Richard Pryor David Felton - Essay

David Felton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 attack]. Maybe that's how he survived it. (p. 50)

The heart attack is a perfect metaphor for the show. It's as if in seventy-eight minutes his life passes before him. And us. He shows it to us with such accuracy and honesty that we laugh. It's weird, watching a whole audience laughing at a man dying onstage, and maybe it's a weird kind of laughter, something that comes from a little deeper inside; but the evidence is right there on film. They laugh.

Pryor shows us his childhood, getting whipped, going to a funeral, fighting with his father and grandmother, hunting deer in the forest, fighting in the ring. He doesn't just tell us about the stuff, like most comedians, telling jokes. He brings it to life and exposes its soul. (p. 52)

While there are characters Pryor's done before that I prefer to almost anything in [Richard Pryor Live in Concert]—his preachers, drunks and junkies, and a wonderful old man named Mudbone—this film has another dimension; it's as if Pryor, in examining his life during this chaotic year, has grown…. (p. 54)

David Felton, "Richard Pryor's Life in Concert," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 290, May 3, 1979, pp. 50-5.