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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Richard Pryor: “No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert” (2013) CD/DVD Box Set Review

I’m not sure how many comedians can truly be considered important, having not just an impact on the world of comedy, but on the culture in general. However few their number might be, you can certainly count Richard Pryor among them. Of course, when I first heard him in my childhood I had no idea of his significance. All I knew was he was damn funny. I grew up watching his films, particularly the ones where he was paired with Gene Wilder (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil). It’s amazing that even something like Brewster’s Millions holds up. And it’s because of Pryor’s intelligence and charm, as well as his comedic timing. But it was his concert films where he really got to show what he could do. I was too young to get to see him perform live. But thanks to videocassettes (and my grandparents), I was able to see those films of his performances. Now those three films are being released as part of a nine-disc box set titled No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert.

The first seven discs are audio CDs of live performances, presented basically in chronological order so you can really see how his comedy progressed. It’s fascinating to track his progression, from those early recordings in the mid to late 1960s when there weren’t all that many people in the audience (and when his voice often drifted into Bill Cosby territory) into the seventies when his own voice really caught hold and was unstoppable and then into the eighties when his comedy often touched on many of his personal troubles. There is lots of previously unreleased material in this collection.  And it’s all presented in a hardcover book, complete with a short memoir by Jennifer Lee Pryor and quotes about Richard Pryor from other comedians. There is also a Richard Pryor discography and filmography.

A lot of Richard Pryor’s greatest material came from his personal life. Even early on, he talked about his childhood and getting beatings. From a performance in 1966: “And my grandmother had a whole other thing, man. She used to make us undress to beat us up. You know, get nude. And I never understood ‘til I got older, you now, she was a little weird.”

And then later it was the troubles he got into that provided a lot of his best material. On the fourth disc there’s a nice long segment (more than thirteen minutes) on the incident from New Year’s Eve, when he was arrested. (It is an alternate take, previously unreleased.) On the fifth disc, Pryor talks about having a heart attack, and it’s insanely funny. He does the voices of his heart and penis talking to him. In “I Don’t Give A Fuck” he talks about when he was on fire. (He mentions it on other tracks too.)  On the seventh disc he talks about M.S. in a performance from 1992, and he’s quite candid about some of the effects.

He’s also created many excellent and memorable characters. The most obvious example is Mudbone. But even earlier, he created a black super hero, which was bloody hilarious. From a performance in 1968, he says, “Look up in the sky. It’s a crow.” Then, “We find Super Nigger disguised as Clark Washington, mild-mannered custodian for the Daily Planet.” Interestingly, he does the “Super Nigger” bit again on a track from 1972, and oddly it’s not nearly as funny the second time (and it’s not just me  – the audience isn’t laughing nearly as much as the first time).

But of course it’s Mudbone that became his most famous character (and one that audiences would continue to call out for during performances). It’s on the third disc that we’re introduced to this character. By the way, the third disc is really when he gets cooking. That disc starts with a bang, with some of Pryor’s excellent material about the police. (Though I also like the bit from the second disc where he jokes that being in a police lineup was like being in show business.) Anyway, the third disc has two tracks of him performing his famous Mudbone character, in which he tells a great story in character. “She had this monkey’s foot around her neck and a three-legged monkeyAnd I’m trying to act like I’m petting this motherfucker, but I’m poking him in the eye.

Richard Pryor does a lot of great voices. The neighbor’s dog who consoles him after his monkeys die is great, but even better is his impression of his child explaining how something became broken. I’m always impressed by the way he can carry on a conversation between two characters, keeping each distinct and real, fully realized. Often, they’re fictitious characters. But whenever he imitates Jim Brown, it’s also seriously funny.

One thing that stood out for me while listening to all these discs is that it seems like people yell out more during his performances than during those of other comedians. He handles them pretty well. But this was happening even very early on. On a track from 1968, there is some interesting and surprising interaction with audience members (it’s great that you can actually hear what the guy in the audience is saying). Sometimes (like on the fourth disc) there is some great back-and-forth banter with audience members, like when he teases someone who took a photo with no flash. Other times (like on the sixth disc) he will basically ignore the shouts from the audience (at least for a while). The seventh disc includes a nice long montage of him responding to various audience members.

Richard Pryor also felt free enough to not be funny, to be serious. For example, listen to “Attica” on the second disc. Interestingly, there are moments on the sixth disc when he’s trying to be funny, but not succeeding. At one point he talks about his career and how he’s not angry anymore so he’s going to stop doing stand-up. Someone asks him where he’s going to go. Richard answers him: “Hawaii.” It’s interesting, but isn’t all that funny. Later he says he can’t think of anything, which is embarrassing. People shout out “Mudbone.” It’s kind of wild to hear him dry up, but it’s also somewhat heartbreaking. He says, “I hope nobody feels cheated.” (It’s kind of great that this was included in this box set.)

The audio discs also include an interview from 1974 (on the third disc) and an ad for Soul Magazine (also on the third disc). The seventh disc ends with a 23-minute interview.

Richard Pryor Films

Richard Pryor released three concert films, Richard Pryor: Live In Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip (1982) and Richard Pryor: Here & Now (1983). These films are included on the last two discs of this box set.

As you might imagine, Richard Pryor is even funnier when you can see him, particularly the heart attack stuff and the bit about his kid lying (in Richard Pryor: Live In Concert).

My favorite of the three films is Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip. I love when he does the voices of animals – lions, cheetahs, bears. Also, the mafia bit is excellent. People call out for Mudbone, and he actually does the character then. And this time Mudbone talks about Richard Pryor. It’s fucking beautiful. “Keep some sunshine on your face.” The disc also includes two television spots for the film.

Richard Pryor: Here & Now has something of an introduction before the performance, beginning with fans talking about how much they like him and footage of him arriving at the gig and getting into makeup. Filmed in New Orleans, this performance features something of a set – a backdrop of Bourbon Street. Richard talks about the set, and talks to folks as they’re taking their seats. He does Mudbone again, as well as Motif (the junkie), the latter being a particularly fascinating performance. An audience member gives him a crab, so he has a conversation with it, doing the voice of the crab. About drugs he says, “They call it an epidemic now. That means white folks are doing it.”

No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert was released on June 11, 2013 through Shout! Factory.

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