Richard Pryor's Life in Concert - Rolling Stone
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Richard Pryor’s Life in Concert

The comedian’s new film attacks the heart, casts out past demons and foils the censors.

Movie poster, comedy, documentary, 'Richard Pryor Live Uncensored'

Movie poster advertises the comedy documentary 'Richard Pryor Live Uncensored' in 1979.

John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty

Murmur of the Fart

God comes down to earth as a comedian, right? He’s been trying to get in touch with people for years and he’s not having much luck. So he figures, why not give television a shot? That’s the way God works, sort of trial and error.

Anyway, he comes down to earth, and naturally, being God, he’s the best fucking comedian you can imagine. He’s got the moves, the mind, the insight, and he writes his own material – the down-to-earth humor of life. God’s point is to show people the cosmic connection between the three H’s – honesty, humor and humanity – a corny sounding idea, but that’s the way God thinks. Big clichés. God feels if people learn this truth, they’ll be able to survive life, and maybe even enjoy it.

So God takes a meeting with the top guys at NBC, Fred Silverman and his associates, and pitches a special, He wants to do his act on prime time. Silverman asks God what kind of material he’s got, and God hits him with one of his favorite routines. He calls it “the Human Animal,” and it goes something like this:

“Despite their intelligence, which is superior to any other living thing, despite their most profound works of art, literature, science and technology…men and women still fuck, shit, piss and fart like dogs, That’s right, Bach, Einstein, Madame Curie – “

“Okay, okay, God,” says Silverman, “I think we got it. It’s, uh, it’s good stuff, good stuff. But, um…it’ll never get on. It’s too dirty.”

“Too dirty!”

“Right. Standards and Practices will never go for it.”

God is fuming. “I’ll tell you what’s dirty – you want to talk dirty? Censoring God is dirty. Censoring the human bodies that I created is dirty. Censoring the way human beings normally talk and have fun is dirty.”

“Aw, God, get serious,” snaps Silver-man. “It’s not a question of censoring you. It’s a question of answering to all the decency fanatics and the politicians and the FCC.”

God looks Silverman in the eye. “And the sponsors?” he asks. Silverman stares at the ground and shuffles his feet. “Yeah, the sponsors…but they’ll go for anything that sells, you know that. Look, God, personally I agree with you. My job would be a lot more fun without the censors and fanatics.”

“Don’t worry about them,” says God. “I know how to handle these people.”

Silverman smiles warily. “You sure?”

“Trust me,” says God. “You take care of the sponsors, I’ll take care of the nuts. Get me an hour on prime time and I promise you’ll never have to worry about censorship again.”

Silverman shrugs and says he’ll do his best.

They shake hands, God takes off and Silverman hits the intercom. “Tell security to keep that trouble-maker off the premises.”

Thoroughly confused, the associates stare at Silverman and each other. “Look, fellas,” he says, “God means well, he’s an idealist, right? But the bottom line is, Standards and Practices will never buy it. If we let God say ‘fuck’ on national television, these people are out of a job for life. In fact, we’ll all be looking for work.

“And besides,” he continues, lighting a cigar, “if you ask me, the guy lacks charisma.”

An Attack of the Heart Peoria, Ill.

Black comic Richard Pryor, whose violent temper and obscenity-laced spoofs of black society kept him at loggerheads with television censors and the law; died here today after being admitted to Methodist Medical Center for what doctors termed “exhaustion and poor color.”

Pryor, a former Peoria native, reportedly collapsed while attending a birthday party for his grandmother, Mrs. Marie Bryant, also black.

“We deeply regret the passing of a promising young talent,” said an NBC executive refused to be identified, “Richard Pryor had a bright mind. Had he solved some of his personal problems, he might have been another Carlin or Newhart, using humor as a tool to fight social ills,” He added that although he’d never met Pryor personally, he had heard the comedian was known to use narcotics while engaging in interracial sex…

Well, thank god we’ve never had to read that kind of bullshit. But I’d fully prepared myself for it on the afternoon of November 10th, 1977, after a local radio station reported the news of Pryor’s death. The day before, Pryor had been rushed to the Peoria hospital and placed in a coronary unit. Naturally, the rumor took hold that he’d suffered a heart attack, and since he was only thirty-six, with a turbulent history of self-abuse, indulgence and destruction, there were other rumors as well.

