Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
With: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, etc.
Written by: Richard Pryor, Various
Directed by: Richard Pryor, Various
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 1560
Date: 10/01/2021

The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bustin' Loose

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I think I first discovered the genius of Richard Pryor in the early days of cable, when I was possibly too young to have seen the extraordinary Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), which is arguably the best comedy concert film ever. It was screamingly funny, ingenious, and raunchy as hell. Then came Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983), which were still funny, but also showcased a new profundity as Pryor came to terms with his drug use... and setting himself on fire. His character work and storytelling in those two films are at a masterful peak. These films were good enough to make me — for a time — want to become a comic myself. I'm guessing they had that effect on lots of people. Pryor made comedy look like rock 'n' roll.

Perhaps more importantly, Pryor was among the first Black performer who brought Blackness to the masses, without apologizing for it, or sugarcoating it to make it go down easy for white audiences.

Now Time Life pays worthy tribute to this American icon with a 13-disc DVD box set (available here). The first set of six discs includes the three concert films, as well as the rougher, earlier Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin' (1971). Next up are all four episodes from the controversial, canceled-too-soon The Richard Pryor Show (1977), and The Richard Pryor Special? (1977). These were wild, punchy SNL-style sketch shows, depicting everything from slave ships to the first Black president, and featuring guests like John Belushi and Robin Williams. Finally, there's a new, hour-long documentary about Pryor's infamous "lost" film Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales, made in 1969.

The second set of six discs starts with various appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show. Each show gets its own disc, with various episodes. Next up is a surprise, five episodes from a half-hour children's show called Pryor's Place (1984), which is equal parts awkward and charming (and with a sweet, catchy little theme song by Ray Parker, Jr.). That show, created by Sid and Marty Krofft, lasted one season. Then comes the set's only feature film, the strangely moving Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which was Pryor's feature directing debut. In an age when there are a dozen biopics every year (all vying for Oscar nominations), Pryor's film is impressively, fearlessly open to examining his own life, his own dark places, in a way that feels both painful and cathartic.

The last two discs in the second set contain a hodgepodge of bits and pieces: Last Stand-up Sitting Down, from 1995-96; an American Cinematheque tribute from 1995, the Comedy Central special documentary Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead Yet, #*%$#@!! (2003), and an episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1985. There are a whole bunch of interviews as well, with Mel Brooks, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Pryor's wife Jennifer Lee Pryor, Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, David Banks, and David Steinberg. The last disc contains the feature-length documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013). And, finally, the thirteenth disc, packaged by itself, includes a new-ish feature-length documentary, I Am Richard Pryor (2019). The box also includes a full-color, 40-page booklet full of photos, quotes, and other goodies.

This set is most highly recommended, not only for the laughs, but also as a cultural and historical of America in transition.

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