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The first stand-up movie is also the best

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Obvious Child, featuring Jenny Slate as a struggling comedian, has us thinking back on some of our favorite stand-up specials and comedy concerts.

Richard Pryor: Live In Concert (1979)

Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, the first feature to focus on a single stand-up set, contains one of the most electric performances ever captured on film. On a bare, under-lit stage adorned only by occasional starbursts of lens flare, Pryor—dressed in dark slacks and a sweat-drenched red shirt—covers the whole spectrum of comedy. He doesn’t do bits; instead, he seems to channel his subjects—blacks, whites, parents, children, animals—like a spirit medium. It’s both the original stand-up movie and the best. 

Live In Concert was shot on a February evening at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Incidentally, it wasn’t Pryor’s first attempt at filming a set; back in 1971, he’d shot a New York performance with the intention of turning it into a movie. It wasn’t released until 1985, as Richard Pryor: Live And Smokin’. Shot from just two angles, it showcases a raw comedian, still developing the depth and seamless flow that would distinguish his peak stand-up work. Pryor’s voice was already fully developed; what’s notably absent from the earlier set is his sense of movement. The 1971 footage shows Pryor standing stiffly in front of the mic, his hands busy with a cigarette. 

In Live In Concert, however, he physically dominates the stage—jumping, slouching, running, falling. Everything about him, from his voice to his body language, is elastic. Death, sex, race, police brutality, Cosby-like family humor—nothing seems to be outside his grasp. And he’s really goddamn funny.   

Availability: Live In Concert is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix.