Richard Pryor was very funny. Richard Pryor’s life was not. The genius of his comedy and the success of the CD/DVD box set No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert is centered on an ability to take the pain of his existence and get laughs. Not an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink retrospective, this seven-CD, two-DVD compilation has a clearly defined motivation, a theme, that in its adherence reveals the true art of Pryor’s humor.
Other reviews of this set will no doubt be pocked with words and phrases like definitive and career-spanning. In its 12 hours of both previously released and unreleased material, it is worthy of those qualifications. Just taken as an opportunity to experience Pryor’s laser wit and conscience, it works, but that isn’t where the collection really excites. By allowing itself to be ostensibly redundant including similar routines from inception and then years later as they have been refined or augmented shows Pryor growing and developing as a professional and as a person. This isn’t simply the suit in the window, but as well the cutting and sewing, and this progressive chronology is fascinating. Set-ups may stay the same, but over and because of time, the punchlines change, reflecting what was funnier now than then.
Pryor evolves equally in his self-awareness, culminating with a pledge, following an enlightening journey to Africa, to remove a certain derogatory word from his vocabulary that had been otherwise ubiquitous. That may be partly why as a comic he was so lauded, so successfully engaging to audiences of any background. He was willing to recognize not just what was and wasn’t funny, but why it deserved ridicule in and of itself. He subversively exposed why something needed to be expressed unfiltered for it to be stimulating.
His routines weren’t inventions. They were not reliant on catch-phrases or gimmicks, props or parody. He didn’t have to be the same person he was the last time around because he couldn’t be. He wasn’t that same person. His routines were his life and life changes, with the observations and characters that emerged from that experience demonstrating an honesty and a candor that affected and influenced so many, including those beyond the world of entertainment.
It is riddled with profanity, make no mistake. Race and sex are dominant topics, particularly in the early years, but not for their shock value, at least not disproportionately. If Pryor was talking about something, it was with an intellectual intent omnipresent in the subtext beneath the funny voice or (at the time) redistricting remark that shifted not only what was acceptable but effective. While it may have felt almost dangerous to hear a man publicly say what he said, the real danger was the accuracy of the words, that this is what life really was for a minority in America. It wasn’t the expression of pain that was the kicker, but the entrenched and perpetuated actuality of that pain.
No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert is not a complete, all-encompassing last word on Richard Pryor. It is a collective that reiterates and celebrates the comedian’s most powerful gift- to thoughtfully and concisely articulate the hurt and struggle of humanity and make it funny. By not wavering from its mission to present this aspect of his legendary life and work, this set becomes essential even to those that believe to have heard it all before. It has never been heard like this.