by Carl Bennett
Richard Pryor—In Concert is a unique cinematic experience because there are so few films that present a complete, uncut performance of a stand-up comedian. The only other example of this kind of film that comes to mind is the Lenny Bruce Performance Film.
Not only is Richard Pryor—In Concert good for pure entertainment value, it is also valuable as a visual text from which the interested viewer can study Richard Pryor’s comic technique. Watching this film, Pryor’s physical control in performance can be fully appreciated, impossible while listening to his record albums.
Pryor usually begins a story by setting the scene slowly and quietly, as in the bit about the outdoors. He looks around the stage and out to the audience, saying nothing, then begins to talk of quiet nature sounds, imitating the noise of walking over dried leaves. The scene is set. He talks of pissing in the woods, which leads into the snake material, then into the hunting material. Pryor starts slowly and builds to the bigger laughs to encourage the audience to follow him from one routine to another, to keep audience and performer in pace with each other. After talking about fucking, how dogs get hooked up and what an advantage it would be for women being raped, he then segues to the next bit; he feels his chest and says he felt a slight pain. Since most people in the audience were aware of his recent heart attack, Pryor could then move into his routine about his coronary. (Also note that Pryor later picks up a cue from someone in the audience about Mexicans and uses it as a segue into his bit on Chinese people.)
Pryor takes command of his performing space. He has the ability to expand or concentrate audience attention, evident in his judicious choice in sectioning off areas of the stage, playing within a specified area, or using the entire space. His choices are made according to the demands of the routine. When he does the jogging bit, he uses the whole stage by running in large circles. When he portrays two inept deer hunters, he creates a log in front of the hunters at center stage over which they look at a deer located somewhere in the audience. In this way he keeps the attention centered on the characters rather than the deer.
Pryor creates imaginary props for his characters out of the air or out of solid objects near him. Pryor’s use of the microphone stand as a tree which he is uprooting is hilarious. His later transformation of his microphone into a bottle of ointment used by the grandmother on the grandson’s backside is particularly good in a way that lends credence to his imaginary world; he is not the comedian on stage so much as the character he is portraying.
Pryor tends to personify non-existent things. The pain that talks antagonistically to the jogger, the legs gone rubbery from a boxing punch that talks to the brain, or the ruthless heart talking to the suffering self are all good examples. Sensibility versus Pride is usually the comic point of debate between personas.
Pryor’s genius in creating comic characters is in his disciplined actor’s approach to them. He becomes the character physically experiencing firsthand the truths he wants to convey. When Pryor becomes the young child trying to lie about breaking a lamp, he establishes the height and the intensity of the child by maintaining eye contact with an imaginary adult. Coupled with Pryor’s interpretation of the phrasing and content of the child’s speech, the comic impact is particularly good. Especially note Pryor’s physical control when he is imitating a startled deer drinking water. The deer’s head immediately shoots up as a noise is made. Pryor moves only his eyes to convey the intense listening of the deer. He then slowly rotates at the waist to show the deer bending at the base of the neck in order to see all around. It is amazing that he can convey these small details to an auditorium of people. Richard Pryor is perhaps the greatest comedian in the relatively short history of stand-up comedy. Richard Pryor—In Concert has captured for us his incredible talent.
Cinemonkey, Spring 1979 Volume 5, Number 2; pp. 55-56