It’s not good for a nation to lose its funniest people, I pontificated that evening to some fellow moody brooders. We’d already had our fill of comic martyrs – Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Freddie Prinze and Ernie Kovacs – and to me Pryor was way beyond those guys, an authentic American humorist on the order of Mark Twain, with a vision of truth and human beauty that bordered on the spiritual.

And even when we learned that the broadcast was wrong, that Pryor was alive (a hospital spokesman reported that “when he came in, he was a very sick man,” complaining of chest pains), my fears did not subside. I often suspected the poor bastard might pull a Lenny, making the Big Exit before most people – due to the canned morality of network television – would have a chance to catch his act in its pure form.

That is no longer a problem, thanks to his new film, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, an uncensored documentary of a stage performance last December at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, California. It’s more than a movie, really, it’s an event. On February 2nd it opened in forty-one theaters. Within two months it was playing in 150 theaters and has already grossed $12 million. Which means that millions of people for the first time are viewing the essential Pryor. As he himself put it, they “get to see what I do.”

Those familiar with Pryor’s previous stage work are also surprised by the film. His material – all 78 minutes of it – is brand-new, conceived and assembled in the previous five months. And his performance is more unified and more personal, the best example yet of his ability to see and convey the humor in pain.

The difference is that, in the past, much of his material was inspired by the pain around him – the pimps, drunks, cons and junkies of the street, members of his family and his circle of friends. In Richard Pryor Live in Concert, the pain seems pretty much his own, particularly the pain of this last year. Maybe that’s how he survived it.

Even by his standards, 1977 was a rough year for Pryor. He appeared in two movies, Greased Lightning and Silver Streak, and was working on three others, Which Is Up?, Blue Collar and The Wiz. In May Pryor turned to the battleground of television, starring in his own prime-time special for NBC. He created a number of new and imaginative characters, and the show was a critical success.

In late summer, he made a deal with NBC to do a weekly series of four one-hour shows. The network, desperate for ratings, scheduled him opposite ABC’s Happy Days. From the start there were nasty censorship hassles. Pryor planned to open the first show with the ludicrous announcement that the network had allowed him to be himself. The camera would pull back and show Pryor stark naked…without genitals! The bit was taped and shown to a studio audience, who laughed hysterically. NBC killed it.

Pryor retaliated with a maneuver that should earn him a place in the Guinness Book Poetic Justice. He gave NBC four hours that were so bizarre and puzzling that the network had no way of censoring them, because no one knew what the fuck was going on. In one segment Pryor played the lead singer in a Kiss-style band, chanting an atonal song called “Black Death” to a ‘luded-out group of rock & rollers. The song ended with the band spraying the kids with pills, heroin, machine-gun bullets and poisoned gas – leaving no survivors.

The series bombed. Some of the more nervous affiliates refused to carry it. NBC fired the last salvo by covering its ass. Even though the contract was for only four shows, the network announced the series was canceled due to poor ratings.

Pryor was starting to get bad press, and it only got worse. In September, he was placed at the top of the gay shit list after appearing for 15 minutes at a gay rights benefit in the Hollywood Bowl. Initially, he was warmly received. His account of the time he sucked a man’s dick got a lot of laughs. But somewhere along the way, he apparently misjudged the delicate sensibilities of his audience. It may have been his frequent use of the word “faggot.” When people started booing, Pryor mumbled to himself, “Shit…what the fuck…this is really weird.”

Finally Pryor exploded: “This is an evening about human rights, and I am a human being. I just wanted to see where you was really at, and I wanted to test you to your motherfucking soul. I’m doing this shit for nuthin’. But I wanted to come here and tell you to kiss my ass…with your bullshit. You understand? When the niggers was burnin’ down Watts, you motherfuckers was doin’ what you wanted to do on Hollywood Boulevard…didn’t give a shit about it.” And then he walked off the stage, yelling to thousands of jeering homosexuals, “kiss my happy, rich black ass!”

It was this sort of thing that made it appear, as 1977 drew to a close, that Pryor was heading for the edge. And on the first day of the next year, he went over it. Even today he refuses to discuss the incident. “Don’t even ask me about it,” he says. “Check the court records.”

