40 Years Ago: Richard Pryor Perfects Stand-Up on ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’
Before 40, Richard Pryor was written off by many as a cautionary show-business tale. On June 9, 1980, his long and storied history of drug and alcohol abuse culminated in literal self-immolation that looked to doom his life and career. With severe burns over 50 percent of his body, the 39-year-old Pryor’s doctors gave the comic and actor a one-in-three chance of survival.
The concert film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was released less than two years later, on March 12, 1982. With the dapper and energized Pryor delivering, throughout two sold-out performances at the Hollywood Palladium, one of the greatest sets of his career, the film went on to bring in more than $36 million at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing concert film of all time. (Eventually overtaken by Pryor’s eventual Harlem Nights costar and stand-up comedy descendant Eddie Murphy, with Eddie Murphy Raw in 1988.) The accompanying album also hit big, winning Pryor a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording, and cementing Pryor’s already formidable place in stand-up history.
Emerging through the packed audience in a bright red suit and matching black shirt and bowtie (whose high collar served to hide the burn scars Pryor carried until his death from a heart attack and multiple sclerosis in 2005), Pryor took to the Palladium stage and immediately launched into his preacher’s cadence. “We are gathered here today,” Pryor begins, letting his audience settle into his rhythm, “to make sure everyone eats. If not each other — then food.”
Whatever rust there may have been is atomized in an instant. (Even if there are reports that Pryor’s first show of the two pieced together for the film went much worse than the second). What follows in the 82-minute movie is perhaps Pryor’s last — and best — great stand-up performance ever captured on film. (Richard Pryor: Here and Now, from 1983, is a shaky shadow in comparison, although, being a Richard Pryor concert, it’s still worth seeking out.)
While some would understandably point to 1979’s stand-up film, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, as the comic’s high point, Live on the Sunset Strip boasts a Pryor whose always-confident storytelling instincts have been tempered by the experiences he so vividly brings to life. This isn’t to say that Pryor hadn’t always had plenty of pain to inform his comedy.
In the film, Pryor downplays the hardships of growing up in Peoria, Ill., a passing reference to his grandmother’s lucrative brothel business merely hinting at a childhood whose scars marked Pryor long before the fire did. Now, after numerous retrospectives and biographies, we’re aware that Pryor suffered sexual abuse and the knowledge that his father served as his prostitute mother’s pimp, along with the daily trauma of growing up Black in America. Watching the film now, we also carry the fact that the infamously volatile Pryor’s horrific burns resulted from either a suicide attempt or a freebasing explosion — or, likely, some impossible-to-separate combination of both.
Pryor doesn’t address the incident until the hour mark of Live on the Sunset Strip, with the first 45 minutes made up of the sort of seemingly effortless storytelling that continues to inspire generations of imitators. Slight and nimble, Pryor’s gift at mimicry is often underrated compared to his vaunted material on race and sex. “I am no day at the beach,” the comic admits, although Pryor’s tumultuous and often abusive history with the women in his life is merely hinted at.
But as Pryor pantomimes, everything from the animals he saw on a trip to Africa to the Playboy bunny inexplicably aroused by Pryor’s comic little-kid voice to the Mafia club owners who reacted to the naive young Pryor’s attempt to extract his payment with a starter’s pistol, Live on the Sunset Strip exists as a testament to his unparalleled facility with physical comedy and impeccable timing.
Watch a TV Spot for 'Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip'
Capturing comedy in concert has always been an elusive art, and Live on the Sunset Strip suffers from director Joe Layton’s continual, jarring cuts to the roaring audience. While it’s interesting to see Jesse Jackson enjoying some of Pryor’s bracingly blue material, Layton employs the alienating strategy of potting up individual laughter, ostensibly emanating from the audience members in the cutaway. Thankfully, the film was shot by acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who managed to merge Pryor’s two nights of performance into a seamless whole. (Apparently, you can see the difference only in the length of Pryor’s pocket-handkerchief.)
Jarring, too, is the mid-show demand from someone in the audience that Pryor break out Mudbone, the wizened old character he’d channeled off and on for much of his career. The interruption being planted ahead of time or not, the ensuing routine is, again, a stellar showcase for Pryor’s character work, with the ever-unimpressed Mudbone finally bringing up the time that Richard set himself on fire. “That fire got on his ass and it fucked him up upstairs,” Mudbone laments, before addressing how trying to talk to the high-on-coke Pryor is “like trying to talk to a baboon’s ass.”
Like the flow-breaking character comedy of contemporaries like Lily Tomlin, the Mudbone routine functions for some as a lull in the set, even if Pryor’s reportedly improvised seven minutes as his wiser, more cantankerous alter-ego remains a masterful piece of character work. But it does segue gracefully into Pryor’s closing 20 minutes, a for-the-time revelatory stretch where the comic turns unthinkable pain into tour-de-force comedy.
After a joke about his burns being caused by mixing up his nightly cookies-and-milk routine (“The shit blew up!”), Pryor is bracingly forthright about his addiction, the fire and his horrifyingly painful recovery. Weaving in and out of various characters involved, Pryor channels the too-chipper nurse vainly preparing him for his first post-fire bath, formidable and imperturbable friend Jim Brown’s no-nonsense attempts to lure the pre-accident Pryor out from his self-imposed drug exile and, most tellingly, the insidious voice of his drug pipe itself, whose soothingly codependent come-ons promise the increasingly withdrawn Pryor peace — as long as he keeps it fed.
Watch a Clip From 'Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip'
This material is simply spellbinding, with Pryor’s imitation of Brown’s repeated ultimatum, “What you gonna do?,” playing out like the most hysterical of tragedy. (According to Pryor, Brown nearly managed to talk him into going for treatment right before the fire.) And Pryor’s anguished pantomime of his reaction to a wet sponge on his just-awakened nerve endings sees the comic emerging from his approximation of those arm-waving spasms of pain with actual tears sparkling in his eyes.
As with a famous earlier bit on Live on the Sunset Strip about a revelation he had in Africa about his use of what is now referred to as the N-word, Pryor performs the storytelling magic of making what is meticulously written and rehearsed echo with the spark of genuine and immediate self-discovery. Pryor may have started his performance as a preacher, but despite him proclaiming that he’s not trying to lecture anybody with his own hard-learned experience, Live on the Sunset Strip ends with one of the most sobering, yet hilarious, depictions of addiction and its aftermath ever recorded.
Even if we know that this Pryor wasn’t telling us the whole truth about the night that almost killed him, Live on the Sunset Strip stands as a monument to one of the most volatile and brilliant comic performers who ever lived. It’s Pryor captured, blessedly, at his apex.