by Brian Baker
Posted In: Comedy
at 12:06 PM | Permalink
A new box set celebrates the incendiary genius that was and continues to be Richard Pryor
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
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
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
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