“Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, 1979”

“What-choo takin’ my picture for? Who you gonna show it too? ‘I got a picture of Richard Pryor!’ ‘Who gives a fuck?’ Sit yo ass down! Motherfucker, sit down! You know you ain’t got no film in the camera. You just bullshittin’ just flashin’, ain’t nothin’ flashing. Sit yo ugly ass down!”

Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, 1979 (Richard Pryor), Special Event Entertainment

Comedians (Jon Stewart among them) have long made reference to a “holy trinity” of stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, who had paved the way for modern comedians to practice their particular skill. The stand-up comedian tells a story, transforms the story into a joke, and waits for his or her audience to respond, often with laughter. Lenny Bruce is a bit before my time, so I understand the variations of Bruce and the evolution of his humor with Carlin. Carlin’s emphasis in his performance was in the machinations and manipulations of our common language. Bruce, from what I’ve seen and heard, placed his emphasis in shocking the audience; much like the way modern comedians shock their audiences. Richard Pryor’s considerable talents are invested in heartbreak, isolation, and anguish.

To say I was shocked, or floored into submission to Pryor’s incredible brand of levity upon first seeing Richard Pryor: Live In Concert would be a dramatic understatement. I had never, ever seen anything like this before, and most likely, will never see it again; even as more and more comedians attempt to shock and inspire us. Louis C.K. came close, but, compared to Pryor, he is a pale imitation, and a pretender (as talented as he is) to that specific throne. When I say I was floored, I mean (upon first viewing) I was on the floor, laughing so hard it hurt. This is the funniest (hence the greatest) stand-up comedy film I have ever seen. The film is a moody, unpretentious, raucous journey through the life and personal turmoil of a man with failings; either in his personal life, or in his difficulties as a husband, and a father, or professional foibles as an entertainer. Yet, he can make you think, and make you feel good about yourself.

The Terrace Theater in conservative, predominantly white Long Beach, California sets the stage for the invasion of Pryor. He even makes fun of his predicament; to see a swarm of his black fans among his white fans shows that comedy can bring us all together. To see whites laughing alongside blacks (with no virtue signalling or judgments being made from either party) makes me feel good. It gives me hope. Language being more elastic in 1978 as opposed to these heady times, he makes repeated and unrepentant use of the “n” word, and despite what Ice Cube thinks about the subject, no one person or group can own a word, and to take that word away is to take away our understanding and appreciation of the word, as delivered with the master craftsmanship of Richard Pryor. Pryor would recant somewhat in later years for his liberal use of the word, but he railed against censorship, even when it was self-imposed. These words belong to all of us. It’s just that some people are better at using them. Pryor’s humor was rooted in his danger, his capacity for self-deprecation, and his emotional and chemical dependencies.

Pryor tells stories about his family; growing up the child of an extended poor family in Peoria, the tutilege and discipline (“Go get me something to beat yo ass with!”) of his grandmother, the bizarre wisdom of his father, and his various brushes with death. He speaks of an experience where he had suffered a heart attack, and thought he had died. In the hospital room, he opens his eyes and sees a bunch of concerned white faces looking down at him and he thinks, “Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” In this new age of heckling and overly-sensitive, unoriginal comedians, Pryor works with ease, talks to the crowd; even when interrupted by his adoring fans, he engages them and you feel that there is no wall between him and the people in the seats. He completely owns the Terrace Theater. Comedy seems to be such an incredibly subjective art (horror movies are the same – they live or die based on our direct, subjective impressions of either what’s funny or what is terrifying to us) that everybody’s top ten lists on the subject will be different person to person, but Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is always on everyone’s list.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: The Toy, 1982

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“If you want a friend, you don’t buy a friend, Eric, you earn a friend through love and trust and respect.”

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The Toy, 1982 (Richard Pryor), Columbia Pictures

Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is a frustrated writer who can’t seem to find work.  What?  Is this 2016?  He insists to anybody who will listen, “writing a book is a job!”  He happens to be right, but as we know, the writer’s “market” is nothing more than a speculative proposition with no guarantee of gainful employment or steady paychecks, and also everybody with a personal computer these days thinks they’re a damned writer, so they sap the market with badly written, terribly edited folderol.  To save you a trip to the Googles, folderol means “trivial or nonsensical fuss” – you’re welcome.  He’s about to lose his house, and his idealistic crusading girlfriend urges him to find any kind of employment to keep the house.

