4:09 pm Jun. 22, 2012
On Friday and Saturday nights this summer, Film Society at Lincoln Center is doing midnight screenings of a mix of standard cult titles, like Evil Dead II and Lifeforce, and relatively obscure fare, like The House by the Cemetery. This weekend's pick is the series' most eclectic one: a 35mm print of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.
Though Richard Pryor: Live in Concert was not the first of Pryor's routines to be recorded for a film, it was the first to be theatrically released. It came out 33 years ago, but even by today's standards, the jokes are still edgy. Pryor's button-pushing racial humor is still as funny as ever because, like most of his jokes, they make great sport of his own insecurities. It might just be a coincidence that the stiff-backed, nasal voice Pryor used to mimic white people (the one that would directly influence Dave Chappelle's own imperious, stern white guy voice) was the same as the voice he made when making fun of men who try and fail to bring their wives to orgasm. It's the same tone he used when describing what it's like to have a heart attack.
He casually pivots from subjects as diverse as owning a small horse, drowning in your pool while your kids laugh at you and running away from attackers rather than staying and fighting ("And teach your old lady to run, too, so you don't have to go back for her!"), weaving jokes at his expense with wisecracks about his family, dogs, stuffy white people and his unruly children. He talks about being shamed by his grandmother into throwing away $1,600 worth of drugs down the toilet, and then reveals that his grandmother shamed him even further by saying that he should have earned back some of his exorbitant investment by selling his drugs back to his dealer.
He talks about his fears of being pummeled by his father and about how his own children laugh at him for not being able to swim, and for everything he does, actually.
Pryor's darker material never seems quite as dark as it should, because Pryor's delivery is so ebullient; he not infrequently chuckles at his own jokes. Periodically, he exhales loudly with relief and satisfaction onto his hand-held microphone.
He makes light of how his children disrespect him by lying very poorly whenever they do something they know they're not supposed to. He also makes fun of himself for knowing that his kids don't respect him, telling them point-blank that they both know that he's not exactly an authoritarian figure. And that's because, as he glibly confesses, he doesn't want to grow up to be his dad, and doesn't want his kids to be as "fucked up" as he is. And then that very heavy concept leads Pryor to a joke about how he didn't know women could sometimes not get off during sex.
The obliviousness of the male ego is a running theme in Live in Concert and it transcends stereotypical personalities like the ones that Pryor ascribes to black and white characters.
Pryor has a recurring character called "Macho Man," a chest-beating male super-man who has his own goofy theme music. Macho man doesn't care what other people think because everyone else exists to please him. Macho Man also doesn't run from a fight. Instead, he tries to knock a knife out of his assailant's hands, "like Kojak." When he's having sex, Macho Man flaunts his indifference by singing, "I'm Macho Man! I don't care if you come or not, I'm Macho Man!"
Pryor makes his audience laugh by delivering his penetrating self-diagnosis lightly. He understood his problems so well that it's stunning to watch, as he casually dissects himself while hopping and strutting around in front of a rapt audience. It still works.