Thursday, June 13, 2013

Quest for Pryor: No Pryor Restraint and Omit the Logic

Richard Pryor in Omit the Logic

For about ten years—basically, the 1970s—Richard Pryor was the funniest man in the world. That might sound subjective, but it’s more accurate than calling him a comedian. When Pryor was flying high, he didn’t tell jokes. He told the truth. And because he was funny at it, he got people who might have seemed to have little in common with him to see the world through the eyes of someone who had grown up in a whorehouse run by his grandmother, developing (in the words of his friend Paul Mooney) “a pimp’s mentality” that co-existed alongside the needy romanticism of someone who was abandoned by his mother as a child and never outgrew his need to be accepted and cuddled.

Pryor could make people who had never been in trouble with the law understand a little of what it is to feel like a born outsider with a target on your back, living in a country that belongs to other people. And he certainly communicated what it was like to be in thrall to drugs and booze. He illuminated the dark corners of his life by using his pain and anger and fear to make people laugh, and not in mockery, but in solidarity. (Like his great forebear Lenny Bruce, Pryor was usually at his least funny when he really tried to be a nightclub joke-teller, as in when he says that he’s learned that when you run down the street in flames, “people get out of your way,” then kills the momentum of the laughter by adding, “Except for one ol’ drunk, right, who’s like, ‘Hey buddy, can I get a light?’”)

In Marina Zenowich’s documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Whoopi Goldberg speculates that someone as “sensitive” as Pryor would naturally have to “self-medicate” to deal with the pressures and cruelties of the life he chose—and the life that, before he had any say in the matter, chose him. Pryor was also a proud man who was constantly burning bridges. In Omit the Logic, the writer-director Paul Schrader, who captured the strongest dramatic performance of Pryor’s acting career in his 1978 debut film Blue Collar, recalls that Pryor would sometimes come to the set in a good mood, be very nice and charming to everyone, then go home “and stew,” worrying that his niceness made him look like an Uncle Tom and “everybody’s black pal.” So he’d go back the next day and behave like a monster. The novelist Walter Mosely tells Zenowich’s camera that Pryor was always alarming his fans with some public blowup, or worse—the arrests, the multiple marriages and subsequent ugly breakups, and, ultimately, the 1980 incident that landed him in the burn ward for six weeks—but that they could take heart in knowing that, a year or so down the road, they’d be rewarded when he’d take the stage and regale them with his version of it. An improvisational artist whose only pre-show preparation might be to write down a list of subjects he planned to talk about, Pryor seemed barely in control of his art, but he had even less control of his life.

The new box set from Shout! Factory, No Pryor Restaint: Life In Concert, consists of seven CDs of Pryor doing standup, and two DVDs of the concert movies he did between 1979 and 1983: Richard Pryor Live in Concert, which was his crowning achievement; the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, with which he re-started his career; and the relatively listless Here and Now. If this box were to fall in the hands of anyone who was totally unfamiliar with Pryor’s work, my advice would be to start at the top of the moment, with Live on Concert. After watching the way Pryor could act out a heart attack or both sides of a conversation, or channel the spirit of a dog or a monkey or warring parts of his body, throwing himself into the performance while retaining just enough distance to also serve as the bemused observer of it all, you might be able to listen to the CDs and at least fantasize about the parts of these performances that remain lost to history—the visuals that went with the words.

No Pryor Restraint includes several tracks from the 1979 album Wanted, which was recorded during the same concert tour as Live in Concert, but at a different performance. It also includes a number of “alternate” versions of routines, alongside the versions that longtime fans will have long since memorized from such ‘70s albums as Bicentennial Nigger, such as an account of his old street gang that goes into considerably more detail about having sex with dogs. This is the kind of treatment usually reserved for great jazz musicians, and it helps to emphasize just how different Pryor’s act might have sounded from one night to the next, depending on which direction inspiration might take him.

I do think it’s kind of a shame that, instead of trying to wring one more dollar out of the sadly depleted Pryor of Here and Now, the compilers tried to get the rights to include clips from the episode of Saturday Night Live that Pryor hosted in 1975, for which he brought along his own team of writers and managed to leave behind a full-bodied version of his routine about his first acid trip—a number that apparently had its genesis in his fascination with the computer’s death scene in 2001 and his desire to find an excuse to act it out onstage. But as it is, the box set does provide a pretty full picture of the shape of Pryor’s career, dating all the way back to before the moment, in Las Vegas in 1967, when (as Bob Newhart puts it in the documentary), “Richard Pryor decided to become Richard Pryor.”

At the start, when he was something of an overnight success in his mid-twenties, Pryor was just a kid from the south side of Peoria who craved the spotlight and whose only working model for show-business success in the white world was Bill Cosby. Although he and Cosby had almost nothing in common, except for a gift for seeming childlike that women found a turn-on, he rose to success in nightclubs and TV talk shows as a Cosby replicant, slavishly mimicking Cosby’s style and trying to make his own background sound adorable. He grew up, he says in one clip included in the documentary, as part of a normal family, with “eleven kids—no parents, just kids.”

After a meltdown in Vegas that started onstage during a gig at the Aladdin and spread to the casino lobby, Pryor dropped out of show business, settled in among the hippies in San Francisco—where he lived, under an assumed name, “as if he had nothing”—and got his head together. Although the first examples of work by the new Richard Pryor dates back to an album he recorded the year after the Aladdin incident—posing for the cover squatting in the dirt wearing a loincloth with a ring through his nose, looking like a photoshopped picture of President Obama that a Tea Partier made for his protest sign—his big break came when he landed a tiny role as a piano player for the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, and ad-libbed his way into co-star status. Pryor always talked longingly about making movies, and after he recovered from his burns in 1980, he emerged as the most sought-after box office attraction in the country.

