Movies We Like
Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip
It’s a given that Richard Pryor is one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever (along with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Mort Sahl or whoever you want to put on a short list). His feature length performance film, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, along with Richard Pryor Live in Concert a few years earlier, are still the benchmarks for stand-up comedy films. Sunset Strip may be slightly stronger because of the incredible autobiographical detail and honesty. He might have been a train wreck in real life, but on stage he was completely self-assured - without being cocky - and utterly honest about his own shortcomings, not to mention his takes on sex and race. Besides being hilarious, this film stand as a documentary about the mind of Richard Pryor and the unique way he interprets the world.
Like Bruce and Carlin, Pryor started off a TV-friendly, joke man who evolved when he found himself, got dangerous, got dirty, and embraced the counterculture. On The Sunset Strip is almost like an autobiographical one-man show; he talks about growing up in a brothel, how going to Africa changes him, working for the mob, but, most revealing, his cocaine abuse. In an almost too honest moment he discusses his famous "blowing himself up" incident. At the same time he still hits some great standards like the differences between men and women and black and white people. He also does his down & out character of Mudbone, for what he claims, thankfully, is the last time.
Though Pryor’s non-concert film career was, in some ways, groundbreaking, in retrospect it’s disappointing. The machine was not in place to turn Pryor into a major star (though he would become one). Later, Eddie Murphy was able to go from being an R-Rated comedian to being a guy who now does lazy children’s movies. TV censors were always jittery when Pryor was on TV, most famously during his appearances on Saturday Night Live. He would be credited as the co-writer of Blazing Saddles and was supposed to play the role of the black sheriff, but apparently Mel Brooks could not get funding with the “dangerous” Pryor in the role (it went to Cleavon Little, who was excellent in it).
As an actor, Pryor had a couple of strong supporting performances in The Lady Sings The Blues and Blue Collar. In the second half of the decade he would branch out more mainstream (hitting white audiences), for instance appearing in Neil Simon’s California Suite. However, he really hit his stride supporting Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. The two would re-team many times, only once again memorably in the prison comedy, Stir Crazy. In On The Sunset Strip some of the best stories are about shooting in the prison: "I talked to the brothers, got to know the brothers…Thank God there are penitentiaries."
Unfortunately those good roles were far and few between. Superman III was lame. His sorta autobiographical directing effort, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, falls flat. As a kid I liked Busting Loose and The Toy but, in retrospect, they are both pretty lousy. The Toy in particular is a shockingly offensive idea (a rich guy buys Pryor, making him his son’s slave, or toy). Actually, if it weren’t trying to play to the heart strings, it could have made some bold statements. By the end of the '80s his career was pretty much over, due to poor film choices and a devastating fight with Multiple Sclerosis. Pryor finally passed away in 2005.
But those concert films live on. It’s easy to see the impact Pryor had on stand-up comedy. And not just the wave of foul-mouthed black comedians that followed, but with the honesty that was revealed. He was sometimes laughing or smiling, but you can feel the pain on the inside. Interestingly, with the two comedians most often compared to Pryor - Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock - the reason Rock is light years better than Murphy was in the '80s is just that: honesty. Rock at his best (the TV concert Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker) seems to be reaching inside of himself. Murphy, though funny (and a better actor than both of them), on stage always seems to be in a pose, more concerned about being cool than being real. A pose, at least on stage, was not what Richard Pryor gave. Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip is one of the great stand-up films, concert films, performance art pieces, and autobiographies, ever created. It still holds up and it’s still relevant today. And most importantly, it’s still incredibly funny.