A few months earlier, Pryor had married his fourth wife, Deboragh McGuire. He’d told friends this was it, she was the love of his life; marriage was wonderful.

As it turned out, he was mistaken in this. At dawn, after celebrating New Year’s Eve, Pryor got into a huge blowout with his wife and her friends, and threw the friends out of his Spanish mansion in Northridge, California. As they started to drive off in their Buick, he rammed it with his Mercedes. They ran away on foot; he ran into the house, got his magnum and emptied it into the Buick, causing about $5000 damage. Later, police arrested Pryor on two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon and a misdemeanor charge of property damage. Deboragh moved out.

That’s when I figured Pryor had lost it – a newlywed fires point-blank into a car just because his wife’s friends had been sitting in it, he’s probably under some pressure, right?

I didn’t realize the guy was gathering material.

I would say this has been one of the hardest years I’ve had, and one of the most productive. To be cliché, it’s like, you can’t keep a good man down. Like I reclaimed my life.” Richard spoke softly and thoughtfully, sometimes halting to pare down an idea to its most useful parts. He seemed cheerful and relaxed, possibly because he was vacationing in Hawaii at the time, in Hana on Maui. He’d spent the day fishing. Caught two. Now, he sat back in his hotel room and lit a cigarette.

“I just am happier than I’ve ever been.”

Quite a contrast from a year ago, I thought. How had he made it from there to here? What happened after his marriage broke up?

Richard mulled the question over for a moment. He cleared his throat. “You know, I felt it was over…I was splintered…in many pieces, right? And it was just all – actually, I felt relieved.” He started to laugh. “To tell the truth, now that I think about it. I felt relieved. And then my life was my own again. I had a chance to do what I really love.”

“How come the marriage failed?”

“It happened,” he said, “maybe because was immature, or maybe because it wasn’t right. You write your own script, you know what I’m sayin’? Create your own drama. You have to, someday – you ever do this?” Pryor’s voice grew airy, like he was telling a bedtime story. “My uncle taught me this. He said, ‘The thing to do is, you go and take some time for yourself, and you review your whole life. You look at everything that you’ve ever done, or ever thought. And you don’t deny no thoughts, and you don’t deny no actions you ever committed. And you see who you are.’

“The good, the bad, the horrifying and all that shit – you look at it, square in the face. It’s kinda like purging yourself – cleaning out, facing them demons and wiping ’em out.”

By June the process had apparently worked.

“One night I was driving in Beverly Hills,” said Richard. “I was comin’ from dinner with some friends, and I just turned the car around and went to the Comedy Store [an L.A. improv club]. And I got onstage and started working.”

“Had you been thinking about it for a while?”

“No, I hadn’t. I really hadn’t. I just had to go up and work, that’s all I know, and get in contact with my people again. And like the stuff, it just came out, man, right? I just emptied my head out, see. Like you go up there, and if you only got five minutes, just do that five minutes, but go ahead – keep your head open and see what new comes in. And it came outta that. I worked there till August, then went on the road.”

It seemed so incredibly fast. Hadn’t Lenny Bruce once compared putting together a new hour’s material to writing a novel? Pryor shrugged. “I don’t know. I like to do that, though, ’cause I figure if you pay new money, you should see a new show.”

Don’t breathe.”

The voice is deep and mean. Richard Pryor’s right fist attacks his chest and burrows in, his right arm swinging up and snapping his whole upper body to the left.

Bewildered, Pryor looks nervously left and right. “Huh?”

The fist and now his face have become his heart – an angry, talking heart that tightens its lips and twists and shouts again:
“You heard me, motherfucker, I said don’t Breathe.”

Pryor winces in pain. His mouth drops open, and he pleads in a panicked, cascading falsetto, “Okay-I-won’t-breathe-I-won’t-breathe-I-won’t-breathe.”

“Then shut the fuck” – attack! – “UP, then.”

“Okay-okay-don’t-kill-me-don’t-kill-me-don’t-kill-me,” whimpers Pryor.

“Get on one knee and” – the fist strikes again – “Prove it.”

Pryor drops to his left knee, his right fist still clutching his chest. “I’m-on-one-knee-I’m-on-one-knee-don’t-kill-me.”

