Comedic actors like Bill Cosby and Robin Williams shine more brightly on stage than on screen

By Bob Cannon
Updated October 16, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

A funny thing happens to some comedians on the way from their stand-up comedy beginnings to motion picture stardom: They lose a bit of the personal spark, the sense of surprise, that caught our attention in the first place. Sometimes, as in the case of Martin Short, they’re just not as funny anymore — or don’t try to be. To see them stand out, you have to see them doing what they did best: stand-up.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert finds the controversial Pryor at his uproarious best: profane, insightful, and angry. Nothing, from racism to reenacting his own heart attack, is off limits. Thirteen years later, no one has approached the level of hard-won hilarity Pryor reaches here.

After Pryor’s soul-baring performance, Bill Cosby, Himself comes off as a tad tame, but don’t let that throw you. This show is a vivid reminder that Cos was the best G-rated storyteller on the scene before TV made his act too familiar.

George Carlin: At Carnegie Hall captures the eccentric veteran in top form. His fascination with language (”Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”) and skewed news flashes (”A man attempting to walk around the world…drowned today”) are perfectly silly, and totally necessary.

An Evening With Robin Williams has the comic’s trademarks: uncanny impersonations, off-the-wall parodies (Jack Nicholson doing Hamlet), and Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen, all delivered at such a breathtaking pace that you’d swear he has got a half hour left to live and an hour’s worth of material. Keep those fingers near the pause and rewind buttons.

Just as brainy is Live From Washington It’s Dennis Miller, which showcases the acerbic talk-show casualty during his Saturday Night Live heyday. Miller’s material here is largely topical — though far from time-worn — and consistently sharp.