Funny Man

April 3, 2007 at 1:36 am (Uncategorized)

There’s a new DVD out of Richard Pryor’s famous 1979 stand-up performance in Long Beach, California. Do yourself a favour and rent it out the next time you’re at a video store. What an incredible display of comic genius from start to finish. Our cheeks still hurt from laughing when we went to bed last night.

It all started when we rented Eddie Murphy’s Delirious over the weekend. This too has been recently released on DVD. It contains bonus material including an interview with Eddie in which he talks about Richard Pryor’s influence on his own comedy. Murphy was unequivocal, saying that whenever anyone approaches him to say he’s their inspiration, he directs them straight to Pryor’s Long Beach performance. He even describes the outfit Pryor wore that night from head to toe, just to make sure they get the right one.

Delirious is pretty funny stuff. I still remember seeing it and Raw for the first time during the 1980s. Murphy’s one funny motherfucker. I could also happily sit down and watch Beverly Hills Cop again any day. The comedy in Delirious hasn’t dated, and if there’s anyone who could get away with a red leather ensemble today, it’s still Eddie Murphy. So I was pretty curious to see the Pryor performance, because if Eddie Murphy is stressing how much funnier Richard Pryor is than himself, then it’s got to be good.

I’ve always loved the Pryor/Wilder movies. Stir Crazy is a classic. But I had never seen Pryor performing live stand-up. Having done so now, I can’t imagine the level of preparation required. The balls of steel. And it makes sense that comedians seem to so naturally find their acting chops. There’s a lot of priceless physicality in Pryor’s performance. Murphy is also an excellent, intuitive physical comedian, and so are many others. Then there’s their awesome power of recall. No wonder they can remember their lines in movies after memorising rapid-fire, razor-sharp and lengthy routines for live audiences. Talk about a baptism of fire. They also rely heavily on facial expression and voice work – some of their impressions are nigh on uncanny. So in many ways they are acting every time they take the stage, and maybe they’re smarter than the average actor, because their lines are entirely their own.

I couldn’t help wondering, thinking about Pryor’s well-documented struggle with addiction, about the tragicomic fine line so many comedians seem to tread in life off the stage. Many comics have spoken about struggling with depression. Why is it so prevalent? Is it that acutely intelligent people experience the world differently? See more? Hear more? Understand more than the rest of us? Or is it that the finest comedy comes out of what is most painful to us all? Childhood. Heartbreak. Failure. Death. All harnessed for humour in Pryor’s unforgettable and profoundly human performance. It was recorded in 1979. Nearly 30 years later, it completely floored us last night, and will no doubt have a new generation rolling in the aisles, gasping for breath, and slapping their thighs. What a gift.

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