Richard Pryor Robert Hatch

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Robert Hatch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 Pryor, having decided on this ploy, described the activity in a way to deny its joy or even its momentary pleasure. Was he hitting us, I wondered, with what he thought we thought was the level of his sensitivity? I was troubled, too, by his use of "shit," "fuck" and their derivatives as substitutes for almost every word in the language save "and" and "but." The effect is not shocking and has not been so for years; it is merely punishing. I was acutely aware of that quiet laugh.

It is clear that Pryor is far from insensitive and has a vocabulary ample for the points he wants to make. A memorable example is his discourse on "nigger." It is a term, he says, that doesn't so much make a black man angry as it knocks the wind out of him. You're having a hot argument with a white man (sometimes with another black), when suddenly he calls you "nigger." You think, Christ! I'm having a fight with this fellow and now he makes me stop and deal with that shit. (There, for once, the word is apposite.) "I wish," Pryor says plaintively, "they would stop doing it." At another point, he got to me with a skit on the illusion of bravery and the reality of danger, his brush with the Mafia providing the text. Later, he evokes the history of his narcotics addiction, staging a dialogue between himself and the drug that was a desperately comic and I thought chilling insight into the cloistral life of a junkie. To my bewilderment, the audience roared with laughter.

Perhaps those viewers were not to be blamed, for by then Pryor had worked them up to a pitch where they screamed when he so much as paused for a drink of water. Not that what he says is so irresistibly funny; at least, I can recall no cascades of incapacitating wit. It means little to commend Pryor for his sense of timing; every stand-up comic knows how to pace an act. Beyond that, he has grace the gift of allusion. His body speaks constantly and elliptically. His miming and mimicry do not studiously imitate their targets, a procedure that is at best mechanical and often tedious. Instead, he catches the essence of what he wants to expose (with Mafiosi, it is the way they hug you), and sketches it with a few strokes so accurate and economical that the wit is in the efficiency of the surgery. If, as I suspect, he is sometimes chastising his admirers for the vulgarity of their suppositions, he pays them the compliment of assuming that they can catch intelligence on the wing.

All in all, he is a somewhat frightening, very useful man. Kings employed jesters to school them in humility. We pay at the box office for Pryor to undermine our complacency. (pp. 536-37)

Robert Hatch, in his review of "Richard Pryor—Live on the Sunset Strip," in The Nation (copyright 1982 The Nation magazine, The National Associates, Inc.), Vol. 24, No. 17, May 1, 1982, pp. 536-37.