Richard Pryor

... And It's Deep, Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992) (Warner Archives)

While listening to Live on the Sunset Strip -- a 1982 performance in which Richard Pryor discusses his first trip to Africa, his 180-degree turnaround on his formerly cavalier use of the word "nigger," his visit to an Arizona prison while filming Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder, and the infamous setting of himself on fire in a drug stupor -- a friend of mine turned to me in the middle of the audience's howling reaction to some line or another. "This is sad," she said. "This is so sad to listen to."

Well, they laughed at Lenny Bruce, too, when they weren't taking him to court on those brutal and idiotic obscenity charges; and it was often difficult to listen to Lenny, particularly in his later years, when he wasn't even doing comedy anymore, but rather a solemn social criticism. And just as there could have been no Pryor without Bruce, there's a whole generation of black comedians, actors, performers of all stripes who couldn't have prospered without Pryor's pushing every envelope he could find -- sometimes, in the process, ripping it and himself to shreds, and then starting all over again.

Richard Pryor was, in his heyday, just as sharp and incisive a social critic as Lenny Bruce, or George Carlin in his own decade. But when Pryor spoke about race issues, as he very often did, there was a vicious streak in his delivery, an angry element absent from Bruce's and Carlin's commentary. You can't listen to Pryor tease his white audiences in his early bits without hearing it, the activist stance wrapped in seemingly harmless race barbs: "Shortage of white people lately. Y'all stop fuckin'? There will be no shortage of niggers. Niggers is fuckin'. . . . We got to have somebody left to take this motherfucker over . . ." Or simultaneously poking fun at whites and blacks: "Always holding on to your dicks. White guys always ask, 'Why do you guys hold on to your things?' . . . You done took everything else, motherfucker."

Pryor gets Deep with an essential boxed set of his work.
Pryor gets Deep with an essential boxed set of his work.

Pryor's seven Warner Bros. recordings are collected in their entirety in . . . And It's Deep, Too!, along with a bonus disc of unreleased or alternate performances of classic routines like "Mudbone," "Have Your Ass Home By 11:00," "Niggers Vs. the Police" and "Wino & Junkie." The set's extensive repackaging, however (each disc comes in a miniature record sleeve, with original artwork and, in the case of Wanted: Live in Concert, a reproduction of the double album's gatefold design), renders its size somewhat misleading. The nine CDs here tend to run short, and likely could have fit on five fully packed discs; but as comedian Chris Rock observes in one of the liner notes' many testimonials, part of the fun of discovering Pryor at an early age was the completeness of each album as a cohesive statement, and every new recording seemed to up the ante a bit, which the sequencing here certainly reflects.

Pryor talked openly about how much fun drugs could be, he told stories about crime in the ghetto, he talked about the embarrassing sounds we make during sex, about how whites and blacks talk to the police ("Hello, Officer Timson, yes, here's my license, sorry I was speeding, glad to be of help," as opposed to "I AM REACHING . . . IN MY POCKET . . . FOR MY DRIVER'S LICENSE!"), he talked about getting his ass kicked in bars, he talked about marital infidelity and his childhood semi-adoption by a Mafioso club. And always, he talked about his progressive drug use, his own racial awakening and his dawning horror at his use of the word "nigger" following his trip to Africa. In their raw examination of the violence of the world he inhabited, as well as the violence within himself, Pryor's later recordings are the most difficult to listen to.

But the early albums, the ones most cited by younger comedians, are by no means easy listening, even when Pryor indulges his scatological bent. On the closing track of Bicentennial Nigger, released during the 1976 uproar surrounding America's 200th anniversary, Pryor imagines a shuffling, giggling Amos 'n' Andy "nigger in blackface" joining in, narrating the history of African slavery over a recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic: Hee, hee . . . y'all done took my mama off that way . . . hyuck, hyuck . . . took my wife over there, my kids over yonder, hee, hee . . . split us all up. . . . Lawd have mercy, I don't know what I'm gonna do if I get another two hundred years of this . . . hee, hee . . . my mama's dead now, hah . . . done gone to that big white folks in the sky . . . shoot, hee, y'all done probably forgot about her, hyuck . . . but I ain'tnever gonna forget.

No one seriously interested in the history of American comedy and social satire can afford to be without these recordings. In retrospect -- as he wrote in a statement when he received his 1998 Mark Twain Prize for Humor -- Richard Pryor's albums are a testimony to the fact that "two things people have in common throughout history are humor and hatred"; this is very likely the essential boxed set of the year, in any genre.

 
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