Monday, November 15, 2010

Richard Pryor (1968)

I first heard this in 1985, finding it at the local library only just one time (it later got checked out and never returned, apparently!). I remember not being totally bowled over or blown away by it, save for a couple of routines. I later found a copy at 2nd Time Around in 1990, after finding a few Laff LP's, and found myself enjoying it a lot more.

A curious debut album, this one. It's hard to believe that this was the same guy who would later record That Nigger's Crazy, let alone Craps (After Hours). Almost in the same way George Carlin's Take Offs And Put Ons has nothing in common with his subsequent works. The obvious thing to do was to compare this to albums by Bill Cosby or Flip Wilson, as Richard was light-years away from the kind of material they were doing, but this usually (and unfairly) gets comparisons to his subsequent work.

I know by the packaging (and several photo-shoot outtakes) that Richard and photographer Henry Diltz had wanted this to look like no other comedy album out there, but one can only wonder what record buyers were left thinking when they saw this in the racks, after seeing Richard on The Ed Sullivan Show and the like, usually wearing a nifty suit. The first pressing of the album cover had some outer border designs by legendary artist Rick Griffin, which for some reason was later replaced with a rather Andy Warhol-ish line of teeny little Statues Of Liberty in the outer border. Why that was done, I have no idea. And then there's no track listing on the back, so no-one could see what they were getting.

One criticism of the album is the stereo mix, with Richard in the right-hand channel, and the audience (and some slight ambience) in the left. Sometimes the laughter and crowd noise is actually louder than Richard himself!

Since this is obviously not a Laff record, I'm going to include it not only for completeness' sake, but also as a reference guide to many of the routines--often from the same recording sessions--that were used (and re-used) on the subsequent Laff albums, sometimes in better versions, or in either uncut or badly-edited presentations.

Super Nigger
The record starts out with the crowd applauding, and the MC announcing Richard; once it's over, Richard begins musing that he'd like to see a black superhero on TV one day. He goes on to describe the story of Clark Washington (a mild-mannered custodian for the Daily Planet) who goes into Perry White's office to quit his job, but acting on a tip that a local warehouse (where he goes to score his stash!) is ablaze, he decides to spring into action. This routine is actually more energetic and more fun than his being in Superman III...kind of a shame he didn't refer back to this routine for his appearance in that movie, which would have made it so much better!

This routine is all about watching girls playing and hollering away at the local park, and wanting to get into some heavy action with them. The funniest part is where Richard finds himself lucky enough to wrench the pantyhose off a girl he likes, but gets caught by her dad at the end of the bit.

Richard talks about once wondering if he was the only person on the face of the earth who passed gas, and wondered if certain people (like Jackie Kennedy, or even the Pope himself) did the same thing.

Prison Play
The setup of this routine (though left off of the album) is a one-act play staged at a prison. Richard plays the chief guard, an effeminate play director, a Southern belle, her father and brother, and Black Ben the Blacksmith. It's a tale of interracial love in the Deep South, and almost gets cancelled before it even starts, but resumes when all are assured that Ben gets killed during the play. When it doesn't happen, to the outrage of the warden, he demands it either happens to Ben, or one of the gay prisoners in the audience. The racial and homophobic themes in the piece are light-hearted and utterly hilarious. This is so different than anything Richard did after this that you have to wonder where he came up with this stuff!

T.V. Panel Show
This is another long piece, and--again--without the setup, can sound long and boring to the average listener. This is a piece about a late-night TV show that "has a lot to say, but really doesn't!". The topic under conversation is the origin of Man, discussed by the sleepy-voiced host, a snooty professor, a pompous anthropologist, a raucuous Black nationalist, and a female who gave up narcotics for God. It's interesting to hear Richard play five different parts with five very different personalities. A mostly unedited version of this routine can be found on the Holy Smoke! album.

Richard muses on liking to smell things, but talks about having bad breath, stinky underarms, and trying to check out both maladies in secret at a party.

Army Life
Prompted by a choice of either joining the army or going to jail, Richard signs up, expecting "hunting, camping, go[ing] fishing", but instead encounters a lunatic drill sergeant teaching the art of attack and self-defense. Richard has to go up and make with an attack technique on him, and ends up kneeing the guy right in the junk!

A short one where Richard lurches along, grunting like Frankenstein's monster, ingests a little LSD, begins grunting weirdly at the changes going on in his mind, and ends with Lyndon Johnson's drawl: "Mah felluh Americuns..!', leading to loud laughter, and a closing end. Too short to really get into, and a funnier and more creative version appears on Who Me? I'm Not Him.

And there we have it. I know that several shows at the Troubadour were taped for the making of this album (hence a lot of Laff LP's using the leftover material from these shows), and probably a lot to choose from. I don't think this album really showed what Richard was all about, but it was probably hard to catch on tape to begin with, or maybe there was a rush deadline for completion for it. With a lot of the material very experimental (and with routines perhaps performed just once), maybe producer Robert Marchese didn't know what to use, or wanted to present two different sides of Richard, with short, funny routines, and his longer, multi-character bits. It would be amazing to sit and listen to all of the shows in their entirety, as I'm sure there are some great as-yet-unheard material just waiting to be heard and released. Until then, enjoy the material unearthed on Evolution/Revolution.