I think writers should watch more Richard Pryor. I watched part of Live On The Sunset Strip back in college--or rather part of it. I actually didn't think it was that funny. Looking back on it now, a large part of the problem was that I came up on Eddie Murphy Raw and Def Comedy Jam. In other words, I watched it wanting to laugh from beginning to end.
Yesterday, I rewatched Sunset Strip on a lark, and thought on it, and realized that one-way of watching the film is not to think of Pryor as a stand-up comic, but as a theater dude doing a comedic one man show. Sunset Strip is really funny, don't get me wrong. But there are moments of great seriousness. It felt like memoir.
The chief tool is Pryor's vulnerability, and a Niebuhrian humility. (Can you tell I read the Irony Of History in the last year? Can you tell I really like that word?) Pryor is not so much commenting on the world, as he's commenting on how the world (God?) keeps inverting his own assumptions. He goes to prison talking black pride, but comes out thinking "Thank God, we got prisons." He picks up a hitch-hiker in Africa and is offended by his odor, but then finds that the African is so offended by Pryor's odor that he asks to be let out the car. He talks about trying to do how his "scary black guy" doesn't actually work on all white people.
All of this is really, really late. People smarter than me, older than me, and wiser than me have likely already said as much. I actually remember them saying it, but I was to young and dumb to get it. But I understand, now. I understand why Cosby, and others, were so incensed by Def Comedy Jam. Don't get me wrong, I love a lot of those guys--Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley, Cedric etc. But I'm put in the mind of my reflections on the great Biggie Smalls. I loved Biggie for his technique, not for the stuff about cars, drugs, girls etc. He was just a nasty technician, subject matter be damned:
Recently niggers frontin, ain't saying nothing
So I just speak my piece, keep my piece
Cubans with the Jesus piece with my peeps
Packin, asking who want it, You got it nigga flaunt it
That Brooklyn bullshit we on it.
But the MCs who came up after big didn't see the rhyme-scheme or how he played with the rythym. They saw "Cubans" "Jesus piece" and "Brooklyn." And so what we got was a grip of rappers claiming Biggie, but not really aspiring to what made Biggie great.
I think for old-heads, who came up on Richard Pryor, watching Def Comedy Jam must have been what it was like for me to hear a Fabolous album. It's a facile imitation. Almost every comic today can curse like Richard Pryor. But I don't know a single one who exhibits the artistic courage you see in this clip, where Pryor tells millions of people, precisely, how he set himself on fire.
It makes you vunerable to discuss precisely how and where you were wrong. This isn't just about art. Our media is filled with people brandishing one essential message, "I'm right and here's why." Some of them undoutbly are. Most of them are not. I think young writers can find a lot of gold in examining their past convictions, and their fragility when pitted against experience and history.