Richard Pryor Essay - Critical Essays

Pryor, Richard


Richard Pryor 1940–

Black American comedian and actor.

Pryor is recognized as one of the most original comedians of this era. His great achievement, in the opinion of many critics, is to point to the sometimes hilarious means by which mankind attempts merely to live. His is a comedy of the human condition, shaped by a broad and humane vision of the world.

Although Pryor's portrayals of tough-talking, hard-living blacks receive the most publicity, his characters are generally a mixed group and his satires are aimed at blacks and whites with equal intensity. Critics maintain that Pryor's characters have a stirring universality. Rich and poor, black and white, the young and the very old are portrayed deftly through a combination of visual and verbal techniques. Some observers attribute Pryor's evenhandedness to a sensibility which sees a mystical continuity and order beneath the surface of diverse lives.

Although his albums That Nigger's Crazy, Is It Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger all won Grammy awards, Pryor was not considered "acceptable entertainment" by many audiences until the late 1970s, when the language and subject matter of his routines became more commonplace in the work of other performers. Pryor's films continue to receive "restricted" ratings, but he is now extremely popular with both black and white audiences. Having nearly burned to death in an accident in June, 1980, Pryor returned in 1982 in the film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. This work, like his film Richard Pryor Live in Concert, is often described as one of Pryor's most compelling and effective efforts.


Almost singlehandedly, [Richard Pryor] is creating a new style in American comedy, a style that some of his admirers have called "theater" because there is no other category available for what he does. His style relies on extremely subtle dimensions which must be observed and heard at the same time in order to be completely understood and appreciated. Indeed, there is no way his brand of comedy can be described in writing without the generous use of parentheses noting nuances in sound and facial expression. Mel Brooks, one of his admirers, has called him a comic of "outré imagination." Rolling Stone magazine has said that Pryor's comic style is "a new type of realistic theater," a theater which presents "the blemished, the pretentious, the lame—the common affairs and crutches of common people." Most black audiences love Richard Pryor…. But because of the particular nature of his art, because of the materials on which he draws, Pryor will probably have great difficulty reaching the wider white public. (pp. 20, 22)

The characters in his humor are winos, junkies, whores, street fighters, blue-collar drunks, pool hustlers—all the failures who are an embarrassment to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds of most whites. The black middle class fears the glorification of those images and most whites fear them in general. Pryor talks like them; he imitates their styles. Almost always, he uses taboo words which are common in their vo-cabularies. And he resists all suggestions that he modify his language, censor his commentary. As a result, Pryor's audiences have been limited to those who attend his night-club and concert engagements. These are mostly black people. When he does appear on television, it is only as a guest; and even then he is likely to say something considered offensive to a larger and more varied audience.

Although his routines seem totally spontaneous, his work has moved away from the stand-up comic tradition employed by comedians like Lenny Bruce. Pryor improvises, but his improvisations are structured, usually springing from within his characters. He seldom throws out one-liners just to haul in laughter, unless it is social commentary leading to the depiction of a character. Instead, he enters into his people and allows whatever is comic in them, whatever is human, to evolve out of what they say and how they look into a total scene. It is part of Richard Pryor's genius that, through the selective use of facial expressions, gestures, emphases in speech and movements, he can create a scene that is comic and at the same time recognizable as profoundly human. His problem is that he also considers...

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Robert Duncan

[The] problem with reviewing comedy records is eventually the problem with comedy records themselves. Just how many times can you hear the same punchline and laugh? After the second or third time around, you're just remembering past pleasure, and beyond that these records tend to become a rather grim experience.

But the ephemerality of comedy is something the "new" comedians are trying to eliminate by rendering their material more—if you'll pardon the expression—relevant. The new comedians—this category usually includes Pryor, Carlin, Lily Tomlin, and in his worst moments Robert Klein—are working towards something along the line of spoken literature heavily dosed with—again, pardon my sixties—social commentary. Unfortunately the new comedians are not the new literati and their social commentary quickly becomes predictable. And since they took the jokes away the whole thing is turning into an out-and-out drag.

Richard Pryor is an extraordinarily funny guy. But his social viewpoint is just becoming all that much more familiar with [his album Is It Something I Said?], and so the twists and endings (punchlines?) to his bits are that much more predictable. But still it is Pryor. Right, so "Eulogy" was very funny the first two times around, and "Just Us" (Justice, get it?) holds up into the third or fourth spins. The major opus here, "Mudbone," is a cut of about 15 minutes length wisely divided between sides one and two, is a captivating piece of hyperbolic black folklore (folk literature) and a great bit of acting that one would love to see but it's not really very funny. "Our Text For Today" is a surprising low point for Pryor. It's supposed to be funny that this preacher takes the lyrics from Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For The City" as his Sunday text. But has Richard really been subjected to one of those "new" preachers yet, those guys who try to make church "relevant"? Perhaps he's misjudged their impact. Because those cats is deadly dull.

