No. 45: Richard Pryor: Here and Now

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I’ve been away for quite sometime from this project and I’ll admit that part of the reason that it took so long to post this latest installment has to do with the subject matter. I consider myself a film lover but that doesn’t mean that all formats and genres work for me. If there’s one subcategory of film that just hasn’t ever been able to keep my attention, it’s the concert film. They’re like documentaries but with no point of view and no guidance from a director. They are simply documents of a performance shown from a few different angles and are almost always a forgettable filmgoing experience for me.

Richard Pryor: Here and Now fits into a subcategory of a subcategory, the stand-up comedy concert film. With the exception of a short interview with Pryor at the film’s opening in which the comedian explains that he’s been sober for seven months heading into the show, the film is simply a filmed record of a stand-up performance he gave in New Orleans in August of 1983 (the film was released that November).

We’ve already seen one concert film in this blog, but Cheech & Chong Still Smokin’ at least made an attempt to structure the performance clips around a narrative, albeit a weak one. This film plays more like raw footage, which I admire in principle but am bored by in actuality. I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy. You might even call me a student of stand-up comedy. I spend a lot of time around aspiring stand-ups here in my hometown of Birmingham and I always enjoy hearing them break down their performances and their jokes. It’s a science and an art and something that I have tremendous admiration for. But at the same time, I always recognize that stand-up comedy, more so than any other medium for comedy, relies on capturing the spirit of the moment. For stand-up comedy to work, the comedian has to have a complete understanding of his audience, what makes them tick, what rings true to them.

It’s clear that when this film was made, Richard Pryor was in tune with his audience. This was his third concert film and his first since undergoing a major life transformation following the incident in which he nearly killed himself while free-basing cocaine. He was a man who clearly had taken control of his life and had recommitted himself to his craft. The audience in New Orleans is outrageous to behold today with a nearly non-stop stream of shouts from the audience, not necessarily hecklers just people who desperately want to participate in the show. Pryor is totally unfazed by the noise and distractions and chooses just the right times to respond to a shouted comment.

You can probably tell there’s a big BUT coming. The issue is this: if stand-up comedy is about understanding the mindset of the audience you are performing in front of, where does that leave us as audience members 27 years later? A lot of my stand-up comedian friends would disagree but I feel that stand-up material simply doesn’t age well, precisely because its success is based on it being relevant to a very specific audience in a specific place and time. Some material doesn’t even work if you aren’t in the same room as the comedian – how could it work if you aren’t in the same decade?

What does work particularly well from Pryor’s 90-minute set are the longer character-based bits. One of Pryor’s more well-known bits was playing a character called “Mudbone”, essentially an elderly, uneducated black man rambling on to various members of the audience as if he’d known them since their childhood. Another particularly impressive bit finds Pryor playing a crack addict in the midst of shooting up, a bit that as Roger Ebert puts it “comes closer to tragedy than it does to comedy.” It’s an impressive little piece of performance art that is made even more impressive by the fact that Pryor performed it in front of what can only be described as an unsophisticated audience.

While I can certainly appreciate Pryor’s skills on stage, Here and Now doesn’t do any better job of keeping me interested than any other concert film I’ve ever seen. The Original Kings of Comedy is probably one of the only concert films I’ve ever seen that clearly worked for me and kept me interested but will it have the same affect on some kid who goes back to watch it 27 years later? I’m guessing it won’t.

Next Up: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone starring Molly Ringwald.