“Thinkin’ ’bout dyin’ now, ain’tcha.”

Pryor’s head nods up and down in rapid assent. “Yeah-I’m-thinkin’-’bout-dyin’-I’m-thinkin’-’bout-dyin’.”

“You didn’t think about it when you’s eatin’ all ‘at PORK.” Now, his right arm snaps up so furiously that it knocks Pryor flat on his back, on the stage of the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach. A close-up shot shows his face in wrenching agony. His eyes are pinched shut. He bites down on his lower lip, then opens his mouth, then bites, then opens. The fingers of his left hand tremble in shock. His body is writhing and slightly curled, like a wounded bug. In the background, cheers and applause from the audience mix with a roar of laughter.

Pryor’s heart continues its assault. “You know black people got high blood pressure anyway, don’tcha.”

The word pressure knocks Pryor over on his left side, facing the audience. “Yeah-I-know-it-I-know-it.”

“Then watch yo’ Diet!”

“I-will-I-will.” Pryor’s voice drops to a gasping whisper. “Don’t-kill-me-don’t-kill-me-don’t-kill-me-don’t-kill-me.” He sits up, resumes his natural expression and faces the audience.

“You be thinkin’ about shit like that when you think you gonna die,” he says, laughing.

“You put an emergency call in to God, too, right?” Pryor shrieks hysterically, “Can I speak to God right away, please?” and is intercepted by a nasal and officious angel.

“I’ll have to put you on hold.”

Again Pryor turns to the audience. “And then your heart get mad if it find out you’s goin’ behind its back to talk to God.” His voice gets smooth and mellow, his lids lower halfway and his eyes look to the side. “Was you tryin’ to talk to God behind my back?”

Pryor starts shaking his head in nervous innocence. “No…”

The heart freaks out – “You’s a lyin’ mother fucker” – and throws him to the ground again. He writhes some more, then sits up with his right arm behind his head like a pillow and addresses the crowd.

“I woke up in a am-ba-lance, right? And there wudn’t nothin’ but white people starin’ at me. I say, ‘Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong mother-fuckin’ heaven. Now I gotta listej to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days.'”
Richard Pryor Live in Concert

The heart attack is a perfect metaphor for the show. It’s as if in seventy-eight minutes his life passes before him. And us. He shows it to us with such accuracy and honesty that we laugh.

It’s weird, watching a whole audience laughing at a man dying onstage, and maybe it’s a weird kind of laughter, something that comes from a little deeper inside; but the evidence is right there on film. They laugh.

Pryor shows us his childhood, getting whipped, going to a funeral, fighting with his father and grandmother, hunting deer in the forest, fighting in the ring. He doesn’t just tell us about the stuff, like most comedians, telling jokes. He brings it to life and exposes its soul.

And he shows us this last year, confiding to the audience, “I am really personally happy to see anybody come out and see me, right? ‘Specially much as I done fucked up this year.” Then he proceeds to act out the scene when he shot up the cat, playing all the roles – himself, the magnum, the tires, the engine – even the vodka.

“And that vodka I was drinkin’ say, ‘Go ahead, shoot somethin’ else.’ I shot the motor; the motor fell out of the motherfucker, right? The motor say, ‘Fuck it!'”

Pryor opens the performance in his rudest manner, picking at the racial wounds and fears of the audience itself. “The fun part for me is when white people come back after intermission and find out niggers done stole their seats”:
White Man: [Stiff and nervous] Uh, uh, weren’t we sitting here, uh, D-Dear? Weren’t we, uh, weren’t we? [To nigger] We, uh, we were sitting here, uh, weren’t we?
His Wife: [Nasal, righteous] Yes, we were sitting right there.
Nigger: [Cool, defiant] Well, you ain’t sittin’ here now, motherfucker.

Now what’s funny about that? Well, for the whites who lost their seats, nothing. And yet the Long Beach audience, which was 70-percent white, broke up laughing at this bit. I think what happens is you come to the show with all these fears inside you – racial, cultural, sexual – and Pryor assaults you with them right off the bat. But now you experience these fears under the warm shelter of mass laughter. It puts you at ease, with yourself and the people around you. And it puts you at ease with Pryor.