Robert Duncan, in his review of "Is It Something I Said?" in Creem (© copyright 1975 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 6, November, 1975, p. 84.


If you hear [Richard Pryor's album Is It Something I Said?] and find it offensive, outrageous, gross, unbelievable, and otherwise distasteful, you are perfectly normal. You probably will have to fight with your own tastes and the social conditioning that helped form them. The reason why you will listen is that your imagination will take over for your will. This record is the funniest thing I have heard in a long time…. [Pryor's] delivery is totally ethnic. His references are those of a portion of the Black community. His concepts are of a reality that only exists in his own head. But his messages are universal and universally funny. As long as you are familiar with American basic social elements and colloquial English, you will find Richard Pryor the funniest man alive! It must be something he said.

Fred DeVan, in his review of "Is It Something I Said?" in Audio (© 1976, CBS Publications, The Consumer Publishing Division of CBS Inc.), Vol. 60, No. 3, March, 1976, p. 80.

Tom Carson

Bill Cosby may rent his smile to Ford while Dick Gregory retreats into sanctimonious oblivion, but Pryor is still a defiant, freakily incorrigible survivor—someone who's far too strung out on his own funky, rage-filled wavelength to even consider going respectable. His new, live double [album], Wanted (a reference to the legal and personal hassles that practically put him out of action last year), shows him to be top banana.

Though Pryor's raps are as unstructured as Steve Martin's, his high-flying, cheerfully scabrous style keeps the listener moving too fast to notice. Some introductory remarks to the audience segue into a routine on white obscenity versus black obscenity—Pryor's impersonations of white voices are deadly accurate, absolutely hilarious—that then turns into a skit about Andrew Young walking into the Oval Office with his cock in his hand ("'Scuse me, Mrs. Carter…." "Oh, that's all right."). This comic speeds almost effortlessly from sports to sex to life in the ghetto, his fast-paced spiel the only link between topics. In Richard Pryor's world, animals, inanimate objects and even the various parts of his body all have their own voices, which are locked in constant argument—each of them both threatening and scared to death at the same time.

Pryor's bias toward his black fans (which comes through more clearly here than on his studio LPs) is hardly something one can complain about, but I...

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David Felton

Those familiar with Pryor's previous stage work [will be surprised by the film Richard Pryor Live in Concert]. His material—all seventy-eight minutes of it—is brand-new, conceived and assembled in the previous five months. And his performance is more unified and more personal, the best example yet of his ability to see and convey the humor in pain.

The difference is that, in the past, much of his material was inspired by the pain around him—the pimps, drunks, cons and junkies of the street, members of his family and his circle of friends. In Richard Pryor Live in Concert, the pain seems pretty much his own, particularly the pain of this last year [in which he suffered a heart...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Richard Pryor Live in Concert] is simply a filmed record of a solo show that Pryor did in Long Beach, California, not long ago. Several cameras were set up, and the show went on, that's all. Aside from the steamy language, it's like watching a live TV broadcast….

The life in the thing is Pryor's. I've seen him in a number of films—[Paul Schrader's] Blue Collar, [John Badham's] Bingo Long and others—in which he has been very funny and, sometimes, quite moving; his stand-up comic self was only a rumor. Not anymore. In the first 15 minutes or so, I thought this was a new Lenny Bruce, with a blistering tongue, a nastily knowing jab, an anger working itself out through savage...

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Vincent Canby

Only the incomparable Richard Pryor could make a comedy as determinedly, aggressively sentimental as "Bustin' Loose," which is about eight needy orphans and a $15,000 mortgage that's due, and still get an R-rating. Vulgar language is the reason, but because vulgar language is a basic part of the Pryor comedy method, one longs for his every assault on genteelism in "Bustin' Loose," a film that would otherwise be painful….

[The film] is Mr. Pryor's somewhat obsequious attempt to capture the family audience, though I suspect there are plenty of family audiences who prefer him at his more obscene. This movie is a cheerfully hackneyed, B-picture vehicle …, based on his own original story. It's about a...

