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Richard Pryor, Rest in Peace

Richard Pryor. God damn. I don’t know why a guy like me always has to eulogize somebody I never met, but it always bums me out when the world loses a genius like Richard Pryor. So I gotta write something about my favorite Richard Pryor works and it helps me to cope and I apologize if you end up suckered into reading the damn thing.

Now, you know I’m not the hugest fan of comedy and laughing and what not, at least not the standup variety. But the one and only comedy god to me, the greatest of all time no doubt about it, was Richard Pryor. If you happened to read my review of the standup movie JESUS IS MAGIC last week you remember the list I made of the greatest standup movies of all time:

  1. RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT
  2. RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT
  3. RICHARD PRYOR LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP

end of list.

In the talkback for that review one guy strongly disagreed with the list, he felt that LIVE IN CONCERT was the whole top five, not just top two. And he could definitely make a good argument for that I think.

Now, it would take more of a comedy expert than me to try to explain what made Richard so god damn funny, and it would be kind of pointless. Because instead of reading about it why aren’t you just watching the man on dvd or vhs motion picture at home, seeing it for yourself.

But I’ll try a little bit. First of all I think alot of people could relate to Richard or at least sense that he was the real deal. Because he’s not one of those comedians that portrays himself as smarter and better than everybody else. He was an underdog. He fucked up alot and he turned it into material. For a while he tried to be like Bill Cosby, because that’s who was popular. But then he realized he wasn’t Bill Cosby. He grew up in a whorehouse. He was around crime and drugs. He eventually realized that if he was himself, if he talked about the people around him in the language that he spoke off stage, then people cared.

But that’s not the whole thing, that would be simplifying things to just say he was great because he was “keepin it real” or whatever today’s technology would call it. The subject matter was important but the guy was a god damn genius in the execution. One thing I noticed was the way Richard told stories and became all the characters in the stories. And when I say characters I am including not just human people but also animals, inanimate objects, bodily organs, abstract concepts. This is a man who could play the part of his own heart attack.

My favorite story on LIVE IN CONCERT is about the time Richard decided to get some monkeys as pets. Which is the type of thing Richard Pryor sometimes would do in those days. In the story he plays the part of himself, he plays the part of two monkeys in a tree in the backyard and most hilariously he plays a neighbor’s dog. Now when I say that he plays a dog that’s not funny, but he gives this dog a personality. It’s a dog in a joke and it has more personality than alot of actual living human beings.

LIVE IN CONCERT is the first standup movie he released, but there is one that was filmed earlier called LIVE AND SMOKIN’. That was in 1971, an awkward puberty type period in his career where he had just changed from Bill Cosby wannabe to Richard fuckin Pryor. So it’s good stuff for the fans but don’t watch it first. It’s before he really got everything down. This was only a year after the show in Vegas where he realized he didn’t like what he was doing, said, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and just walked off stage in the middle of the show.

Anyway skip that one for now and go to 1985’s LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP, which is pretty god damn great. If somebody was gonna say that this is actually the greatest standup movie of all time and not LIVE IN CONCERT, I would not necessarily need to fight them. The biggest difference with LIVE IN CONCERT is that by this time he’s the fucking Michael Elvis Aaron Jordan Jackson rock star king of the comedy world. The opening of the movie is amazing because you see him wearing this red suit strutting in from the back of the theater to the stage and it’s like the Beatles are coming through handing out 100 dollar bills. You want to learn how to be a cool motherfucker, study that opening every day for a year and maybe you will capture some small part of the magic. (Let me know if it works.)