I’ve read that some people, when they first see Pryor, pack up their fears and split. And I can understand that. But it’s too bad in a way, because they miss some moments of real sweetness and understanding. Like the time Richard was at his stepmother’s wake, and they found roaches in some dressing baked by an old neighbor. “My grandmother say, [speaking soft and low, his open-palmed hand in front of him, cautioning a young boy] ‘Now don’ say nuthin’ to her. She old an’ blind, she can’t see no more. She probably lef’ the oven open an’ ney crawled in there las’ night. But Richard, you have roaches just like ever’body else. [Brightly] They’s good too, wudn’t ney honey.'”

Or the time, just recently, when his two pet monkeys died, and he was out in the backyard crying, and this big, ugly, mean – “he would bite anything” – German shepherd from next door jumped the fence and came up to him:
Shepherd: [Looking up, consoling] Wuzza matter, Rich?
Richard: [Eyes down, crying] My monkeys died.
Shepherd: Wha’? Your monkeys died? Ain’t that a bitch? You mean the two monkeys used to be in the trees, they died?
Richard: Yeah, they died.
Shepherd: Shit. [To himself, wistfully] I’s gonna eat them, too. [To Richard] Don’t linger on that shit too long, you know, it fuck widja.
Richard: I’ll try.
Shepherd: Yeah, you take care.
Richard: [To audience] He went back and jumped over the fence. Just before he jumped, he looked back at me and said…
Shepherd: [Friendly, but with a prudent reminder] Now, you know I’m gonna be chasin’ you again tomorrow.

While there are characters Pryor’s done before that I prefer to almost anything in the movie – his preachers, drunks and junkies, and a wonderful old man named Mudbone – this film has another dimension; it’s as if Pryor, in examining his life during this chaotic year, has grown – particularly in his attitude toward women. At one point he suggests that women should have “pussies that lock up,” so they can catch rapists, “’cause that’s some vile shit, to take somebody’s humanity like that, right? At least your own pussy oughta be able to lock up – whup! – ‘Okay, let’s go, come on. Don’t make a move or I’ll tighten up, just keep goin’, come on.'”

Later he comes up with a swaggering, foolhardy asshole named Macho Man, who, one suspects, is based on his former self. Macho Man first appears during a piece of advice Pryor gives the audience on how to face danger.

“You gotta stay in shape an’ shit, ’cause you never can tell…when…in real life…you will have to [leans forward, throws his left hand down for emphasis, yells at the top of his lungs]…Run! That’s right, Run. Goddamnit, Run. Why – get – killed – when – you – can – [hysterical falsetto] Run…

“That’s right, if somebody pulled a knife on you, and you can’t pull out nuthin’ but a hand with some skin on it, your intelligence ought to tell you to…Run! But people be watchin’ Kojak an’ shit too much; they think they have to be [sings like Nelson Eddy, strutting, hand on hip] Macho Man! I’ll take that knife and shove it up your ass! I’m Macho Man! You go from Macho Man to [sings] Dead Person!”

In the past, Pryor performed in a kind of random fashion, changing the order of his routines from show to show. But this movie has momentum. The segments grow in intensity and insight, and finally he deals with the one fear that unites all adults of every race and belief. Sex.

“I just found out some time ago that sometimes women don’t have orgasms,” he confesses, “and that fucked me up.” He then splits into a man and a woman – one on each side of the microphone – who have just made love. The woman indicates it wasn’t that great. The man asks what she means. “Well, I didn’t come.”
“Well shit, I did.”
“Well, what about me?”
“What about you? Shit, I got mine, get yours. Shit, I ain’t got no time to be sensitive, ’cause I’m [sings and struts] Macho Man! I don’t give a damn if you come or not, I’m Macho Man!” Pryor laughs. “You gotta be cool when you’re Mach Man, right? ’cause you can’t be sensitive and care if somebody have a good time in bed – shit. That’s too scary. Right? ’cause men be scared in bed, I don’t give a fuck what they tell you women. When the sex is over, men be talkin’ shit like, [muttering to himself a mile a minute, eyes rolling every which way] ‘Did she come, I wonder if she came, I think she came, I wonder if I was good to her, I hope it was good for her, I’m not gonna ask her, though. I don’t give a shit, ’cause if she didn’t like it, that’s all right, I don’t care, ’cause I did the best I could, now fuck her! That’s it, she’s not gettin’ anymore, now that’s it! [Looks down at himself, pleading] Please get hard, please. [Turns to woman] I don’t care, don’t kiss me no more, I don’t wanta be touched!’