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David Denby

[Bustin' Loose] doesn't aim high. It's a family comedy with a formula plot and a horribly corny ending, and the movie almost succeeds in domesticating Richard Pryor—certainly enough to make some of his fans squirm and mutter under their breath. Yet the whole picture is friendly and good-hearted in ways that are hard to resist. Family comedy is a genre usually left to television and the Disney people, a genre despised and ignored by critics. I found myself enjoying almost all of Bustin' Loose and laughing helplessly more than once….

Looking a little puffy and perhaps a little sadder around the eyes than before his accident, Richard Pryor is as funny as ever—at times incandescently...

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David Denby

Bending low, microphone in hand, Richard Pryor turns himself into two cheetahs calmly stalking a herd of gazelles in his new performance film, Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip. He's been recalling a trip to Africa in which he observed the animals—a mean mother African rabbit with a twitchy nose, so terrifying that Pryor wouldn't get out of his car; a hungry lion, rotating its haunches before the kill. Pryor assumes the body of each animal, and gives it a voice. His two cheetahs, companionably rubbing shoulders as they watch the doomed gazelles, could be a couple of debonair bloods in silks and Borsalinos sizing up the neighborhood on Saturday night. He's brilliantly anthropomorphic, but he doesn't merely...

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Pauline Kael

When [Charlie] Chaplin began to talk on-screen, he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his low-life, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor, who's all of a piece—a master of lyrical obscenity. Pryor is the only great poet satirist among our comics. His lyricism seems to come out of his thin-skinned nature; he's so empathic he's all wired up. His 1979 film "Richard Pryor Live in Concert" was a consummation of his years as an entertainer, and then some. He had a lifetime of material at his fingertips, and he seemed to go beyond himself. He personified objects, animals, people, the warring parts of his own...

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Robert Hatch

Like other professions, that of the comedian has its own hierarchy. Pryor is a jester, a high rank that can be defined as a clown who goes armed…. [His] charm is boundless, but of a sort that one would not want to presume upon. His grin is inviting but his eyes are watchful, and he responds to acclamation with a breathless, almost suppressed laugh that seems private, a little ambiguous. He can be charming, all right, but hardly playful, and at times he is not even pleasant.

He opens [his film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip] by announcing that he will speak first "about fucking." It is a bold, if somewhat obvious, way to seize the attention of an audience. What depressed me was that...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip] has a sprinkling of high spots—the animal imitations, a scene with the Mafia—but the direct confrontation of Pryor and audience encourages sentimentalities in him, both of heart-tug and profanity. Also, it puts a double load on him, of performing and being the whole show as well. I don't mean that he improvises everything in these shows; he uses some of his standard bits. But the selections, the relative lengths of bits, the pacing, all make demands on him that he has to keep in mind while he's also performing, with no help from anyone else.

Many cultures have developed genius clowns who do much more than make their audiences laugh, they remind and...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

I like Pryor. I think he's funny. But I've never thought he was off the charts, absolutely hilarious. A few years ago he did [a performance film], and I found it amusing, but not great. I feel much the same about the [Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip]. Nonetheless, I have to admit that his brush with death does bring a certain patina, a new aura, to his work. It certainly brings a new level of rapture to his audience, which clearly loved this film beyond all reason. Magic is a word thrown around a lot in show biz, but Pryor's magic is now enhanced by a more potent kind, the sort you have to have not to die when you burn up. (p. 273)

Having burnt himself half to death with cocaine, Pryor...

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Michael H. Seitz

[Richard Pryor] is at his best in the recently released "concert" film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Although the witless pop comedies he's held together single-handedly through the past decade [(Arthur Hiller's Silver Streak, Michael Schultz's Greased Lightning, Herbert Ross's California Suite, Sidney Poitier's Stir Crazy)] draw upon his talents in a parsimonious way, he seems to me unquestionably the most gifted and inventive comic working today….

Pryor's work in Live on the Sunset Strip represents a fusion of his unrestrained abilities as a writer …, stand-up comic, and actor of increasing range and versaility—and it is both unexpectedly...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

At the center of Richard Pryor's comedy is his grasp of poverty and weakness, pain and defeat—the very reverse of that strength and self-confidence which he can project so powerfully on a stage. Within the taut dynamics of his performance art, complex attitudes about success and failure, pride and shame, wealth and poverty, love and self-interest are constantly being formulated in relation to one another—guaranteeing the authenticity of his popular appeal, and the beauty and honesty of his self-scrutiny.

To get some measure of the imaginative empathy that Pryor can invest in his creations, his capacity to examine the reverse side of every coin, one need only compare his deer hunt in Richard...

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