In 1982, E.T. topped the box office. But Richard Pryor's otherworldly genius needed no more than words to set his own record with Live on the Sunset Strip.

By Keith Murphy
February 08, 2021 at 05:59 PM EST

Before there was a network dedicated to comedy, before streaming services put stand-up at your fingertips, one man alone on a stage could be a blockbuster. This excerpt from EW's new special edition, A Celebration of Black Film, looks at the uncompromised magic of the 1982 hit Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip.

"We are gathered here today…" Richard Pryor intones like a preacher from his pulpit, the stage at the Hollywood Palladium, where a December 1981 sold-out crowd responds with chortles and applause before Pryor reaches the end of his first joke, and with it earns their full laughter — and his R-rating. This is the Pryor they've come to see: The profane deity of comedy's church of controversy. When the night's performance hit movie theaters the following year, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip broke records for a concert film: $36 million. As captured on albums — some with titles that cannot be printed here — Pryor's stand-up earned a string of gold records in the 1970s. By decade's end, however, the comedian had two life-changing experiences. The first was a transformative trip to Africa, after which he swore off using the N-word. The other occurred on June 9, 1980, soon after he had filmed Stir Crazy. Pryor had a history of free-basing cocaine, and that night, while doing drugs, poured 151 proof rum over his body and set himself on fire. He survived and at his peak revolutionary genius turned the near-death episode into material.

Dressed in a bright red suit, as if he had just been kicked out of Hades for making everyone laugh, Pryor, 41, drops everything on the table in Sunset Strip: his tumultuous marriages (he was on his third of five wives, two of whom he married twice); the perils of working at a Mafia club in Ohio at age 19 ("This is how ignorant I was: I had a cap pistol. …"). Late in the set he pulls out a matchbook and addresses the flaming elephant in the room. "And you know something I found out?" he says. "When you are on fire and running down the street, people will get outta your way."

Eddie Murphy later broke his idol's record with 1987's Eddie Murphy: Raw ($50.5 million in box office). Sunset Strip, however, remains the top shelf, and so unconsciously funny that it's inconceivable that Pryor — who was suffering from multiple sclerosis and died of a heart attack in 2005, at 65 — had a mercurial movie career. He co-wrote Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and gave worthy performances in Lady Sings the Blues, Greased Lightning, Blue Collar, and Silver Streak. But it always felt like there was room for more. Just as well. Richard Pryor was way too pure for conventional laughs.

EW's A Celebration of Black Film is available on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold. 

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