Judge Alice Nelson insists she has no priors. There was that time in Peoria, but the records have been sealed.
"I'm an artist, not an entertainer."—Richard Pryor
I started listening to Richard Pryor well below the age of consent; my older brothers and sisters brought his record albums home (yes I'm so old that we had record albums), and we'd listen to them with the volume low so mom couldn't hear the language he freely used. But Richard Pryor should never be described as just a foul mouthed comedian; he was so much more than that. He was indeed an artist who changed the face of comedy and influenced the likes of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, George Lopez, and countless others who were inspired by someone who took his failings and turned them into heartwarming characters and stories we loved. Today the description of 'Legend' is thrown around far too freely; people who are only a blip on the radar have biographical films about their lives, as if they've been around long enough, and have the talent to warrant that kind of examination. Richard Pryor is and was a legend in every sense of the word, a man who revolutionized comedy; a genius storyteller who didn't just make us laugh, he also made us think.
Shout Factory! has released a wonderful and extensive collection of Richard Pryor's body of work, in a 2 DVD/7 CD box set called Richard Pryor: No Pryor Restraint. The DVDs contain three of the comedian's concert films: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, and Richard Pryor: Here and Now. Set inside a beautiful hardbound booklet that includes CDs of previously unreleased material from Pryor's classic albums. Also included are personal essays about the man, rare photos, tributes from comedians who knew and loved him, a discography, a filmography, and a loving note from Pryor's widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor.
When I was a kid ,my siblings and I used to memorize Richard Pryor's routines—to the chagrin of my poor, saintly mother. The genius of Mr. Pryor is on display for all to see and hear in No Restraint. This boxed set shows that beyond everything else, he was a storyteller—a humorist who weaved elaborate tales intermingled with his unique sense of humor. It was no secret that Richard Pryor had a very tumultuous personal life, but he never shied away from the controversies, they were the life's blood of his act. And in the three live concert performances, we get three very distinctly different looks at the man who was Pryor.
In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, recorded in 1978, he was a brash, cocky, and coked up young man who had the audience right in the palm of his hands. It is the funniest of the three shows, and it is Pryor at his humorous best. But this was also a time in his life when booze and drugs were his constant companions, and a prime example of this out of control lifestyle is in the routine called "New Year's Eve." A real life personal account of the night he shot his soon to be ex-wife's car as she tried to leave him. Pryor had an innate ability to make us laugh at even his most outrageous behavior. He made no excuses for what happened, and bravely tossed his dirty laundry out there for all to see; as if proclaiming, 'Here it is, this is who I am, take it or leave it.' Not only did we take him as is, we loved him for it.
In Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, we get a very different Pryor than the one from just four years earlier. Here, he is a vulnerable man, doing his first show since the now infamous free basing incident that left more than half of his body burned. Filmed in 1982, Pryor was at the time five months clean and sober, but the confidence was gone, and in its place was a nervous Richard Pryor, unsure if audiences would love and accept him again. In fact, according to those in attendance, on the first night of filming, it looked like Pryor's spirit had died in the fire that nearly took his life. He was unusually detached, wondering aloud if he still had it in him. But the next night, he proved that not only was he still funny, but also that he had grown more as an artist through the struggle. In classic Pryor bravado, he did not shy away from controversy, addressing the freebasing issue with a wild story about dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat pasteurized milk, causing an explosion—Pryor was back. Live on the Sunset Strip grossed over 36 million dollars, more than any of his other theatrical standup films—and it was the resurrection of his career.
Here and Now is my favorite of the Pryor concert videos. The swagger from Live in Concert is back, but underneath is still the vulnerable comic from the Sunset Strip performance. Recorded in 1983, Pryor was seven months clean and sober, and much more confident about staying that way. It wasn't as gut wrenchingly funny as Here and Now, or as heart wrenching as the Sunset Strip concert, but it was Pryor finally proving that he was and had always been an artist. His portrayal of "Motif the Junkie," a childhood acquaintance who Richard had admired at the time, but later thought he should've learned from, is riveting. Pryor morphs into Motif—he becomes him. Richard convincingly taps into what life is like for an addict, because he was one. We get a real life look at a junkie getting high, and in its own strange way, it is heartwarming as well as funny. We also get a glimpse of the genius improviser that Pryor was: when a heckler begins shouting at him, Pryor never leaves the persona of Motif, but puts that heckler in his place and continues on as if it was always part of the show.
I cannot end my review of Richard Pryor: No Restraint without mentioning one of Pryor's most beloved characters: the wise old man "Mudbone." He does a totally impromptu portrayal in Sunset Strip that is brilliant, once again showing how adept he is at improvisational comedy. And in Here and Now, we are re-introduced to the man as he waxes philosophical on all sorts of life's lessons. Mudbone is a composite of those older men and women who were once huge influences in Richard's life, and he portrays him with respect and a brutal honesty that can only come from someone who's lived so long that they no longer give a rat's ass what other people think about them.
Richard Pryor managed to take serious issues and make them funny, not by disregarding their importance, but by giving them a real life feel and showing us we can look back at our most epic failures and laugh. More importantly, he showed us we need to laugh in order to move on. Not many celebrities could let us in on their personal turmoil and come out on the other end with the utmost respect from their counterparts as well as their fans.
During a good majority of his career, Richard Pryor performed in an America that was very difficult for Blacks. I can't even fathom how bold his act was during a time when race relations were extremely tense, to say the least. He handled the race issue as only Pryor could: boldly, by making people laugh, while at the same time making them see just how silly it was to judge someone based on skin color. I'm not one to fall back on the race card when things go a little squirrely, but race was a definite disadvantage during his formative years as a performer, and Black comedians today owe a lot of their many opportunities to the ground breaking work of men like Richard Pryor.
The set doesn't include extras in the traditional sense; there are no behind the scenes featurettes, or candid interviews with the film's stars, but what you do get is far more impressive. The CDs that make up this collector's set are some of Pryor's best routines. Some of the audio is in mono, and there are times when Pryor is speaking so softly it's hard to make out what he's saying, but funny is funny, and that's not lost even with the inferior sound quality. Just don't forget, as I did, to turn the volume down again before the raucous laughter kicks in—especially if you're wearing headphones. Shout! Factory's 1.78:1 presentation is nothing to write home about, the pictures are grainy, and the colors are muted and dull; it must've been transferred to DVD directly from the old video recordings. The Dolby stereo sound is adequate, but you really don't need an explosive audio track for this type of concert footage. None of these deficiencies lessens the brilliance that is Pryor, nor the enjoyment that Richard Pryor: No Restraint provides.
Richard Pryor was a renaissance man, a talent who could make you laugh while providing thought provoking commentary on life. No one before or since has given us so many memorable characters, with such colorful life stories. He was a contemplative and complicated man who had grown and changed at the height of his career, and was no longer going to try and be the old Richard Pryor people expected him to be. In a serious moment from one of his shows he says, "The greatest power there is, is love. It's all we have and we better take care of it."
Richard Pryor was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1986, and as the MS took its inevitable toll on his body, he lived in relative seclusion for the remainder of his life. On 10 December 2005, Richard Pryor died of a heart attack at the age of 65. He is sorely missed.
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