Stand-Up Rewind: Richard Pryor's Return from the Actual Dead
At the start of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, we’re in a convertible cruising past neon characters blurring the Hollywood night sky — MOTEL, MOTEL, MOTEL, the Whiskey a Go Go, Roxy, the Comedy Store. Illuminated billboards for Pryor’s concert depict the hotfooted comic hopping around in a black coat and tie instead of the film’s signature red suit. The camera flashes on the infamous Chateau Marmont, the hotel where John Belushi died from a fatal speedball shot on March 5, 1982. Seven days later, on March 12th, Live on the Sunset Strip was released, haunted by the ghosts of dead comedians who succumbed to their demons.
The movie’s existence didn’t mean Pryor had fought off his own inner tormentors. Live on the Sunset Strip was momentous because he, unlike Belushi, lived to tell the tale of his face-to-face with death, a 1980 freebasing binge that ended with Pryor dousing his body in rum and setting himself on fire. The concert film announced that arguably the greatest stand-up comic of all time was resurrected. But what had changed?
Pryor looks wary as he approaches the stage, a beaten-up boxer looking to regain his belt. He had a right to be skittish. It had been a minute since he’d done this, and the audience couldn’t help but look at him differently. On the one hand, everyone loves a comeback. On the other, how do you welcome someone back from hell? Would Pryor be physically scarred? Had he lost his comic mojo? Would he face love, judgment, pity or some tainted combination?
He takes the mic tentatively, tip-toeing his way through early jokes, but that caution doesn’t last long. Soon he’s a boulder rolling down a hill, gathering momentum and hurtling toward something potentially dangerous and assuredly hilarious. If you only watch the first 45 minutes of this 80-minute concert, it would probably rank up there with the best Netflix stand-up specials you’ve seen. The influential comic dishes out plenty of his trademark raunch, describing a romantic encounter with a Playboy bunny who’s inexplicably turned on by Pryor’s kid characters.
He’s repentant about his treatment of the significant women in his life (he claims to have truly fallen in love with 12 of them): “I am no day at the beach. I know I’m hard to get along with. I know that because I might wake up in the morning and go, ‘Hey, wake up! What was that shit you said last February?’” Knowing what we know now about his often abusive behavior toward the women in his life, this section of the show is a tough watch.
Pryor is better when he spins outlandish tales about movie co-stars chatting it up with real-life prison inmates (“Gene Wilder loved to jump in the middle of the killers and start talking: ‘Hi, guys, how you doin’?’”), his stint at a Mafia-run strip club when he was only 19 years old (“Come here, you fuckin’ kid. He’s got a pair of gagoozies on him, huh?”) and a revelatory trip to Africa, a continent full of Black faces who don’t know his name. The African countryside gives Pryor a chance to show off his incomparable ability to morph into any manner of character, even non-human ones, seamlessly and subtly shifting from lioness to water buffalo to gazelle.
Where Live on the Sunset Strip transcends stand-up comedy and becomes a heartfelt, harrowing confessional is when an audience member shouts a rock-concert request: Mudbone! Pryor’s most famous character (and transparently, his alter-ego), Mudbone is a down-on-his-luck wino from Tupelo, Mississippi, full of the hard-won wisdom found at the bottom of a bottle. The comic seems reluctant to play the hits, but finally relents after promising this would be Mudbone’s farewell performance.
From there, Mudbone tells us the first part of what happened to Pryor, the story the audience no doubt was paying to hear. Improvised or not (it’s hard to believe it’s spontaneous), Mudbone sees it all: “Now, I know that boy. See, he fucked up. See, that fire got on his ass, and it fucked him up upstairs. Fried up what little brains he had. ‘Cause I remember the motherfucker. He could make a motherfucker laugh at a funeral on Sunday Christmas day. But you know what happened? He got some money. That’s what happened. He got some money! Then shit was gone. He said, ‘Fuck it,’ and went all the way crazy.”
Mudbone even claims to have tried to get through to Pryor, talking to him for seven days and seven nights straight. It’s not unlike Pryor’s nonfictional friend, the actor and former football player Jim Brown, who confronted the comic about his drug problem with the repeated question, “What you going to do?”
Unfortunately for Pryor, as he retells the tale of that fateful night, his crack pipe was talking to him as well. (Pryor as a sentient pipe is the comic at the height of his powers.) Over one of Pryor’s shoulders, Brown, the biggest badass on the planet, tries to deliver some tough love. On the comic’s other shoulder is that devilish pipe, whispering sweet temptations in his ear. Brown’s message gets through, but it’s not strong enough to get Pryor to a hospital. And when Brown finally leaves for the night, the pipe wins once and for all.
Somehow, Pryor finds punchlines in self-immolation: “You know something I found out? When you’re on fire and running down the street, people will get out of your way — except for one old drunk. He’s going, ‘Can I get a light? How about it? Just a little off the sleeve.’” There are more laughs in his journey to recovery, even though the circumstances are the furthest thing from funny — the excruciating pain from a simple sponge bath, the horror of hearing a TV news anchor report that you’re dead. Pryor shares the wisdom only found in the burn ward: “Pain sure stops racism quick. Wasn’t no color in there except burnt-up motherfuckers. And we all got religious. You find God quick when they find your ass dead. But I thank God every day, Jack. I do. I say, ‘God, thank you for not burning my dick.’”
It’s an act of audience catharsis when Pryor finally ends his tale by ironically asking someone for a light. You can feel the collective exhale as the comic strikes a match, ignites a cigarette and takes a moment to inhale. But he’s not entirely going to let his fans off the hook, confiding that plenty of their Richard Pryor jokes had found their way to the hospital while he was in recovery. You know, like the one where someone strikes a match and jokes: “What’s that? Richard Pryor running down the street.”
A cruel, obvious gag, one that Pryor seemed to appreciate at one level and resent at a deeper one. But people could joke all they wanted. Unlike other comics of his era, at least for this night, Pryor’s flame was still burning bright.