Richard Pryor’s Iconic Concert Film Was Nearly a Disaster

Never walk off stage while making a movie
Richard Pryor’s Iconic Concert Film Was Nearly a Disaster

The theatrically released stand-up comedy movie has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur, thanks to cable and streaming. Which is too bad, because big-screen stand-up releases allow viewers to laugh along with a crowd. Or, in some cases, sit in a prolonged, uncomfortable silence with a crowd:

Inarguably one of the biggest stand-up movies ever released was 1982’s Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. But it was very nearly a disaster.

Live on the Sunset Strip was a comeback of sorts for Pryor, a return to the stage after he famously lit himself on fire in 1980 while freebasing cocaine. In his four-star review of the film, legendary critic Roger Ebert noted that Pryor was “clearly nervous,” but he eventually witnessed “the emergence of a Richard Pryor who is older, wiser, and funnier than before,” adding that “the last 50 or 60 minutes of this film are extraordinary.” 

Live at the Sunset Strip, like many concert films, stitched together the best parts of multiple performances. In this case, Pryor played two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Palladium, on December 9th and 10th in 1981. Unfortunately, however, the first night didn’t go so well.

According to one journalist from The Baltimore Sun, during the first show, Pryor’s nerves got the better of him. He walked off the stage after just 40 minutes (the final film ran for 82 minutes) and apologized to the audience, despite earning laughs and applause, apparently because “his standards were higher than his fans’ that night.” Pryor wrote about this ordeal in his autobiography Pryor Convictions, explaining that he had been “pressured into making another concert film, which I wasn’t ready to do,” and told that it was the right time to “cash-in.”

The big problem was that Pryor wasn’t able to properly workshop any of the material in advance, as he had for Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, and he spent the little prep time he had indulging in alcohol and drugs. “Rather than work out for weeks and then tour, honing each routine to a razor sharpness, as I did before the first concert picture in 1979,” Pryor wrote, “I went up to Oakland a week before we filmed and fucked up. Too much booze, too much coke. I was little better when I got in front of the camera the first night at the Hollywood Palladium.”

While he was in the middle of his first Palladium set, Pryor thought to himself “what the fuck am I doing here?” and then “walked off stage.” After performing better on the second night, Pryor “split for Hawaii” leaving it to the film’s producers, who had paid the comic in advance, to try and cobble together a watchable film, which didn’t turn out to be possible.

So Pryor was forced to perform yet another show to fill in the cinematic gaps, not for the public, but for “what was essentially an invitation-only party.” As Pyor recalled, “After the footage was spliced with the Palladium bits, it still played as inspired, cutting-edge theater.”

“It had its moments,” he eventually admitted. 

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