Had he not died in 2005 of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor would have turned seventy years old today. He survives in countless ways — in video clips from The Ed Sullivan Show and his own show on NBC, yes, but also on the syllabus of a course I’m currently teaching: “English 340: Reading and Writing Poetry.” But wait a minute, you say, Pryor’s a comedian; his legacy’s standup. No; the pauses, the quick gestures: it’s poetry. Here’s why . . .
Pryor’s 1971 concert film, Live & Smokin’, is “dedicated to all those who conspire to make us laugh.” That word conspire is important; there’s something furtive, something underground, about Pryor’s early-’70s comedy. On a small New York stage, in front of a dessert board (“Chocolate Cream Pie $1.25”; “Jello Ordinaire $1”), Pryor looks vulnerable and wary; long, hurt pauses separate the jokes. There’s nothing welcoming about the performance; it’s almost as if he’s doing it for himself, like a poet holding himself to his own strict and lonely standards. (Think of Dylan Thomas writing “In My Craft or Sullen Art” or Miles Davis performing with his back to his audience.) Multiple voices leap out, with almost no segues. Pryor becomes Dracula, a square white guy, a patronizing prostitute, a hillbilly, Oral Roberts, a white businessman, a black fighter, a Black Pride leader, a wino, a junkie. The laughs are difficult (and punctuated by Pryor’s total refusal to sell them as laughs). “I could’ve been prejudiced!” he shouts, in a fake angry voice. Then, in his real voice: “I could’ve been prejudiced?” A pause, and then: “I could’ve been, man, but I met some nice white men, just come up, ‘Hello little boy, is your mother home? I’d like a blow job.'” And like that the joke stops; Pryor looks down, pained, and takes a drag off his cigarette. He waits several long seconds before completing the bit (“I wonder what’d happen if niggers go through white neighborhoods doing that?”).
Pryor’s self-styled sound effects rise up throughout his act, creating a jerkier version of Wallace Stevens’ “jovial hullabaloo.” It’s the clang and interruption we find in John Berryman, the “O ho alas alas” that signals that anything can happen. Most remarkably, at the film’s 29-minute mark, Pryor goes into character and never comes out. Talking about winos who know Jesus, he becomes one. (About Mary: “I remember when her son Jesus was born, cause her husband Joe damn near killed her. Cause she told him that God made the baby. He beat her with a pool stick.”) None of this is played explicitly for laughs, although some of it is quite funny (“I studies people. I know where people’s coming from. Shit, I’m a peopleologist”). The humanity of the wino is so moving that, as Henri Bergson predicted, the laughs become fewer and fewer. No room for the anesthesia of the heart on this stage.
At one point in the performance, Pryor pantomimes cracking open a bottle and taking a drink. “You can’t film this,” he says to the camera. “Can’t get arrested for drinking nothing.” It’s a wonderfully knowing nod to the illusion of the performance, but what’s most interesting is that he stays in character (he’s still the wino preacher). No break; no release of tension; no wink.
At the 36-minute mark of the film, director Michael Blum begins to intercut scenes — at times we have Pryor’s monologue playing over a shot of his pained, silent, junkie persona. (Has a stand-up comedian ever looked so blankly out at his audience? Again, the audience doesn’t need to be there; Pryor is playing for his muse.)
A brief, late tease: Pryor, as Willie the Junkie, says, “I went down to the unemployment building, baby. – You did? – That’s right. I went in there, put on my white voice, walked in the office, talking about [white voice], ‘Good afternoon. I’m applying for a job. . . .’ [Return to black wino voice]: Freaked the bitch out!” It’s almost a mistake, as it foregrounds Pryor’s virtuosic skills as a mimic more than it believably advances the scene. Still, it reminds us that in Pryor’s world (and he is, very much, creating a credible world on the twenty-foot stage) anything can happen, any quick switch is allowed.
In a performance so livened by voices, one of the most riveting and difficult moments involves silence. “My mama called me a dog,” Willie drawls out, and the slowness of it, from this quickest of comics, is devastating. Also difficult: the post-credit tag. Just as the film appears to be over, Pryor fills the screen again — this time as himself. “Black people have a lot to overcome,” he says,
and it ain’t just the mountain. Martin Luther King said, “I have been to the mountaintop.” [Pause, as Pryor stares in disbelief at a man leaving his table.] I’ve been to the mountaintop too, and I looked over the top and what’d I see: more white folks. With guns. [Pause.] This ain’t as funny as we thought it was gonna be.