film, he’s playing for a mostly-white crowd. When he jokes, “I was a Negro for 23 years. I gave that shit up—no room for advancement,” it doesn’t get a titter, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad line; it means that this white audience didn’t know what the hell to make of Richard Pryor. Maybe it’s just a bad audience; more likely, they’d never seen anything like him before. They hadn’t heard his albums, hadn’t seen his films, and weren’t used to his aggressive style of comedy—or his prickly responses to their lack of enthusiasm (“I hate to see people leaving when I talk,” he says, as an audience member does just that, and continues, only half-jokingly, “I hope you get raped by black folks with the clap”). Twenty years later, white audiences—who tuned in to Def Comedy Jam every week—would pay good money to be insulted by black comics. This crowd didn’t know what hit them—but by the time Pryor did his act for the motion picture cameras again, the audience would know exactly what they were going to get.

Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’ is definitely the least of Pryor’s concert films, but it is a fine piece of comic archaeology. In my review of Judd Apatow’s Funny People, I pointed out the fine details in the film—specifically, that the young comedy geeks played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill do, in fact, seem like the kind of guys who would have framed Redd Foxx and Alan Sherman record covers on their wall. If I may take that a step further, I’ll bet they’re the kind of guys who would pick this disc up on the day of its release. More casual viewers would be better advised to begin with Live in Concert, but Live and Smokin’ offers a valuable document of the early years of our most influential stand-up comedian.

"Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’" was originally released on DVD by MPI Home Video in 2001; I’m not sure how it fell into the hands of the Weinstein Company, or why they’re re-releasing it now (via Genius Products). The only real changes are much-snazzier menus and a single bonus feature (below), but it’s nice to have it back in stores, I suppose. It's available now.

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