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Comedy Review

Richard Pryor, on the Cutting Edge

A nine-CD set showcases him as a sharp-tongued social commentator whose humor never grows dull.

November 24, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For all of us who grew up sneaking a listen to their parents' vinyl sides of Richard Pryor's trademark raunchy and riotous comedy albums, thanks be to Rhino Records for resurrecting three decades of the stand-up-turned-big-screen-mega-star's sharpest and most enduring material in a nine-CD boxed set, ". . . And It's Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)."

Following Pryor through the intimate nightclub years to big venues and a sentimental last swing back through the small rooms, ". . . And It's Deep Too!" simply serves to reconfirm Pryor's place as one of America's most influential cultural observers and commentators ever to prowl a stage. Pryor's gift, particularly in the halcyon days of the mid- to late '70s--long before multiple sclerosis pushed his career off into the sidelines--was twofold: a penchant to tell the truth despite the consequences and a rubber face and soul as his tools with which to best illustrate it.

In many ways, a moment from the 1968 bit "Super Nigger" from Pryor's eponymous album--which famously pictures him barely attired as a, er, "native"--says it all. Pryor cracks wise about his janitor-superhero's X-ray vision "that enables him to see through everything--except whitey." The thing of it is, Pryor could see through just about anyone and everything. Even himself. He'd lay it bare and serve it up nightly under the circle of spotlight--crossing all lines of taste, reserve or politeness as he tunneled toward said truth.

The boxed set, which showcases Grammy-winning party-record staples including "That Nigger's Crazy" and ". . . Is It Something I Said?" as well as the soundtracks "Wanted/Richard Pryor Live in Concert (Parts 1 & 2)" and "Live on the Sunset Strip," are proof positive that Pryor was not only a late-night, main-room comedian but also a pundit and thought-shaper in his own right.

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He didn't stop with interracial dealings and class divides. Pryor was known to take on the tough-to-get-at abstractions, the intra-racial tumult better known as "the dirty laundry": the struggles between black women and black men ("Black Man/White Woman"); the slippery slope of organized religion ("Our Text for Today"); black fathers and their sons ("Have Your Ass Home by 11:00"); drugs ("Cocaine" and "Freebase"); and the legal system ("Just Us"). The testimony is always imbued both with the insider's wink and a nod and the sweep of the universal--with the same casual ease of wiping his brow.

But Pryor's flourish of a signature has always been as much about the punch line that comes at you like the sudden glint of a switchblade as it has been about the poetry and pathos that wedges itself inside even life's most absurd or nightmarish moments: In one routine, Pryor, voicing a white judge at the boil, remarks to a meek soul yet to be convicted: "Do you have any dreams? We want them too!"

". . . And It's Deep Too!" maps the evolution of Pryor's comedic purview, which would always stretch to include not just the social and political roilings of the moment--from the Black Panthers and Patty Hearst to Muhammad Ali and Vietnamese boat people--but also his own personal headline-grabbing dramas, from his cocaine addiction and freebasing accident to "shooting up" his car.

Pryor would always address the rumor and would seldom glamorize the pit he had fallen in. For a man who was always in search of closeness, his definition of love, life was as much about magnificence as it was about mishap. The truth is, you'd laugh at the recap but wonder if you should be crying.

It is Pryor's close-to-the-bone testimonial about MS, which has robbed him of his most powerful gifts--physical agility and endurance--that allows for a poignant parting glance. Found on a bonus disc of unreleased and/or alternate takes, the routine, which could be sentimental and self-pitying, is shot through with the same candor and willfulness that marked Pryor's best classic material from the heady '70s and '80s, when he was bigger than life.

(The title of the bonus disc, "That 'African-American' Is Crazy," plays both on Pryor's epiphany upon visiting Africa in 1979 and deciding to banish the N-word from his performing vocabulary, as well on what these PC-sensitive times would do with a force of will like Pryor now.)

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Studded with classic bits, ". . . And It's Deep Too!" not only showcases Pryor's attentive-to-detail character sketches and storytelling prowess--his facile use of black vernacular, myth and superstition--but also his undisputed role as antecedent. A folklorist in his own right, Pryor is the power point that launched a thousand unstoppable blue streaks--from Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock. Comedy was never the same. He shook it wide awake. Profane as he is profound, Pryor was, and still is, all about the unexpected. And if you've forgotten just how and why, sneak another listen to these CDs for old times' sake when your kids aren't around.

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