What do you get when you mix King Tee with Richard Pryor? Fun, dummy, fun is what you get. King Tee’s “Act a Fool” already had Pryor cut-up on the record, we just added more because too much vintage Pryor is still not enough.
Thanks to Matt B for pointing this out:
Classic King Tee (featuring Pryor at the end):
When I saw History, there were hisses and walkouts during this number, and the film has been attacked as a disgrace by reviewers in the press and on TV. I bet nobody hissed or walked out on Candide. When Prince and Bernstein do it, it’s culture; when Brooks does it, there’s a chorus of voices saying, “He has gone too far this time.” Earlier in the film, the dancer Gregory Hines, who makes a breezy film debut as Comicus’ Ethiopian pal, Josephus, tries to convince the slavers who are sending him to the circus to be eaten by lions that he’s not a Christian but a Jew. With his loose-limbed body–his legs seem to be on hinges–he does a mock-Jewish dance, and then a shim-sham, and the racial humor didn’t appear to bother the audience. But during the Inquisition, when nuns toss off their habits, and a giant torture wheel to which pious Jews are attached is spun in a game of chance, there were mutterings of disapproval. Yet it’s Brooks’s audacity–his treating cruelty and pain as a crazy joke, and doing it in a low-comedy context–that gives History the kick that was missing from his last few films. The Inquisition is presented as a paranoid fantasy, with Jews as the only victims, and when Torquemada whacks the knees of gray-bearded old men imprisoned in stocks–using them as a xylophone–you may gasp. But either you get stuck thinking about the “bad taste” or you let yourself laugh at the obscenity in the humor, as you do at Bunuel’s perverse dirty jokes. The offensive material is a springboard to a less sentimental kind of comedy.
If Mel Brooks doesn’t go “too far,” he’s nowhere–he’s mild and mushy. It’s his maniacal, exuberant compulsion to flaunt show-biz Jewishness that makes him an uncontrollable original. At his best, he is to being Jewish what Richard Pryor is to being black: wildly in love with the joke of it, obsessed and inspired by the joke of it. What History needs is more musical numbers with the show-biz surreal satire of the Inquistion section; it’s the kind of satire that makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup a classic farce. Brooks goes wrong when he pulls back to innocuous loveability–when he has Gregory Hines say to him, “You’re the first white man I even considered liking.” (Now, if that had been “the first Jews…”) Hines’ dancing–the movie could have used more of it–deserves better than a suck-up line.
When Brooks has a hot streak on a TV talk show, you can see his mental process at work, and amazing things just pop out of his mouth. He can’t get that rhythm going on the screen with prepared gags. Some movie directors can give their material that surprise. Altman has often done it, and in Hi, Mom! DePalma did it, with a highly inflammatory race-relations subject. But Brooks isn’t a great director–far from it. He’s a great personality though, and he moves wonderfully; his dancing in his Torquemada robes is right up there with Groucho’s lope. Wearing a little mustache and with his lips puckered, Brooks as Louis XVI bears a startling resemblance to Chaplin in his Monsieur Verdoux period. I kept waiting for him to do something with this resemblance, but he didn’t. Was he unaware of it? Lecherous Louis did, however, make me understand why women at the French court wore those panniers that puffed out the sides of their skirts; we see those ballooning bottoms through his eyes. (Brooks may be wasting his talent by not appearing in other directors’ movies while he’s preparing his own.) As a director-star, he has the chance to go on pushing out the boundaries of screen comedy, because, despite the disapproving voices in the press and on TV, he can probably get away with it. Like Pryor, he’s a cutie.
Too bad for us, Mel’s movies never got better, but he sure did score a hit with the play version of The Producers.
Good looking to Long Form Reads for linking to Hilton Als’ 1999 New Yorker profile of Richard Pyror:
Pryor’s art defies the very definition of the word “order.” He based his style on digressions and riffs—the monologue as jam session. He reinvented standup, which until he developed his signature style, in 1971, had consisted largely of borscht-belt-style male comedians telling tales in the Jewish vernacular, regardless of their own religion or background. Pryor managed to make blacks interesting to audiences that were used to responding to a liberal Jewish sensibility—and, unlike some of his colored colleagues, he did so without “becoming” Jewish himself. (Dick Gregory, for example, was a political comedian in the tradition of Mort Sahl; Bill Cosby was a droll Jack Benny.) At the height of his career, Pryor never spoke purely in the complaint mode. He was often baffled by life’s complexities, but he rarely told my-wife-made-me-sleep-on-the-sofa jokes or did “bits” whose sole purpose was to “kill” an audience with a boffo punch line. Instead, he talked about characters—black street people, mostly. Because the life rhythm of a black junkie, say, implies a certain drift, Pryor’s stories did not have badda-bing conclusions. Instead, they were encapsulated in a physical attitude: each character was represented in Pryor’s walk, in his gestures—which always contained a kind of vicarious wonder at the lives he was enacting. Take, for instance, his sketch of a wino in Peoria, Illinois—Pryor’s hometown and the land of his imagination—as he encounters Dracula. In the voice of a Southern black man, down on his luck:
Hey man, say, nigger—you with the cape. . . . What’s your name, boy? Dracula? What kind of name is that for a nigger? Where you from, fool? Transylvania? I know where it is, nigger! You ain’t the smartest motherfucker in the world, even though you is the ugliest. Oh yeah, you a ugly motherfucker. Why you don’t get your teeth fixed, nigger? That shit hanging all out your mouth. Why you don’t get you an orthodontist? . . . This is 1975, boy. Get your shit together. What’s wrong with your natural? Got that dirt all in the back of your neck. You’s a filthy little motherfucker, too. You got to be home ’fore the sun come up? You ain’t lyin’, motherfucker. See your ass during the day, you liable to get arrested. You want to suck what? You some kind of freak, boy? . . . You ain’t suckin’ nothing here, junior.
Als contends that Pryor’s two greatest albums are “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and “Bicentennial Nigger.” I love the former but think the later is not nearly as good as “Is it Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert.” But I do think that Pryor at his peak reached a place that no comic has ever approached, before or since.
[Picture by Ken Taylor]
For more than ten years I’ve talked about records, record labels, record producers, rare 45 b-sides and comedians with my dear friend Alan who knows more about records and record history than anyone I know, and it’s not even close. When we see each other, we usually go right into an old Carlin routine, or a Lenny Bruce sketch, or Bugs Bunny riff. Alan was the first guy I thought of this morning. When he got into work and saw the red light on his phone, he knew who the message was from