He applies for a job at U.S. Bates Industries, and while Ned Beatty (as the chief hiring executive) is amiable enough, he bristles at Pryor’s qualifications (the fact that he is overqualified).  After Pryor warns Beatty about his litigious lady, Beatty finds him a position as a “cleaning lady”, in which he has to ridiculously wear a maid’s uniform in a very awkward dinner party scene.  Jackie Gleason is U.S. Bates (acquaintances inadvertently call him, “you ass”), a man used to getting everything he wants.  His son is of the same stock of what we would call “white privilege” today.  Pryor is transferred to one of Bates’ department stores in another cleaning position capacity.  His unusual child-like nature, curiosity, and propensity for causing chaos appeals to Bates’ son, Eric (brat Scott Schwartz, last seen in A Christmas Story with his tongue frozen to a pole).  He tells his father’s underlings he wants to “purchase” Pryor.  They throw cash at him, and in his position, he really has no choice, right?  If somebody is paying you to be a character in a child’s fantasy, you take the money!

They seriously put Pryor in a crate and ship him to the boy’s house.  Pryor, for a good portion of the running time in this movie, seems to be nothing more than a human chess piece to be moved around the board of life at the rich white man’s pleasure.  What?  Is this 2016?  I know, I already did that joke, but really how many of us can relate to Pryor’s predicament?  He even calls out the requisite analogy to slavery, and this does seem like slavery.  Gleason offers a comparable salary to one of his newspaper writing staff, but what Pryor wants is a job on the newspaper.  Gleason tells him there are no jobs, so Pryor demands more money.  Gleason relents.  As expected, the child is a terrible little bastard who tortures Pryor to no end.  His bedroom looks like F.A.O. Schwartz (maybe it was named after him … hmm).  He’s ill-mannered, yes, but this being an 80s movie aimed at children, he just needs a little guidance and love from his father.

Wearing Spiderman pajamas, Pryor beweeps his outcast state to an assemblage of stuffed animals and other toys.  He talks about how he is the wave of the future, a “wind-up asshole”, and how every kid will want a personal Jack Brown of their own.  After enduring more humiliation at the hands of Eric and Bates’ trophy wife, Fancy, he decides to leave.  Bates then offers him $10,000 to return when Eric cries that he has “nobody to play with anymore.”  He accepts.  I wonder what the real lesson of this movie is – not that children need fathers who love them and talk to them (not having a father when I grew up, even I knew that), but that people can be bought for the right price.  What?  Is this 2016?  Third time’s the charm!

 So Pryor and the little bastard bond.  Sorry for all the epithets but this child is beyond therapy.  He’s a destructive little thing, a mirror image of his father (a bitter man with a different set of toys), who gets everything he wants, even though what he really needs is a friend.  They start up a small little newspaper called The Toy, (a kind of Street News, remember that?), when Eric tells Jack of his father’s various financial antics.  He buys politicians.  He supports members of the Klan.  He drives poor Ned Beatty to drink when he orders him to fire a loyal employee for trivial reasons.  He seems kind of evil, doesn’t he?  Eric decides to discredit and destroy his father in the Media.  Not exactly mainstream, but still.

Despite the mixed morality of the story, I still love this movie, mainly for Pryor.  Gleason is not the thunderous comedic talent he once was (as in The Honeymooners, for example), but he has good chemistry with Pryor and graciously takes a back-seat to Pryor’s timing and negotiation of a given scene.  He’s also surprisingly menacing.  Pryor’s work with the boy keeps those scenes energized as well.  As a kid, I enjoyed Eric’s world of toys.  As an adult, I appreciate Pryor’s straight talk with the kid, as well as the racial humor.  A lot of this stuff would be considered quite controversial today, but it was interesting that back in those days, we could mine the controversy while still being entertaining, and not terribly preachy.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: The Woman in Red, 1984

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“Come and get it, Cowboy.”

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The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler for suggesting this title.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.