Anyway the stories in SUNSET STRIP are more celebrity oriented because they come from his life and most of them come from his recent life since he’s become one of the most famous people in the world. So he talks about things he never could’ve done before, including going to Africa. And that’s a great story and shows how he’s changing and becoming more enlightened at this point. But the highlight of the movie, no doubt about it, is towards the end when he talks about maybe the thing he’s most famous for now, catching himself on fire while freebasing in 1980. I mean you can’t get anymore rock bottom than running down the street naked and on fire, and Richard tells this story and makes it hilarious and moving at the same time. He talks about his addiction and he plays himself, Jim Brown and a crack pipe. It makes you laugh and it grabs your heart by the balls, if a heart had balls. This is great comedy, deep comedy. Fuck that “you ever notice how” bullshit. Richard god damn Pryor.

You ever notice how I’m talking about his standup movies and not BUSTIN’ LOOSE or some shit? Well he’s funny in his movies but he’s not Richard Pryor funny. Most of those movies were sellout movies and he admitted it openly. He didn’t do SUPERMAN 3 because of his deep respect for the mythos of Kal El and the new American mythology and what not, he did it to buy coke. In fact, I haven’t seen any of these non-standup comedies that really capture what is great about Richard. If you know of one that’s great, let me know.

I’ll tell you though, he did have a great dramatic role or two. I don’t think I’ve seen LADY SINGS THE BLUES which got him alot of acclaim, but I can definitely vouch for Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR, about Detroit auto factory workers. There he’s teamed up with Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, and apparently the three of them despised each other. But I couldn’t tell in the movie, I thought they had good chemistry. This is a great role for Richard. Part of his storytelling style is acting, so it’s no surprise to me that he can pull off the dramatic shit. He gets to be funny a little bit but his part is pretty intense and ultimately tragic.

Of course I’m a fan of THE MACK and he’s good in there too but be warned that he is a secondary role. You watch THE MACK for Max Julien and you get a side order of Richard Pryor.

There’s another Richard Pryor drama that is not really a great movie but if you’re as interested in the man as I am it is a must-see. The movie is JOJO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING which is written and directed by Richard. Don’t get scared, this is not a movie about some obscure style of dancing you never heard of (I admit it, I thought that for years). “Jojo Dancer” is not a type of dancer but the name of the guy Richard plays in the movie, a famous comedian who grew up in a brothel in Peoria, who has problems with drugs and women and shoots his car and many other things that happened to Richard Pryor.

The story begins with Jojo suffering a freebase accident coincidentally just like the one Richard Pryor had already experienced in real life. He is in the hospital burn ward all bandaged up and he has this IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE type deal where he goes back over his life up to that point. If you watch the two standup movies I recommend and then get obsessed, I suggest reading PRYOR CONVICTIONS, Richard’s autobiography, and then watching this.

Obviously now we’ll get that new biography movie they’ve been trying to do for years. At one point it was gonna star Damon Wayans. I don’t know if that would work. More recently it sounded like a done deal, Variety said it was gonna be Mike Epps, the guy that plays Ice Cube’s cousin Day-Day in the FRIDAY sequels. That I can almost see, almost. Apparently Richard and his wife chose Epps so I bet they’ll stick with him. The director is supposed to be Walter Hill, who knew Richard Pryor because he directed BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. Obviously it’s been a long time since HARD TIMES and THE WARRIORS, but I’m rooting for him to get it together for an important movie like this.

I’m not sure if the movie is supposed to be based on PRYOR CONVICTIONS or not. But since Richard was helping out I’d guess yes. Apparently somebody named Caleb Kane is writing, but the only listing on IMDB for a Caleb Kane is the guy who does the voice for the Trix bunny rabbit. Not sure how that will work out.

I’ve been trying to write a review of WALK THE LINE so I’ve been thinking about this biopic business. Somehow all the great icons of entertainment can have their lives boiled down to the same shit. Mainly, they’re always gonna have marital infidelity and they’re gonna have drug addiction and since those things are both dramatic and important to how somebody’s life turns out, you see the same shit over and over again every time you watch a biography movie. I guess at least Richard was more spectacular than most on both these counts. Johnny Cash never caught himself on fire or killed his car in a domestic dispute. Richard’s story also has the popular debilitating disease angle. I doubt they’ll cut it off earlier like they did with Ali because his MS is the tragic irony of his life. He conquered the drug problem and turned it into material, but the MS left him unable to stand and barely able to speak. So he didn’t get much of a chance to turn it into comedy. It’s also important because he became completely dependent on his wife, who he’d treated so horribly.

