The History of Comedy: A Genre of Pryor's Own
By Jim Mendrinos
TWO DRINK MINIMUM Issue 8 April 2004

There are so many things that Pryor did right as a comic. He used more depth then the average performer. His voices, characters and characterizations were among the best of all time. He dug into the psychology of his subjects better than any comic who came before him. He was truly an artist as a comic.

He also owns a sub-genre of stand up, the stand-up comedy concert film.

In April 1971, film cameras descended on the Improv in New York City to record a comedy concert by Richard Pryor. Sure, there were other comedians filmed before that, most notably the Lenny Bruce concert film, but they were all captured as more of a documentary than as a form of narrative expression. Richard Pryor's Live & Smokin' changed that.

Live & Smokin' wasn't meant to be a curiosity, played in art-house theaters or on college campuses; it was meant to be a full-blown movie, with Pryor the comedian as the sole actor. It was meant to elevate stand up from the dungeon of the six-minute TV spot to the center stage it deserved. Unfortunately it was never released on screen, but it wound up being released on video in 1984.

By that time the three Pryor classics Live In Concert, Live on the Sunset Strip and Here and Now had already been successfully released into theaters. With those three films, Pryor proved that a stand-up comic could be a viable box-office subject and a monetary hit for film companies.

Around that same time, HBO and subsequently Showtime and Comedy Central began showcasing comics in longer specials. They gave hours to Klein, Carlin, Williams and the like, and the comedy concert on television proved to be a major success. But in order to make it work, they had to change the focus. No longer was it about the artistry of the comedian; a comedy concert on television was simply about capturing this moment in time -- spending an hour with a performer and nothing more. What works best about this format was that it was so disposable. A comedy concert film was not.

A comedy concert film showcased more than merely the best hour a performer could provide. It was meant to focus on the dramatic structure that the truly great comics possess. Only the bravest comics even dared to try it. First they needed a following that could guarantee box-office success, then they needed material that would win critical success. How many people could do that?

Many have tried. Sandra Bernhart and Margaret Cho each have a pair of art-house successes. Martin Lawrence tried it twice and Eddie Griffin and Andrew "Dice" Clay once each; all with marginal box office and/or critical success. Eddie Murphy came the closest with Raw, but while it scored at the box office, it was a critical flop, and it virtually ended Murphy's stand-up career.

The new trend seems to be pairing four people in the desperate hopes that they'll fill a theater. We've got Original Kings, Latin Kings, Queens and Blue Collar guys, but we still don't have people who have raised their performance to a level where it is a "film." Only Pryor did that.

The reason he could was because of the inherent drama within his structure. Pryor's concerts were more than just bits and gags; they were dramas, filled with pathos and genuine moments. His bits had the same narrative story-telling structure that a great movie possesses. At the end of a Pryor concert film, you felt moved by the events he spoke of and saw the impact of those events on the main character, Richard himself. Live on the Sunset Strip was a more introspective journey. It is a man who is rising from the depths of his own destruction, clawing his way back to someplace more normal. You see the struggles with the demons take place before your eyes. You also see the man trying to make sense with what is going on in the world. Again he fills the stage with characters, including the pipe he used to freebase.

Here and Now tells the story of a man who is more comfortable in life but still trying to define himself. Each bit seems to have Richard pushing to get past the obstacles in front of him. Even the hecklers that dominate the first 15 minutes of the film only increase Pryor's dramatic tension, as he alternately bonds with and verbally crushes them. The ending is filled with a bit more joy than we're used to with Pryor. It is an underrated film.

Each film was a story meant to tell a tale, with a beginning, middle and an end. They were human and unique tales that only Pryor could tell. He was the only comic to ever construct his act in that manner, and it's the reason why he's the only comic to ever successfully pull off a stand-up comedy film.

It is the reason why he has this genre all to himself.

Return To the Comedy Index

Return to the Website Home Page

Email Shlomoh