Let me take you back to March 12-18, 1982. During that week, T.J. Hooker premiered on ABC, PLO chief Yassar Arafat appeared on Nightline, actress Theresa Saldana [Raging Bull] was repeatedly stabbed by a crazed fan, Quiet Riot guitar player Randy Rhoads died in an air crash at age 25, and Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was the #1 movie in America.
If part of this project is to see how different American box office trends are today than in the past, this could be Exhibit A. Really, it says so much about how differently we consume entertainment in 2018. Stand-up comedy films are still released on the big screen from time to time, though the only prominent comedian I can think that still does this regularly is Kevin Hart. Instead, streaming services, especially Netflix, have cornered the market on stand-up specials, releasing huge event viewing from the likes of Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. and smaller alternative acts like Chris Gethard and Bo Burnham alike.
From a theatergoing perspective, the early 80s was still a time when going to a movie theater to see a simulcast of a live event was still popular thing, whether a rock concert or a wrestling match. Live on the Sunset Strip wasn’t exactly that, but I think it comes from the same impetus. It is hard to see a live performance beamed onto a movie screen ever becoming a cultural phenomenon ever again.
The star of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was the most dynamic and successful comic of his generation -- and still remains one of the most beloved icons of the art form. By early 1982, Pryor was a huge crossover star, having starred in films such as Silver Streak, The Wiz, Stir Crazy, and Bustin’ Loose. He was also an infamous figure, known not for his controversial stand-up persona but also for a freebasing incident where he set himself on fire and ran down a public street.
The thing with Pryor’s controversial material is he is almost always the villain. He’s not attacking others, making fun of victims or the less fortunate. He’s the one sleeping around, he’s the one taking drugs, he’s the one starting fights with his wife [who, as it turns out, was divorced by the end of the year though they did remarry later in life]. The highlight of Live on the Sunset Strip is when Pryor talks in length about that freebasing incident. He is emotionally honest and doesn’t hold back on the ugly things he was going through but the tone keeps it from being self-deprecating. He’s cool and confident about his exploits, being completely honest about his flaws, which is disarming after being funny. Like any good comic, though, he can go off on a ten-minute tangent about African safaris and gazelle with the exact same energy.
A fun connection: during the opening credits sweep up and down the Sunset Boulevard, a billboard advertising Absence of Malice is visible. This makes me wonder: how quickly was this film turned around? According to Wikipedia [never wrong], the comedy album version of the set was recorded over two shows in December 1981 and January 1982 -- with the film being released in March, the film was completed and in the can in about two months. I imagine that stand-up films are generally pretty quick to produce, but this seems pretty impressive.
Stylistically, this looks like most classic stand-up or concert film. There is a multi-camera set-up which cuts seamlessly around the punchlines -- the natural flow of the conversation makes it easy to know when to make the cut. Occasionally, there is a shot of the laughing audience, a diverse L.A. crowd [a young Jesse Jackson is noticeable at one point]. The simple style keeps the focus on Pryor and the comedy. There is no stage dressing, complete darkness around Pryor in the famous red suit, a single spot light adding a halo of glow around him.
As long as I keep this project going, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip may not be the last stand-up comedy film I’ll be looking at. It wouldn't even be the only Richard Pryor performance I’ll be looking at. How times at the movies have changed.