For a man later known for his ferocious verbal skills, it is easy to forget what a gifted physical comedian Richard Pryor was, not just during the unfairly ignored part of his career when he was still in the crossover thrall of Bill Cosby, but later during his brief but fascinating foray into network TV, his early successes onscreen with his melanin-challenged doppelganger Gene Wilder, even his string of embarrassing films in the late 1980s. This is why he returned three times to the medium of the concert film, because it was one thing to listen to Richard Pryor on a turntable -- as many did in clouds of weedsmoke in basements during the Nixon Years -- but it was quite another to watch him: the friezes, the eye-popping but honest fear (despite his "street pimp" swagger, he was a maestro of vulnerability), the slit-eyed, nervous laughing mixed with dangerous anger, the strutting, even Mudbone's subtle facial expressions and trademark lip-smacking was just as vital as the words that came out of his filthy, brilliant mouth.
Even during his Cosby-aping clean-cut collegiate years he could not help but be honest about his Dickens-by-way-of-Iceberg Slim childhood, like when he admits his grandmother, a truly fearsome character with size twelve feet who ran a whorehouse and secreted a straight razor, "made us get undressed before she whipped us. She was weird." He had to learn to work a room; in fact, some of the most fascinating parts of the early years are when Pryor isn't exactly killing but struggling through the stonecutting silencio of half-empty clubs (in one track, there's nearly 20 seconds of unbearable silence where you can almost hear his flop sweat). He didn't just try to be Cosby but Jonathan Winters, taking improv suggestions from the audience that didn't quite gel. (Like Winters, these were often tethered to the times: Pryor does a lisping Batman and a rather racist Asian imitation.) He couldn't suppress relating the hidden world of Black Americana he came from the mainstream one he was entertaining ("Hugh Hefner? In my neighborhood, they call him a pimp!") and he was already perfecting his pinched, nasal, constipated "whitey" voice ("I see you're getting your refreshments there -- wonderful") that would become much imitated by everyone from Eddie Murphy and Robert Townshend to Dave Chappelle and Patrice O'Neal and the entire Wayans clan.
Most of all, he was unable (later, unwilling) to contain his raw and wounded emotions over sex and race: "You have nothing to fear from the black man -- except thoughts," he says with sinister calm just after telling a woman in the audience: "Funny, you don't look like a whore." This was a man working up to a nervous breakthrough. He eventually had it, live on stage at the Aladdin in Las Vegas in 1967, when he told the crowd of rich white swells "What the fuck am I doing here?" Pryor later told a friend he spotted Dean Martin sitting in the audience: "I saw myself through his eyes looking like a damn fool." He saw his future -- and it was Sammy Davis, Jr.
He dropped the mike and left the stage. And never looked back. The subsequent transitional period where "Richie" was on the path to becoming "Richard" covered by Life in Concert shows Pryor edging out onto the edge; by this time he was writing punch-up lines for Redd Foxx, befriending Huey Newton and hanging out with other black comics (including his future right-hand Paul Mooney). He begins to question the white power structure in all its forms, calling black cops "Uncle Remuses" and verbalizes his hatred of black judges ("I hope you turn white!"). There's much here from his second LP 'Craps' (1971), a sort of underground "filthy party" record that shows his debt to Redd Foxx (Pryor recorded it at Foxx's club in Hollywood) but also shows Pryor inhabiting the characters of the brothel he grew up in, from garrulous carpenter Mr. Perkins (an early version of Mudbone) and Black Irma the reluctant prostitute ("Kiss my ass! I ain't givin' up nothin'!") to The Weasel, a hustler who sells whole pianos out of the trunk of his car, and Coldblood, a pimp who constantly brags about how much his suits cost. The sting in his material is more pronounced, like when he shocks crowds by imitating the white farmers who used to frequent his grandmother's whorehouse asking for 13-year-old black girls ("It's rough, but that's the reality"), recalling nasty fights with his wife ("She hurt my ego, I punch her out."), having an orgasm while a woman asks him to marry her ("Yeah Yeah! Yeah!"), getting beaten by his grandmother while he's horny ("Can I jack off first?"), black men being confronted by white police ("I am reaching in my pocket for my license, okayyyyy?'"), town drunks who try to direct traffic on Sunday mornings ("This is a neighborhood, not a residential district!") before claiming they knew Jesus personally ("I tried to warn 'im: 'Boy, don't you go down there fuckin' with those Jews without no money!'").
By 1974, the year he hit it B-I-G, Pryor was beginning to do his trademark extended bits that spun off into something Gothic and wonderful. There are of course the classics: Mudbone ("I looked at this titty lookin' at me, and I swear to God it winked at me!"); the wounded 10-minute riff on LAPD violence in the film Wattstax ("How do you accidentally shoot a nigger six times in the chest?"); his first heart attack; Supernigger ("Equipped with x-ray vision that can see through everything except whitey!"); drunkenly shooting his own car on New Year's Eve; his years of freebasing; setting himself on fire; his life-changing trip to Africa; a wino dealing with Dracula ("What kind of name is that? Why don't you get your teeth fixed?"). But there's also routines that still shock to this day with their ruthless audacity, like his imagining of Nixon getting raped in prison ("What's happening, Tricky Dick? Ha ha ha, yeeaaah! I'm gonna see how 'Tricky' you really are!") or opining that, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Patty Hearst's real crime was to sleep with black revolutionaries.
Pryor's big mouth was a place where comedy and horror and absurdity and unexpected pathos slammed into one another in one sentence. Audiences laughed equally out of surprise as well as mirth. The black members saw one of their own under a spotlight actually laying out what they already knew so well. The whites encountered a "secret" world that was scrappier, scarier and more resilient than they could have possibly imagined, one with its own codes and archetypes that existed independently of their knowledge or approbation. This was the House that Relentless Institutional Racism produced. That was his real innovation.