“And some niggers lyin’, talkin’ ’bout, [cool, arrogant, his whole body loose and rolling like he’s bragging at a bar] ‘I can fuck eight, nine hours, Jack.’ You some lyin’ motherfuckers. You fuck nine hours, we know where to bury yo’ ass on the tenth. ‘Cause I like makin’ love myself, and I can make love for about three minutes. I do about three minutes of serious fuckin’, then I need eight hours’ sleep…and a bowl of Wheaties.”

For this admission, Pryor receives a wave of grateful applause, indicating some serious relief in the audience.

“And you can tell when you done made good love to your woman, right? ‘Cause – she – will – go – to – sleep. That’s when you really are [sings] Macho Man! I put your ass to sleep, I’m Macho Man!”

Another wave of applause. Pryor proceeds through several other common sexual absurdities, then returns to the Big Question.

“And when you don’t use sensitivity when you’re having sex, right? Or share some of your soul, nothin’ gonna happen. Because men really get afraid, man, men are really scared in bed. It’s hard to say, ‘Uh…[he blanches, gulps, raises his eyebrows; his left arm starts flapping out of control, up to his chest and back]…did, uh…[he gulps again, blinks his eyes, searches for the words with his hand]…d-did you, did you, uh, [he ducks, his lips quiver, his mouth drops open, producing only an airy hum, something between a laugh and a gasp]…heeeaaaaaah…[his head turns to the side in shame and fear; he grimaces like there’s a bad taste in his mouth; and from deep in his throat comes a warped, high-pitched voice that sounds like a biology film on an old school projector]…didyoucuh-uh-uh-um? [He cowers, his head bobs forward, then back into his neck like he just burped something up; he winces as if he’s about to step on burning coals] Mm-mm-mm-did-you-oo-oo?’

“Right? ’cause men get defensive if a woman say she didn’t come…they won’t take no fault for shit, right? They might say anything when they get scared. Men go, ‘Uh, look baby, uh, [glances nervously at floor, then up] maybe you pussy dead.'”

This gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening. It is topped, however, by Pryor’s next line. “And women always have a great comeback, right? Women say, [coy falsetto] ‘Well, why don’t you give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?'”

Pryor then resolves the situation, and ends the film, with a huge burst of comic fireworks and a twist of mime. The final credits roll over a freeze frame of Pryor, his hands clasped over his head like a champ. The audience cheers.

In some ways. Richard Pryor Live in Concert is not a movie at all. It’s not even a concert documentary in the slick, polished mold of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Promoter Bill Sargent simply contacted Pryor and arranged for an audio-visual recording of his show, using a mated system of film cameras and TV monitors. Nothing was edited or rearranged. Sargent slapped the film together and put it on the market in just one month, distributing it through his company, SEE Theatre Network. In the process he has created a low-budget, short-order masterpiece, a powerful argument for spontaneity in mass entertainment.

Sargent is a fat, jolly, red-bearded Oklahoman who in twenty-five years has made, and lost, millions through his high-rolling ventures in concert promotion, maverick filmmaking, electronic invention and good, old-fashioned hype. The other day he sat in his room at New York’s Del-monico Hotel and blissfully pored over the latest figures.

“This film is breaking records everywhere,” he bellowed. “In 17 major markets, we’ve been number one since the day we opened. In every city it’s playing, we’re outgrossing Superman, we’re outgrossing everything. One man, on a stage, all alone, with material he wrote – he’s the scenery, he’s the sense, he’s the sound effects, he’s everything – is outgrossing Superman. And why not? Talent and genius is talent and genius.”

Because his movie exists in a gray area between film and theater, Sargent did not submit it for a rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. “Why should I? Who the hell are they?” he asked belligerently. “Look, I’ve got a simple philosophy. I’m not fighting the MPAA. If I went out and did a film tomorrow, I would rate it. But Sears and Montgomery Ward, the most fashionable stores in the world, sold tickets to Richard Pryor’s concerts. And there was no rating – if an eight-year-old kid had the money, he could’ve bought a Ticketron ticket.”

