MTV News caught up with Chris Rock and Adam Sandler on the red carpet for their current movie, Grown Ups, and asked them about their work as producers on an upcoming biopic of the late Richard Pryor. Marlon Wayans is slated to star as Pryor, and Rock defends that choice in this clip. As for when the movie will get made? That remains up in the air. Director Bill Condon, who also wrote the script for Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, has a full plate already this year and will be directing the fourth Twilight film, Breaking Dawn. So when will we get to see a Pryor biopic?
Based on the book "Black Comedians on Black Comedy" by Darryl Littleton, Robert Townsend's documentary Why We Laugh debuted at Sundance in 2009 and just came out on DVD this week. Before you get to the documentary, however, you see six separate trailers for stand-up comedy specials, each one touting it was the event of the year. Sure, Codeblack Entertainment is responsible for them as well as this documentary, but the sales pitch leads to a misdirect when the main feature plays, and you hear the voiceover narration from Angela Bassett, footage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and commentary from former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and former Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy -- you know this isn't going to be a joyride.
Instead, the documentary uses cultural critics and comedians alike to tell the story of black Americans, and how they have used humor throughout the past century as a way to rise above their pain and oppression. Here's the extended trailer:
The path is traced from minstrels and blackface, to early stars such as Bert Williams and Lincoln Perry (better known as Stepin Fetchit), who made far different career choices with implications for generations to follow. You see how Nipsey Russell was a star at the Apollo long before he held a regular seat on Match Game in the 1970s, and how Amos 'n' Andy both helped and hurt the cause of black comedians. The careers of Moms Mably, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory are examined, then the sitcoms of the 1970s (Good Times, The Jeffersons), Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, through Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, a too-short segment on the start of a separate black club circuit and Robin Harris, In Living Color, Def Comedy Jam, the Kings of Comedy and Dave Chappelle.
Most everyone interviewed continues to express awe and admiration for what Pryor accomplished. Princeton professor/author Dr. Cornel West called Pryor "the freest black man America's ever had. He is not just a genius, he exercises parrhesia. He exercises the most plain, frank, honest, unintimidated speech we had in the 60s, even more than Martin and Malcolm!" That's followed up by Townsend himself, who adds: "He gave to the world a gift, you know, like none other, that opened the playing field. And the only thing that I hate now is that, a lot of comedians, the only thing they took from Richard was the cursing. They didn't take his social commentary."
This is awesome. Here's a clip of Richard Pryor in one of his first TV appearances, circa 1964, a year after he had moved to New York City. So he talks about that. Plus: Did you know there used to be Coke machines in the subways?
The Comedy Store has started uploading some rare footage on its own YouTube channel, and today, they've included part of a set Richard Pryor performed in 1982-1983 (based on Pryor dating himself at 42). It's great for several reasons, among them: Pryor seeing Henny Youngman in the audience and talking to him, ended his set by welcoming a young Robin Williams to the stage, and of course, in between, reminding us what was so special about himself:
Related: Another clip of Pryor's set from The Comedy Store that lacks embed coding, in which he talked about getting sober and cleaning up his act.
Yesterday, Entertainment Weekly said writer/director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) was shopping his own script with Eddie Murphy set to star in Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, while HitFlix went further to say it had been shopped to Fox Searchlight with a $25 million budget. Condon helped Murphy get an Oscar nomination in Dreamgirls, and Murphy used to impersonate Pryor in his young stand-up act, so you'd think this would be a solid choice. Roll the NSFW clip:
And here is a classic clip from Richard Pryor (also NSFW) about going to prison in Arizona:
Then again. Two things.
1) Eddie Murphy is such a star himself, that despite the impersonation, I'll be curious to see how he slips into the role and life of the groundbreaking Pryor without reminding us that he is Eddie Murphy. In Dreamgirls, he was playing off of his James Brown/SNL riffs without having to play the actual James Brown, so it was a little easier to follow. Yes, yes, Jamie Foxx won an Oscar playing his Ray Charles. It is possible. And in a more of an apples-to-apples comparison, Jim Carrey pulled off Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. But I sometimes watch Eddie's brother, Charlie Murphy, and find myself thinking about Eddie. I'm not the only one who does that, right?
