DVD review: Richard Pryor - Live In Concert

The single most significant thing to note about this seminal Richard Pryor DVD is tucked away in the small print next the copyright notice. And it's that it was filmed in 1979. It's a point well worth remembering, since there's nothing in the footage to suggest it was filmed anything other than last week. Well, nothing apart from the hideous fashions in the audience cutaway shots. But Pryor’s comedy hasn’t gone out of style. His influence is legendary, and the lineage that continued with Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock so obvious it's barely worth mentioning. But it's not only black acts who owe him a great debt, as the fruits his work can be seen in just about any modern stand-up who draws on their own life for material. That’s what makes him feel as contemporary today as he was a quarter-century ago. And what a life Pryor had to draw upon. The son of a prostitute, brought up in his grandmother's whorehouse, as an adult he became hooked on cocaine, radical politics and divorces. Indeed, in the months before this concert was recorded in Long Beach, California, Pryor was busted by police for shooting up his car and suffered the first of his two heart attacks. Both incidents, naturally enough, stoke his comedy engine. The cardiac arrest, particularly, may be uncomfortable, even bleak, but it’s handled with a brilliant comic touch, the underlying seriousness only making the gags even stronger. Pryor can, and does, talk about everything - and, yes, that includes the sex and drugs that were a big part of his life, even if such talk outraged mainstream America. But he's equally at ease talking about his love for animals, mimicking a Doberman or a monkey, or describing something as simple as a walk in the woods. If you knew Pryor only by reputation, it would be hard to square these tales of everyday domesticity with the image of a fierce, foul-mouthed comic, but it works because it's honest. Of course, his act is littered with naughty words, but their effect is almost harmless, at least to modern ears, as they form such a natural part of the way he speaks. The rhythms of his act feel as up-to-date as his material, too - proof that there was little room for improvement on the casual, conversational, but powerful style Pryor perfected before half of today’s circuit acts were even born. Where it came from is hard to tell. Among the extras on the DVD is some footage of Pryor’s early routines, before he found his own voice. Then he was tamely and lamely trying to emulate Bill Cosby's homespun style, and it’s hard to believe that was the same man who would go on to cause such a stir. But the spruced-up film on Live In Concert is not just of historical interest. It’s still sublimely funny stand-up; a scorching collection of surefire routines from a talent at the very top of his game. This is why he is a comedy legend, and you’d do well to remind yourself of the fact.

Published: 13 Jul 2006

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