Instead, Sargent rated the film himself, with a curious little statement attached to all ads and promotional displays: “Warning: This Picture Contains Harsh and Very Vulgar Language and May Be Considered Shocking and Offensive. No Explicit Sex or Violence Is Shown.” Although he personally does not consider the film dirty or vulgar, he said he issued the warning because it was honest and would help get newspaper ads. “And besides,” he confided with a wink, “who’s kidding who? It helps sell tickets.”

Well, it takes all kinds to do God’s work. The point is, Sargent, with one simple, greedy idea, has accomplished what the censorship of television, the FCC and the courts have succeeded in preventing for so long. He has brought the common humor and uncommon art of Richard Pryor to the masses.

Not that Sargent gives a shit about that. “I have no message at all,” he announced proudly. “I’m selfish, I want to make a lot of money, and goddamnit, I’m doing it. That’s what it’s all about.”

From Hawaii, Richard Pryor examined the new world.

“It’s just like, I think I’m growing, you know?” he said, “to a nice place. I’m getting a lot more deeper about stuff. A lot more sensitive about things. And still funny, too. Like you need pain to be funny, you know what I mean?”

I mentioned that in his movie he seemed more sensitive toward women, and he said it was intentional and he was happy people caught it. He admitted that the part about women’s orgasms was true – only in the last year and a half did he learn that sometimes women didn’t come. As a result, his attitude toward women changed.

“Can you get into that a little more?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t want to go too far and get fucked up. Uh, let’s just say that I’m learning, you know?”

“Well, you’ve had a lot of opportunities.”

“Thank you,” he said, laughing, “you fuck!”

Today Richard has a new woman, actress Jennifer Lee (she’s the one walking with Pryor during the opening credits of the movie), and things are looking brighter in general. He’s resolved his problems with the law in the case of the car murder. The felony charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor; he was fined and placed on probation, on the condition he perform a series of benefit concerts, which he did. He’s appeared in another movie, Neil Simon’s California Suite. His Warner Bros. live album, Wanted (the same show as the movie, but a different performance), recently went gold. And he’s got a bunch of new films coming up.

“I didn’t realize I had a weird disease about working,” said Pryor. “If I’m off work a couple of weeks, I go crazy. I start thinking that I haven’t worked in years. And Jennifer has to say, ‘Hey, man, you just came off the road. You been working for a fuckin’ year.’ And I say, ‘Wha – ? Okay.’ You know, I get them anxieties? I’ve never been able to relax, and I’m just startin’ to enjoy that part of it, too.”

Relaxing during the next two years will be tricky for Pryor. In May, he starts working with Cicely Tyson on a movie called Family Dreams for Universal. After that, there’s a spy spoof for Paramount; The Charlie Parker Story for Warner Bros.; and a project he’s particularly excited about, a World War II movie he’s planning with Giancarlo Giannini. And Neil Simon, after seeing Richard Pryor Live in Concert, immediately began writing a script for Pryor and Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife. It’s tentatively titled Macho Man.

“The thing that’s good about it for me is people get to see what I do,” Pryor said of the concert film. “‘Cause Ray Stark, who produced California Suite, had never seen me work, right? And when he saw the movie, him and Neil, they got real excited about what they saw that I could do. They said they had no idea, or they would have had me do something different in their movie.”

This got us talking about the access thing, why television didn’t allow Pryor to perform the way he wanted. I said I’d never been able to understand why the networks kept us from communicating the way most of us normally communicate with each other every day.

And Richard said this:
“I think it’s up to each person, to find that thing, you know? Like you choose sides somewhere along the line. You choose the side that says, ‘I don’t want to hear that, I don’t want to deal with that,’ and you go get old by the time you’re 60, and consider yourself an old person and retire and die.

“Or you can stay alive. I think the truth keeps you alive. And young. You know, young in your heart, your mind, where it counts. Not in the Bank of America – inside the people.

“Everybody got some good shit in ’em, you know, we do. I believe people good.

“We got some good shit happenin’, man, and I just be funny, I’m funny, and I’m glad of that. And I get to do that kind of shit and I get to do my stuff, and they call it art or whatever people want to call it, you know? But I’m enjoyin’ it, and I know the people are. I wouldn’t go out there to hurt nobody, you know what I mean? I never have understood how to answer, to defend myself. ‘Cause I don’t know what that means.”

