For about a decade, Pryor was the soaring demon angel of movies, concerts and Grammy-winning albums. He partnered with Gene Wilder for Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, two of the biggest and earliest black-guy-white-guy comedies. As a stand-up monologist, he was without peer. Drawing his material from the black hole of ghetto life and death, he used his dramatic power to magnetize his listeners into the fire-flash fear of the moment — even as his skewed comic perspective provided distance, safety, reassurance. As a film actor, he had the uncanny knack of educing raw emotions from himself and his audience. Vulnerability, untempered rage, urchin craftiness, a rough dignity — all these moods seeped through him. In fact, the two Richard Pryors — kamikaze comic and sensitive actor — are overlapping parts of the same intricate talent.
In his concert films Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor showed his gift not just for expressing his demons, but for becoming other people, other creatures. He could mimic bad black dudes, whining white liberals, Mafia hitmen and a stuttering Chinese. He conjured a menagerie of horny monkeys, a neurotic Doberman, a scared and suspicious deer, a killer rabbit, two suave malamutes in need of an exorcist. Physical pain was a constant, chatty companion. It could visit him as a sharp twinge while he jogs, and speak in the argot of an officious tax accountant: “Hello! I’ll be messin’ with you the next hour or so. I’ll be moving from side to side, down your groin and up your ass. When you drop dead, I will stop.” Onstage, Pryor re-creates his 1977 heart attack, and now pain arrives as an all-business mugger: “Don’t breathe. Was you tryin’ to talk to God behind my back?” Sometimes the pain turns to fear, and his mind tells his body: “Run!”
No one who did as much damage to his body as Pryor did could expect to outrun fate. In a line that runs from Pentecostal preachers to Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx (and, to mention a token white comic, Lenny Bruce), onto Eddie Murphy, the Kings of Comedy and Def Comedy Jam, Pryor is the crucial link. the most daring comic firebrand, the most lasting influence. Everyone who followed is still running after him.
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