But the movie will start out in Grandma’s brothel, it’ll have the mafia, it’ll have racism, it’ll hopefully have his trip to Africa. It could be an epic. If not, at least we have JOJO DANCER, where it’s the real guy. Try to do that, Mike Epps. Try to actually be Richard Pryor. You can’t do it. Only Richard knew how to do that.

I wonder why it is that alot of these biopics start out with the cooperation of the subject and then the poor bastard dies? It happened with Ray Charles, it happened with Johnny Cash. Domino Harvey died while they were finishing up the movie supposedly inspired by her life. Brandon Lee died when they were about to release the movie about his dad, and there’s scenes in the movie where Bruce is trying to defend Brandon from a demon curse. Well, that’s different I guess. Anyway I guess when you’re old and sick, you want to leave a legacy, you want to tell your story while you still can, so some people give it a shot. And maybe knowing the wheels are set in motion is part of what helps them to let go.

By the way, Skander, if that movie about me has to wait a few years, don’t worry about it. No hurry.

It’s been a hard couple years I think, we’ve been losing alot of our icons. We lost Johnny Cash, we lost Dr. Thompson, now we lost Richard Pryor. I’m not gonna list who we still got because I don’t want to jinx it. You know what, I’m gonna go into a little bit of that Seinfeld observational shit here because this is what happens to me when somebody great dies. Not only do I have to write about them, I have to have like a little private ceremony for them, listen to their music or watch their movies or something. But I run into problems.

Ah shit, Nina Simone died? Damn, I love Nina Simone. Such a great singer and such a powerful human being, a civil rights icon. She even left the US and lived in Paris because she thought there was still too much racism. Nina didn’t take any shit. You know what I want to listen to right now is that song ‘Mississippi God Damn,’ that’s a good one. Do I have that on CD? Do I have any Nina Simone on CD? No I don’t. That’s okay, I’ll just have to go over to the record store and–

Ah, shit. I can’t go to the store the day Nina Simone died and buy her CD. I’ll look like an asshole. It’s like I only found out about Nina because she died. Or I never appreciated her until now that she’s dead. Like I forgot about her and now I gotta pretend like I care. Ah shit…

So I end up ordering it on Amazon.

(Nina Simone’s getting a biopic too, by the way.)

Same thing with Richard. I’ve rented his standup movies so many times but do I OWN them? No. Do I have his old records? No. That box set they got? Of course not, I’m not made of money. No ceremony for me. I’m fucked. So this column will have to do for now, Richard. At least I didn’t accuse you of being Deep Throat like in my eulogy for poor Hunter Thompson. I would’ve if that Mark Felt thing hadn’t come out. But you blew it. Shoulda died earlier if you wanted to be Deep Throat. Sorry.

So without the Deep Throat option that leaves me with the obvious cliche: my man’s gone on to the great stage in the sky. He’s opening for that one band everybody talks about where they got Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Miles Davis and I believe John Lennon quit due to angelic creative difference type shit so they brought in Ol’ Dirty Bastard as the frontman. (I don’t know about those Heavenly super groups. Sure, it’s a great roster, but do they really gel?) Usually I wouldn’t want to even bring up that corny bullshit but it’s a comforting thought in Richard’s case. It would be great if he got a chance to stand on a stage and tell the story of his later years. I don’t know if he’d make the wheelchair into a character or not, but he’d come up with something good.

Anyway I’d like to thank God for giving us these legends in the first place and helping them to shine, but come on dude you’re really bumming us out with all this dying and shit. Amen.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 10th, 2005 at 9:57 pm and is filed under Vern Tells It Like It Is. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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