But he was most effective in movies in a series of near-cameo appearances in small movies like the counterculture collage Dynamite Chicken (1971), Some Call It Loving (1973), the concert documentary Wattstax (1973), and in slightly larger roles in slightly bigger movies, such as The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), culminating in his star-making turn in Silver Streak. (Once again, his role in that picture was expanded once the filmmakers realized what they had in him.) In some ways, his definitive movie performance, outside the concert films, may have been in the drowsy, affected art film Some Call It Loving. The picture mostly consists of Zalman King, later the soft-core auteur of Wild Orchid and Red Shoe Diaries, wandering around his mansion and smiling at various catatonic women, but every so often Pryor appears out of nowhere, says whatever pops into his head, and wakes things up while giving you cause to worry about him. Which is a lot like how Pryor functioned in the culture in general.

Pryor achieved an apotheosis of his standup art in the Live in Concert movie, and in the summer of 1979, with that movie still in theaters, he took a trip to Africa, where he experienced what Jennifer Lee—the fourth of his many wives, and the one who came back to care for him at the end, when he was debilitated from multiple sclerosis—calls “an epiphany.” As he describes the moment in the most touching and haunting section of Live on the Sunset Strip, he looked around, saw that he was in a continent full of 700 million black people, and asked himself, “Do you see any niggers here?” Pryor had always thrown the word around casually, but now he thought, “Oh my God, I’ve been wrong.” He publicly vowed to never use the word again, and of all the many promises Pryor made, both to individuals in his life and the world at large, that was the one he kept. “He’d tell the same joke,” says Pryor’s friend and bodyguard Rashon Khan, “and just take ‘nigger’ out. ‘Oh, he’s not funny no more!’ So, the punch line was ‘nigger’ for you? And it bothered him that some people just wouldn’t evolve.”

There’s no shortage of likely explanations that can help account for Pryors’s rapid creative decline in the ‘80s, which coincided with his greatest commercial bankability, and a period when he had the clout to get some projects close to his heart funded. (For a while, he had his own development deal to produce movies with his friend, Jim Brown, who he paid stirring tribute to in both Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip. All that came of it was the loss of their friendship.) Omit the Logic is a workmanlike assemblage of interviews and clips, with none of the atmosphere and texture that the director brought to a previous documentary about another show business figure with his own place in the scandal sheet hall of fame, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. But it does lay out the details of Pryor’s pain that you may feel you have a better sense of how he was wired to self-destruct. (Rashon Khan, a sometime stunt man who worked as Pryor’s bodyguard, recalls how he and other guys in Pryor’s circle would yuck it up with Rich while he talked what they took to be comically self-deprecating shit about his family—“Ha ha, my mother sucked cock”—until realizing that it was all true. David Banks, one of the writers on Pryor’s ill-fated NBC variety show, says that both Pryor’s father and uncle were pimps, adding, “I’m talking about, not play pimps, but real pimps. These guys would pimp a Barbie doll.”)

Jennifer Lee says that, after the Africa trip, Pryor was “at the point of a real growth spurt, and he didn’t want the job.” Maybe he wasn’t sure how far he could evolve himself and still be funny. In any case, the matter was taken out of his hands. He began enthusiastically free-basing cocaine after his grandmother died, and in the summer of 1980, the story was out that he had suffered near-fatal burns after his free-basing equipment exploded and set him on fire. In Sunset Strip, Pryor gets a big laugh when he says that he had been about to enjoy cookies and milk before bedtime, and when he dipped his cookie in the milk, it blew up. Actually, Pryor had soaked himself in rum and lit himself up in a drug-fueled, suicidal stupor. That’s how he portrayed the incident in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, a 1986 movie that he directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in, which counts as his last attempt to do something meaningful in movies.

But he didn’t come right out and admit the truth until the publication of his 1995 book Pryor Convictions, which came out after MS had all but put an end to his life an entertainer. By then, thirteen years had passed since he’d scored one of his biggest movie hits with Live on the Sunset Strip—a film in which, in the familiar role of comic truth teller, he had told a self-lacerating account of catching fire while freebasing, perpetuating a story that he must have thought less shameful that admitting that he had tried to kill himself. Maybe, to understand why Pryor would try to kill himself in such a horrible way, all you need to do is to listen to Whoopi Goldberg: “Junkies,” she says in Omit the Logic, “do dumb things.” And it’s probably not that hard to understand why Pryor might have rather had people think he’d almost died in a freebasing accident: a lot of people think suicide is shameful, and though being known as a drug addict is shameful too, that ship had sailed. But it’s hard not to wonder what went on in Pryor’s head as he stood onstage—and then, in months to come, visited talk shows and watched the clip of him onstage being replayed, again and again—and knew that he was earning points for bravery and honesty for lying about what may have been the lowest moment in his life.

After Sunset Strip, Pryor never did get his head back on straight, or his heart back in the game. He had once retained a “nigger expert” to hang out in the writers’ room for his TV show, to help guide him on whether his material was “black enough.” Now he took demeaning roles in movies like The Toy, or appeared in bland, race-neutral projects like a remake of Brewster’s Millions; he had a prominent non-role in Superman III, and hosted a children’s TV show on Saturday mornings. All this seemed to be his way of transcending his anger, and his dream project, Jo Jo Dancer, only served to prove that recounting his life experiences with actors and sets and Hollywood craftsmen and technicians got results that amounted to about a thousandth of what he had done in the past using just his own body and a microphone. In one clip from around the time his book came out, an interviewer asks Pryor about his suicide attempt, pointing out that it wasn’t successful. “Yes it was,” says Pryor. “That person’s dead. He was a horrible person.” He has the right to think so. But a lot of people who didn’t cause nearly as much personal unhappiness are missed a lot less.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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