Candor has always been one of Richard Pryor's greatest resources and virtues as a comic artist. When he was hospitalized with third-degree burns in June 1980, police indicated that Pryor had nearly incinerated himself while mixing ether and cocaine to obtain the derivative narcotic blend known as "free base."
In his second concert film, "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip," now at area theaters, Pryor seems to confirm the free-base report in a monologue about his near-fatal accident. He begins his gravely humorous recreation of this harrowing episode by saying, "Y'all know how much I like cookies and milk before bedtime . . . Well, I thought I'd mix a little low-fat with a little pasteurized, but when I dipped my cookie in, the ---- blew up."
A moment later he says: "Why me? Ten million ------------- free base. I gotta blow up." As the routine evolves, Pryor dramatizes the extreme nature of a cocaine addiction by acting out all the roles in a three-sided conversation among himself ("down to 103 pounds, drawn up and ------ out of my mind"), his diabolically possessive drug pipe ("---- 'em all, Rich, 'cause we just gonna hang out in this room together") and his friend Jim Brown, who drops by in an effort to coax Pryor off the junk but, loathe to baby him, keeps repeating one relentless question, "Whatcha goin' do?"
It's an extraordinary scene, and one can imagine the entire routine being elaborated in even more striking and surprising ways as Pryor continues to perform it and reflect on the experience behind it.
His marvelous flair for impersonation extends well beyond the human, animal and inanimate worlds. He's capable of inventing effective comic personalities and voices not only for folks, brutes and even things, like that drug pipe, but also for sensations, natural phenomena and states of mind. I suspect that this particular comic confession, unique and spellbinding as it is in the first draft form preserved in "Live on the Sunset Strip," will become even more compelling if Pryor gets around to adding the pain or the fire to his cast of characters.
At any rate, Pryor has remained true to the core of the emotional integrity that his audience always valued--the conviction that he was never sparing himself or concealing his feelings in the act of being funny.
At his most original and endearing, Pryor tends to be shocking. He delivers stuff of a racial, sexual or strictly personal nature that no one else dared to before--at least no other black American humorist working to a vast mixed public.
Presumably, the nature of the shock varies somewhat--more a shock of recognition for black fans and a shock of revelation for white ones when the emphasis is on race; it no doubt shifts to a shock of recognition for men and a shock of revelation for women when the emphasis is sex.
The other basic areas of experience that Pryor's comic imagination thrives on--childhood, family relationships, eccentric character traits, fundamental human fears and drives--tend to unify everyone susceptible to his sense of humor in the first place.
Pryor's performance in the new concert film is more subdued and reflective than the astonishing, physically exuberant one-man show preserved in "Richard Pryor Live in Concert," filmed three years earlier. Not that the material is less entertaining or potent. In some respects the humor is more telling because the comedian is in a more pensive frame of mind, and I doubt if anyone expects Pryor to duplicate the strenuous pantomime of the first movie.
I also think the setting inhibits as physical a performance. Pryor and the audience seemed much more intimate in "Live in Concert," which was shot at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Calif. At the Hollywood Palladium, the site of "Live on the Sunset Strip," there's no doubt that Pryor is reaching the audience, but it's now concealed in an enormous dark space, obliging the filmmakers (director Joe Layton, director of photography Haskell Wexler and editor Sheldon Kahn) to resort to frequent insert shots of laughing fans.
The other provocative topics exploited by Pryor in the course of the new movie, which also runs about 80 minutes, distilled from performances on two consecutive evenings, include his discovery of masturbation, married life, culture shock at the Arizona State Penitentiary while filming "Stir Crazy," recollections of a Mafia club owner and a trip to Africa, from which he returned vowing to purge a once ubiquitous word from his material: "nigger."
Lest this decision be misinterpreted as a sign of mellowing, one should note that Pryor has probably gone a long way toward transforming and discrediting the racist connotation of the word anyway. Moreover, his idiom remains as colorfully and wittily profane as ever.
Having narrowly escaped oblivion, Pryor has returned to the living with a peculiarly stark yet incorrigibly funny outlook on the consequences of his accident, which he characterizes as a "monster." Summing up the moment of truth, he recalls, "When that fire hits yo' ass, that fire sober yo' ass up fast."