In the beginning, there was Lenny Bruce. And Lenny Bruce said the word "fuck" and the word was good.
Unfortunately, the word killed his career, and heroin killed his body, but he softened the ground for the Holy Trinity of comedy to follow; Robert Klein (keen observationalist with a social/cultural conscience), George Carlin (an acrobatic magician's use of language in the service of every possible subject) and Richard Pryor, the heir to the throne and, in Pryor's own parlance, the baddest motherfucker of them all.
In the liner notes to No Pryor Restraints: Life in Concert, a new seven-audio CD/two-DVD box set from Shout Factory further illuminating the legendary comic's brilliance, great-in-his-own-right Robin Williams suggests that, just as baseball honors its heroes by retiring their numbers, comedy should retire the word "motherfucker" as a tribute to "one of the best there ever was, ever shall be, comedy without end. Amen."
Pryor would never go for that, of course. He would tell you that he fought long and hard to transform the word "motherfucker" from a horrifying epithet relegated to other-side-of-the-tracks establishments and their low clientele to a uniquely descriptive word that punctuated his bits with conversational ease. If he'd gotten wind of that campaign before his death, I'd be willing to bet Pryor's response would have been, "Retire it? You motherfuckers are going to have to start saying it twice as much because I ain't gonna be here to hold up my motherfucking end. Ain't nobody retiring shit, motherfucker."
No Pryor Restraints is not the first collection to attempt to encapsulate Richard Pryor's revolutionary comedic brilliance. In 2000, Warner Brothers released ...And It's Deep Too!, a definitive (and Grammy-winning) box set which largely served as the CD debut of the bulk of Pryor's catalog, and five years later, just months before Pryor's death from multiple sclerosis, came Evolution/Revolution, a two-CD set that cherry-picked his 1971 Craps (After Hours) album, his appearance at Wattstax and a handful of unreleased bits.
To dip into that same well a third time seems perhaps slightly redundant and mercenary, but producers Reggie Collins and Steve Pokorny and Pryor's widow Jennifer Lee Pryor (who all oversaw ...And It's Deep Too!) have assembled a completely satisfying and beautifully presented collection that features a lot of old favorites and an impressive amount of unreleased material.
No Pryor Restraints begins at the dawn of Pryor's career in the mid-to-late'60s when he was still working in the general confines of conventional comedy. Even then, his increasingly unrestrained use of the word "nigger" served to defuse its inflammatory intent (it was used in the the titles of three subsequent albums and ultimately created a new self-awareness and empowerment for the Rap/Hip Hop generation), and by the early '70s, Pryor was bravely referencing his prodigious drug use, his rampant sex life and his complicated and often violent relationship with whoever was his wife at the moment, not to mention calling out America for its racist attitudes, both blatant and subtle.
If Lenny Bruce's approach to those subjects in the '60s could be viewed as subversively distributed underground texts, then Pryor's expansion of them in the '70s would be considered wildly unedited and graphically illuminated manuscripts hawked from sidewalk tables right out in the open.
By the mid-'70s, Pryor had gotten signed to Warner Brothers and was quickly becoming recognized as one of comedy's quickest and most scathingly brilliant minds. By then he had also embarked on an eclectic career as an actor, and proved conclusively that he had dramatic chops that were every bit as finely tuned as his gift for stand-up.
As Pryor's life became more chaotic and tumultuous, his routines became more honest and soul-baring; one of No Pryor Restraints' unreleased gems is a greatly expanded version of "New Year's Eve," Pryor's account of shooting his wife's car after an all-night party and an argument.
One of the things that No Pryor Restraints accomplishes — in a well designed and gorgeous book — is an accurate charting of Pryor's progress, from an edgy yet still relatively orthodox comic to an unbridled social critic who was not afraid to call a motherfucker a motherfucker. One of the problems with the Laff albums was that they were all shows recorded at the beginning of Pryor's career and yet their releases were interspersed with his far superior Warners albums. In this context, the listener can actually witness Pryor's evolution as he becomes more and more confident, not merely in the writing and honing of the material but in his swaggering presentation of it.
In addition to the (loosely) chronologically sequenced bits culled from the early material that comprised the albums that came out sporadically on Laff, Pryor's legitimate releases and the unreleased pieces that came from his archive, No Pryor Restraints also contains two DVDs that offer three of his most notable concert films, 1979's Live in Concert, 1982's Live on the Sunset Strip and 1983's triumphant Here and Now.
After seven audio CDs of heart-stoppingly hilarious bits, it's almost a revelation to see Pryor do the exquisite dance that accompanied his obscenity-laced symphonies. No Pryor Restraints doesn't necessarily tell us anything we didn't already know about Richard Pryor, it merely reinforces the things we did know in a beautiful and effective way. We already knew that Pryor didn't just change the way people thought about comedy, he changed the medium itself by expanding the parameters of what was acceptable to discuss and the manner in which it's done. He also single-handedly changed race relations in America; with a criminally genius sense of humor, Pryor identified and skewered stereotypes (and obvious flaws) on both sides of the racial divide, ultimately bridging the chasm by bringing fans of every diverse ethnic group together under his all-encompassing umbrella (and poking them in the eye when they arrived).
And in changing the comedy landscape and narrowing the racial gap, Richard Pryor changed the culture in the United States. Television, movies, music and art have all been touched in immeasurable ways by the influence that rippled outward from Richard Pryor's 30-year comedy reign. That's all that motherfucker did, and it was more than motherfucking enough.
The publicist for photographer Matthew Rolston's book, Talking Heads, The Vent Haven Portraits (featured in this 2012 CityBeat article), recently sent photos from Rolston's book-publication party in L.A. Here's an excerpt from the accompanying release:
"On Friday, May 10th, actress and author Diane Keaton, renowned art collector Kay Saatchi and Joel Chen, owner of Los Angeles' top resource for antiques and vintage furniture JF Chen, celebrated influential American celebrity photographer and director Matthew Rolston’s new book at JF Chen. Featuring 100 ‘headshots’ of a rare collection of ventriloquist dummies unearthed from the intimate and obscure Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (the world’s only museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism), the book is a departure from the celebrity portraiture for which Rolston is known and marks his first foray into the world of fine art."
A documentary about Rolston's project also was shown. Other guests included actor John C. Reilly and songwriter Diane Warren. Vent Haven, incidentally, is planning an exhibit of the photos, though not the large-format prints shown at Chen's store.