A Friday night capacity crowd has huddled into the Comedy Store's main room. Accommodations are being made to squeeze in a few latecomers--Al Pacino, super-agent Guy McElwaine, film directors John Singleton and Peter Bogdanovich.
On the small stage, impressionist Roxanne Reese finishes a well-received set. Leaning into the microphone, she smiles widely: "Please welcome a man who is too legit to quit--Richard Pryor!"
Befitting the hyperbolic introduction, the veteran comic's approach to the stage resembles the spectacle before a prizefight: a thunderous ovation, bodyguards, luminaries at ringside and--in the middle of all the action--an indisputable heavyweight who refuses to be counted out.
Richard Pryor, 51 years old and stricken with multiple sclerosis, is returning to his roots in stand-up comedy. His new act officially premieres Saturday night at the 3,700-seat Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos in the Bay Area.
"I wanna say something," the thin, frail Pryor begins. "I'm not dead."
Pryor's no-frills take on Twain is a perfect icebreaker to an audience unsure of what to expect and unnerved by his physical appearance. Perhaps it's just a reaction, seeing him today and remembering him in his prime. He looks so much more delicate, bony. The hair is shorter, and he has lost much weight.
Pryor relates the difficulties of his most recent acting experience, last year's "Another You": "I'm trying to go one way, and my body's going the other. And the director thinks I'm trying to be funny!"
This is Pryor's fourth recent appearance at the Sunset Strip nightspot, where he would often work out his routines in the '70s and where he has been trying out his new material since August. That was when he appeared on NBC's 20th-anniversary salute to the club. He wasn't on the bill but agreed to stand up.
"Richard came as my guest. He wasn't planning to go on," recalls Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore. "He just felt he had to get up and perform. Doesn't he look great?"
Compared to the Pryor of his hyperkinetic glory days, the comedian, who was diagnosed with the degenerative disease of the nervous system six years ago, looks far from great. His dark eyes seem pained; his movements are staccato.
Despite a slower pace, at Pryor's best, his facial expressions still delight, his premises are clever, and his distinctive, expletive-laced phrasing hasn't lost its edge. And he has something new to talk about; just as a notorious freebasing fire briefly ignited his comedy 12 years ago, talk of multiple sclerosis dominates Pryor's routine tonight, including a joke about visiting Minnesota's famed Mayo Clinic.
"You know this (stuff) is bad when you gotta go to the (expletive) North Pole to find out what's wrong with you."
"I know I'm one of your children," he tells God, with whom Pryor has had his share of onstage confrontations over the years. "But what are you trying to prove?"
He proceeds to explain that his is not an extreme case of MS. God, he says, gave him just enough MS so that he can't masturbate. "It's funny when you're looking at your dick and it goes, 'Ha, ha, ha.' "
As always, Pryor's act is peppered with four-letter words. But the illness adds a new vulnerability to his trademark sweetness. Midway through his set he looks out at the crowd and says, with disarming sincerity, "I appreciate being loved. Really."
"This is the fourth night he's performed here," says Bogdanovich, an old friend. "Each time, he's been on longer and he's gotten better, and it's been easier for him."
After 20 minutes, Pryor brings back his old wino character Mudbone, first for a comment on the L.A. riots, then to close with a stock joke on the relationship between God and man.
Mudbone: Dear God, how much is a second?
God: A million years.
Mudbone: How much is a penny?
God: A million dollars.
Mudbone: Can I have a penny?
God: In a second.
Then Pryor is helped off the stage and shuffled into the back of a limousine in the parking lot.
"I don't feel like I can breathe so good--but you're gonna give me some oxygen, right, Marilyn?" Pryor asks rhetorically of his assistant, who smiles and nods. Health problems notwithstanding, Pryor lights a Marlboro and confirms that a nightcap waits for him at home.
The energy seems to drain from him as soon as he settles into his seat. He has never particularly liked interviews. But now his speech is more forced, almost a slur, his answers minimal.
"Stand-up is what I can do. I can't do nothing else," says Pryor, who says the impetus for his comeback, oddly enough, was a recent encounter with an ex-wife, Jennifer Lee. Her 1991 memoir "Tarnished Angel" included an indictment of their turbulent marriage.
"Jennifer inspired me, because she talked to me like I was a dead person. I said, f--- that. If I die, it'll be in front of an audience."