Richard Pryor’s Forgotten Masterpiece—Moving

Posted by Chuck, February 8, 2011 02:00pm | Post a Comment

I’ve always thought the best comedy ever conceived was Moving, starring Richard Pryor. Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration—“ever” goes back further than 1988. But, you know, without getting snagged up on the front end of eternity, I will add that Moving is also the most underrated comedy and could have been a cult classic on par with Dazed and Confused or Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space had the film come out on DVD sooner than 2006 as a sort of b-side throw-in with Greased Lightning. Twenty-one years after its theatrical release, it’s still excruciating, smart, subtle and funny. I think this way because of Dana Carvey’s schizoid character(s), and Randy Quaid's playing the ex-con Crawford brothers/neighbors, Edward and Perry and King Kong Bundy from Hummingbird Movers, and Morris Day . . . eh, I could go on. But mostly because of Pryor’s character Arlo Pear, whose life spirals out of control when he’s fired from his suburban job as a mass transit engineer in New Jersey and is forced to move to the more remote suburbs of Boise “fucking” Idaho.

Hilarity ensues. The best line is a throwaway, when the movers are idly driving around Boise with all of the earthly Pear’s belongings, and Pryor’s Arlo drives up beside them in his ruined Saab dressed like Rambo and tells them to pull over. “Hey, it’s that Arlo Pear man,” says the driver. “What? Ah man, forget about him,” says the other with complete disregard. This makes no sense on so many levels it will never get old.

The movie is made all the better because it’s so unheralded. The many people I’ve talked to who know it (at least half a dozen) either like it as much as me (which is compulsively), or at least like it very much (in which case I tell them to watch it again). Come on, there’s some real irony to the notoriously foul-mouthed Pryor having a “swear jar” for his family to pay into, a quarter for every slip. And you’d have no indication from watching movie the fiction-like qualities of Pryor’s real life.

By the time they shot Moving in 1987, Pryor had already suffered a heart attack. He’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years earlier. He’d been married five times, sired three children, starred in blockbuster movies (Blazing Saddles, Stir Crazy, etc) and won half a dozen Grammy awards for his albums. He’d been sexually abused as a child, been jailed while serving in the ARMY, and had become a drug addict in adult life. He even lit himself on fire in a state of cocaine-induced psychosis and ran down the street before being doused. If Twitter existed back then, “freebasing” would have been trending that day.

But Pryor, who died in 2005, will be remembered as one of the most seminal stand-up comedians ever. He moved the line of racial commentary when it seemed unwilling to budge, and he took what predecessors like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley set down before him and advanced things from wink-wink subtext into in-your-face subject matter. He obliterated taboos, slung the “N” word about with infamous abandon (remember his legendary record, That Nigger’s Crazy) and essentially—one might contend even paradoxically—changed the way white audiences regard black life. As The New Yorker wrote in a profile in 1999, “instead of adapting to the white perspective, [Pryor] forced white audiences to follow him into his own experience.” It was that alone that spawned a new generation of comedy, inspiring future comedians from Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle to Bernie Mac and Patton Oswalt. The fact that sincerity was at the root made him one of the most popular comedic figures, regardless of skin color. Bill Cosby famously said, “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as you could possibly paint it.” He also bounded across that line a thousand times in his life, which might mislead you into thinking him more Greek than black.

In reality, pop culture is what it is today in large part because of Pryor’s contributions. Jerry Seinfeld called him the “Picasso of comedy." In that same New Yorker article, Hilton Als wrote, “Pryor didn't manipulate his audiences with white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck.” And that seems dead on to me.

In Moving, with its areas of slapstick and subtle funny, he plays an innocent family man who is taken aback by the series of escalating calamities that test a mettle you know he has. He handles it with incredulity before yielding to optimism . . . until the end when he snaps and takes matters into his own hands. Movies like The Toy and Silver Streak and all his collaborations with Gene Wilder are the more recognized in his canon, but Moving’s the best. And, although I’ll concede that 1977’s Which Way is Up? is a close second—where Pryor plays three roles decades before Murphy’s Nutty Professor—Richard Pryor the man doesn’t have a close second. Instead, he has inspired millions.

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Moms Mabley (1), Redd Foxx (8), Black History Month 2011 (10), Comedy (62), Black History Month (134), Richard Pryor (5), Moving (1)