Wednesday, 28 August 2013

On demand: "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert"

At a certain point in the counterculture, comedians went from being martyrs, outsiders and supper-club jesters to assuming the status of rockstars, and having entire concert movies constructed around their routines. As in other fields of entertainment, black performers showed everybody else the way: first Cosby, then Richard Pryor, and then Eddie Murphy, a flow of electric schtick that jolted America out of the conservative 50s and 60s and into the mildly less conservative 80s. In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, we find Pryor walking on after surprising warm-up act Patti Labelle to perform a 75-minute set to a mixed crowd in Long Beach, Florida (lots of white faces, but also Black Panther supreme Huey P. Newton), after twelve months in which he'd suffered a near-fatal heart attack and been arrested for shooting up his own car - incidents shrugged off early on, as mere commonplaces in a life that would prove eventful, to say the least.

Indeed, the whole film offers an example of a performer making something that would be testing for most of us look sublimely easy. Pryor is casual in knowing when to integrate and when to shut down his hecklers; he's altogether blithe about one rape joke, in a way no post-feminist comedian could be; and he's effortless in his progression from cosy observational stuff (his animal impersonations are quasi-legendary: rarely can a moustachioed black guy have so precisely caught the essence of a spooked deer) to the trickier business of stripmining his own past traumas for laughs. Which is to note there's a degree of wincingly painful biography mixed in with the comedy: few of today's white middle-class performers could legitimately venture routines about being beaten by their pa and grandma, and even a funny physical bit evoking the boxing ring suggests this was a performer who'd experienced more than his fair share of ass-whuppings.

In an era when our corporate-circuit comics have a shiny new DVD ready for release each Christmas, the film's rough-and-ready vibe may come as a shock for comedy neophytes - the first five minutes mostly serve to document the tardiness of an audience shambling back from a mid-concert toilet break - but there are conspicuously fewer of those cuts hiding lulls or dips in quality than one might observe on, say, the latest Jack Whitehall DVD, and the reward for those staying the course is a closer routine that remains very sharp (not to mention pretty filthy) on male and female sexual mores. No frills, then, but this was as good as it got back in the day, one senses: a film that can't in itself be considered great, but which caught enough of the energy of this particular night to bring us closer to something like greatness.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is available to view online here until Monday.

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