2) Which leads me to a previous attempt at a Richard Pryor biopic. Just a few years ago, comedian Mike Epps was telling MTV News that he would play Pryor, saying in 2005 he was personally auditioning for the family. In December 2006, Epps said a family fight over the late comedian's assets had delayed the project, along with a desire to rewrite the script with material from Pryor's daughter, Rain. Pryor and wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, had been producing that project, and Jennifer had told Variety back in May 2005 that they originally had thought of Damon Wayans for the role, but reconsidered. "The material is larger than life, and you need someone to fit into it who's not extraordinarily famous or else it would be like Al Jolson playing Malcolm X," she said. "Richard and I saw Mike's standup, and there is a dangerous edge, a Richard-esque quality about him." Pryor died in December 2005.
Naturally, then, I wonder what the family thinks of this latest development.
New online journalism publication The Daily Beast offers a look back at how various comedians viewed a black presidency, with (language NSFW) voting tips from Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, and alternate-universe views of a black president featuring Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor. Enjoy.
George Carlin's latest HBO special, "It's Bad For Ya," debuted live Saturday night on HBO. For repeat viewings, it's On Demand and also airing multiple times, including 12:10 a.m. Monday on HBO2 (consult the HBO master schedule here).
If your DVR acted like mine, it cut out early. Ah, the beauty of live TV and its incompatibility with DVR technology. Here are Carlin's closing minutes, in case you missed them the first time around, as I did this morning. Note: Obviously NSFW due to language.
The hourplus essentially is the finished product of material I'd seen brand-new a year ago in Aspen at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Carlin refined the best parts and cut out the filler, going after the BS that we buy into as a culture and a nation, and how we've forgotten to question the BS or teach our children to, either. Religion and child-worship really come into his crosshairs. There's a section in the middle about boring people and their boring conversations that doesn't really fit, at least thematically, but it's a stronger and certainly more accessible set than his previous special about death. And that's even with Carlin talking at length about being old and his friends dying off in the first 10 minutes! Here, though, he turns it into a discussion about what to do with your dead friends and their contact info in your cell phone and email lists.
As I noted above, I had the chance to see Carlin workshop this material at its very beginning, when he read his thoughts from papers on the stage in Aspen. I also got a few minutes to talk with him after that initial set.
Was it a conscious decision to workshop instead of delivering prepared material, as you did when I saw you in Aspen for a free speech panel and award in 2002? "That had a single purpose and a focus and that was the topic," Carlin told me. "It wasn't George Carlin's show. It was me talking about having some freedom of speech and expression. This, obviously, is different. They asked me to do quote-unquote 'My show.' At whatever stage it was in, they didnt know when they asked me to be here. So it turns out they called me at the beginning of the cycle. It could as easily have been six months short of an HBO telecast and it would've been a more finished product. So it wasn't a conscious decision to do anything except show up. And that's what Woody Allen said is 90 percent of success, showing up."
Steven Wright had said the night before on national TV that he considered you the reason he got into stand-up comedy. How does it feel to be an influence on someone who has become a peculiar legend himself in comedy? "That's one I'm proud of. The more frequent thing I hear is, when I came along and started having these HBO shows and I had these albums in the 70s, Richard Pryor and I were in, of a given age group. And then a lot of people came along because of cable and comedy clubs, so they were of a different generation. But occasionally I'll hear someone say that they were, the last little bit of push they gave themselves to go ahead and do this, perhaps because they were, you know, 90 percent there in their minds, was they had seen my career, or they had seen Richard. They say this probably to more than one of us, so you can't really wear it as a badge, but it's true that some people have said that, 'You were an inspiration for me to go into this field,' and I always appreciate it. It's an honor."
Did Wright say what it was specifically about your comedy that he admired? "No, not at the very first moment. What he liked ultimately was the continued output of material. Because I have kind of a comedic diarrhea, I've been able to really produce a lot of material. I've been very lucky to be able to do that."