Later I thought about Richard’s statement and his movie, and I also thought about another comedian…Johnny Carson, who, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, said of Richard Pryor:
“He can be a very funny man. I’d like to see him not be so dirty, ’cause I don’t think he needs it.”

It’s Funny, But Is It Art?

God is pissed.

He’s been holed up in the Plaza for months and Silverman won’t return his calls. So God decides to take his act on the road. And he’s a smash. He plays to the biggest crowds in the biggest stadiums in the land, and people love him. They love the style of his truth, the way he understands and captures their lives, exposing their common fears and prejudices. Miraculous things start happening. People feel good about themselves and one another. And strangest of all, when he’s in town they stop watching television.

So now it’s Tuesday morning and Fred Silverman gets a disturbing phone call.

“Freddie? Sid at Ralston Purina. What in God’s name is going on? I just checked the Nielsens for last night and the Ralston Purina Hour dropped to nothing in Los Angeles. I mean nothing. And not just our show, every show in L.A. Apparently it’s this comedian at the Coliseum.”

“Yeah, Sid,” says Silverman, staring at the ceiling, “I know all about it.”

“Well, who is this man?”

Silverman sighs and rubs his eyebrows. “It’s, uh…it’s God.”

“C’mon, Fred, who is he?”

“Goddamnit, Sid, it’s God! He was up here a few months ago and wanted to do a special. I turned him down.”

“You turned down God? NBC’s third in the ratings and you turned down God?”

“Sid, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The guy says ‘fuck’ and ‘shit,’ and does bits about blowjobs and racial bigotry.”

“I don’t give a fuck if he says the pope’s a flaming queer – Fred, grab him, put him on. Ralston Purina will back it to the hilt. I want a special, prime time, Monday night. I want FM simulcast and a satellite hookup.”

“Okay, Sid, I gotcha.”

“Oh, and Fred?”


“I want the same show as the Coliseum, the same words and everything, get my drift? I don’t want anyone saying later that Ralston Purina tampered with God.”

So anyway, Silverman puts it all together. He calls God, apologizes for not getting back to him and gives him the green light.

In Burbank, he packs NBC’s biggest studio with people of every race and creed. To personally introduce God to the world, he hires Orson Welles.

The show opens. Welles looks as distinguished and well fed as ever. In deep, rich tones he speaks briefly about the image of God, the nature of man and what it means to laugh. Then he announces, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Greatest Show on Earth – Ralston Purina Presents God!”

The show is a fantastic success. God performs better than he’s ever performed. People laugh harder than they’ve ever laughed, not only in the studio but in their homes around the world. It’s the highest rated program in the history of television.

As the show comes to a close, God finishes his routine, then turns to the audience and speaks with great compassion.

“Seriously, folks,” he says. “It’s time for me to go – someone has to watch the store, if you know what I mean. But I’d like to leave you with this thought. There is nothing to be ashamed of. You are all good and you are all funny. And no one is better or funnier than anyone else, myself included. Life is sometimes very painful and very scary, but if you understand it the way I do, it is always funny. Which is why I made you, and why I love you, and why you must love yourselves. Good night.”

Complete silence. Tears fill every eye in the place. A fat, middle-aged nun in the front row weeps uncontrollably, her whole wobbly body shaking with emotion, shaking so violently that it forces out a loud, shrill fart – bbbrrraaaaaaaaattt! – that lasts about ten seconds.

Well, the audience goes bananas. It is the greatest laugh that God or man has ever heard. Silverman laughs, Welles laughs, the nun laughs. And God laughs, too.

“My point exactly!” he shouts, tears streaming down his face. “I couldn’t have said it better!”

The laughter roars on, through the closing credits and into the night. Afterward Silverman runs up to God and embraces him. “You were great, God, positively fantastic! I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Thanks, Freddie,” says God, “but hey, what about that nun? Wasn’t she terrific? I wonder what the folks at home thought of her. Huh? She was something. Pschew!” Silverman steps back. “Um, well God, uh…I’m afraid they didn’t hear her.”


“Naw, man, we bleeped it.”


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