Richard Pryor Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. - Essay

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 could step on stage in Richard Pryor Live and say anything he wanted, and we would go along with him. He has the license of Lazarus. We are accustomed to comics who take all manner of liberties with life, who treat us to the most grotesque and far-out views of it imaginable, without having anything like Pryor's credentials for doing so. Yet Pryor himself does not do so, amazingly. The only wisdom Pryor has to offer is that, as he says at one point in his monologue, "People are the same everywhere. The ones that work in the airports in Africa f—over your luggage just like they do in New York." None of life's hassles ultimately seem worse to him than that battered luggage. That someone who has virtually come back from the dead should take such a normative, unremarkable view of life seems very encouraging. He has gone to the other side, and come back the same good-natured goof he always was. Pryor continues to do the whole repertoire of ethnic types—Mafiosi and blacks and WASPs and Mudbone. His comedy still aspires to the universal humanity they represent, and now he's had perhaps the only human experience that might validate such routines. This does give them a new dimension, a certain resonance and bounce they never had before. (p. 274)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., "Pryor Restraint: Up from Burnout," in Commonweal (copyright © 1982 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIX, No. 9, May 7, 1982, pp. 273-74.