If there's such a thing as alt-comedy, then can there also be such a thing as alt-black comedy? Elon James White thinks so. White and fellow New York comedian Baron Vaughn have been trying to educate audiences on the notion that there are many different types of black stand-up comedy, through their Shades of Black shows, their online site, The Black Comedy Project, and this weekend, their first full-on comedy fest, The Black Comedy Experiment. The "Experiment" debuts tonight and runs through Saturday night, with all shows at the two venues in The Tank.
Tonight's mainstage shows are Souled Out (featuring Walli Collins, Rick Younger, Leighann Lord, Dean Edwards, Mike Yard and Marc Theobold) and Desiree Burch's 52-Man Pickup. Other one-person shows include "The Oreo Kid" by Jordan Carlos (who auditioned last week for Saturday Night Live as a potential Barack Obama), "30 Years in Africa" by Michelle Buteau, Robin Cloud's "Bag O' Bitches," "Mystery Up at Negro Creek," by Baron Vaughn, and "2-Faced" by Erica Watson. There'll be special editions of Chicks and Giggles, Laughing Liberally and Shades of Black. And that's not all.
That SNL just got a lot of buzz over their search for a cast member to play Barack Obama only brought more attention to the plight of black comedians in getting the industry to notice them. "We couldn't ask for better timing, literally," White told me last night. That SNL didn't cast a black comedian for Obama didn't surprise White. That Jordan Carlos and Donald Glover got face time with Lorne Michaels pleased him, though. "I was happy that two of the three Obamas were on our festival. There's our buzz!"
In White's view, the fact remains that most audiences and Hollywood industry types think of only one type of comedian when they think of booking a black stand-up. They think of Def Jam, he said. "Everybody feels I'm harping on it," he said. It's not that Def Jam is evil or bad, he said, but rather that the great success of Def Jam created a model that everyone else has tried to duplicate without thinking or considering other forms or styles of comedy. That's been the pattern, White says, going back to Bill Cosby. When Richard Pryor emerged, "he kicked the door down," but then other comics tried to be Pryor, then tried to be Eddie Murphy, then tried to be the Wayans Brothers, and more recently, Def Jam. "It was just bravado. In your face," White said. "But it pigeonholed us for years." The opportunities simply aren't there, from SNL to HBO. "Dwayne Perkins might get to do Conan. But where's his HBO special?" White's online essay in October, "Did Def Jam Ruin Black Comedy?" sparked a furious back-and-forth debate with comedian Todd Lynn. "Todd Lynn says there ain't no thing as an 'Intelligent N----r' show. The fact is, though, he thinks there's one way of doing it, but in my opinion, there are many ways of climbing the ladder," White said.
He acknowledges that "the chitlin' circuit is strong in Harlem and the Bronx," and that New York City has lots of black comedians and black rooms, but wonders where the mainstream breakthroughs are for them. And White also knows that even though he's a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn native, he sounds like he's British and doesn't always fit in either an urban Def Jam scene or a white scene. "There are jokes I have that I can't tell in front of a white audience. It's because they just don't get it, nine times out of 10. They don't have the same life experience I have." So there has to be another way. "It was the same when the alt-comedy scene started. That's why I believe in alt-black," he said. "Some people argue I'm just putting another label on them and I understand that."
Like the comedians who formed an alternative to the club scene so they could work and build their own fan bases, White hopes to do the same for the many "shades of black" comedy. He's not against "urban or Def Jam" comedians who are good, saying Patrice Oneal is great and killed on that show. He's against black comedians who are hack about their blackness, such as the woman who threw her weave into the audience to get a standing ovation.
White still doesn't know if he and Vaughn and the experiment will succeed. "If we make enough ruckus, at least we'll be a footnote," White said.
Showtime aired Richard Pryor's 1982 stand-up concert film, Live on the Sunset Strip, early this morning, and when you watch it 25 years later, you cannot help but notice how raw he was -- five years before Eddie Murphy called his concert special "Raw" -- in dealing with his fame and his personal troubles onstage. Also, watching the camera spot the Rev. Jesse Jackson laughing in the front row, a mere year or two before he'd pursue his presidential aspirations, you remember that he was just like you or me first, a guy who likes to laugh at brutally funny material.
The next Richard Pryor concert screening on cable comes Saturday on Cinemax (his 1979 special filmed in Long Beach, Calif.).