David Denby

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

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 imitate animals. He does everyone and everything: As you watch him, the whole world comes alive for you. In an episode that brings hilarity to the point of terror, he re-creates his "accident" of a few years ago, and tells us what his privates said to his chest as his whole body went up in flames….

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Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip is a perfect entertainment—88 minutes of brilliant comedy without any repetitions or low spots. Richard Pryor is hilarious, but it's not enough to say that he's the funniest of the professional funny men. He keeps extending his material and his range. After all, the man doesn't make topical jokes about politics or TV (Johnny Carson); he's not a gag comedian (Henny Youngman); a pop culture satirist (Robin Williams); or a spooky, hostile, put-on artist (Steve Martin); and his mimicry goes a lot further than getting the voices and attitudes right (Rich Little). Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper into fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously. Like any great actor, he dramatizes emotion with his whole body, but his mind is so quick and his moods so volatile, he's light-years ahead of any actor delivering a text. Working from deep inside his own experience and understanding of what a human being is and is capable of, he can shake you to your roots. More than once during this nightclub act I found myself close to tears, and not just tears of laughter….

After his initial complaints about the increase in chastity during the Reagan administration (as Vincent Canby said, his dirty jokes are obscene in language but not in feeling), he announces that he's not very angry anymore. As we listen, we realize it's true—there's a new evenhandedness in his comedy. In that Africa routine, he not only acts the cheetahs, he acts the gazelles. Richard Pryor identifies with both hunter and quarry, killer and victim; his mimicry captures the frightened surface blandness of so many Americans and also the raging anger underneath. (p. 63)

Like Lenny Bruce, Pryor is completely undeceived about most people's motives (including his own). But he's turned his back on Bruce's nihilism: He's not so eager to shock, nor so gleefully determined to pull the rug out from under the audience at all costs. Richard Pryor has a mean, dirty streak in him, of course, but there's also a part of him that wants to find some common ground that we can all stand on. At this point he's probably as fearlessly unsentimental on the issue of race as anyone in the country…. In Africa, he's excited and moved by the realization that "there are no niggers here." He's hardly the first American black to bring that experience home, but who else would have the courage the next minute to build a hilarious routine about the body odor of a tribesman picked up on the road? The simple solidarity of black brotherhood is not for him; life keeps getting in the way.

Richard Pryor may be loved as fervently as he is because he can tell stories of his own disgrace without masochism or self-pity; he's genuinely outraged that anyone could act so stupidly, and he expects us to share that outrage. He tells us that he was so stoned when he blew himself up that he didn't realize, at first, that the pretty blue light coming off his body was fire. Recreating his addiction for us, he turns it into an epic battle between himself and his cocaine pipe in which the pipe, speaking in a calm, soothing, rational voice, like a corporation lawyer, offers haven and rest and tells him to ignore his career and friends. As it goes on, the dialogue begins to sound like a modern Temptation. Man confronts Satan, and man loses, despite the intervention of an angel of light (in the person of Jim Brown). From his hospital bed, swathed in bandages, Pryor watched a TV newsman announce that he had died five minutes earlier. He's a modern Lazarus: He's raised himself from the dead and turned the whole bizarre experience into the best material any comic ever had. (pp. 63-4)

David Denby, "Lazarus Laughs," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1982 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 15, No. 13, March 29, 1982, pp. 63-5.∗

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