Flashback: Pryor knowledge

Play Rhino's new monument to Richard Pryor's genius, ... And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992), in chronological order and it's like a comic aria, with the final disc, an outtakes collection, serving as coda. Pryor starts funny and gets progressively more specific — about his life, his problems with women and drugs, gaping racial misapprehensions, the isolation of fame. Yet he never sounds solipsistic — just so attuned to human nature that the knife just gets sharper the closer he puts it to his own neck.

If that sounds like an odd analogy for a comedian, you obviously haven't heard Pryor, because no comic has ever gotten more laughs out of not-funny subjects. Not unfunny, just Not Funny, like slavery, about which Pryor — naturally — does many jaw-dropping minutes. It also provides the title routine of 1976's Bicentennial Nigger, which isn't funny at all, because he doesn't mean it to be — it's the single most bone-chilling segment of the box.

And that's on a collection that includes the astonishing "Hospital," from 1982's Live on the Sunset Strip, which may be Pryor's greatest routine, on the subject of — drum roll, please — Pryor's inability to commit suicide by setting himself on fire! (Cue rimshot.) The official story was that the fire was an accident that had occurred while Pryor was freebasing cocaine, but Pryor later admitted that it was a suicide attempt. This adds a chilling undertone to a line like "I did not burn up freebasing — I burned up because I quit freebasing!" Still, many people believe the fire was an accident, thanks in no small part to the "Hospital" routine.

Softening the story may be the only time on this box that Pryor lies, even a little, to his audience. Early in his career, Pryor deliberately stifled his own voice, becoming something of a pan-racial universal-truthster, ' la Bill Cosby. But by Richard Pryor, he's as direct as he can be; each successive album pares that honesty closer to its raw essence.

Early on, this frequently meant flights of character-fueled inspiration like "Wino Dealing with Dracula," from 1974's That Nigger's Crazy, and the self-obsessed preacher leading Bicentennial Nigger's "Bicentennial Prayer." By the time of Wanted, Pryor's own life was providing scenarios so harrowing and bizarre that he stopped having to make them up: shooting up his wife's car or holing up for several weeks with a talking freebase pipe. ("We've got smoking to do," beckons the pipe, sounding like a cross between Richard Nixon and Martha Stewart.)

As much as Pryor's art inheres in his performances, Pryor the writer is responsible for how well these albums hold up. He never sounds like he's planned what he's saying in advance, but the way he maps out his terrain should qualify him for the Cartographer's Hall of Fame. Decades later, the material on ... And It's Deep Too! proves that Pryor is, if anything, deeper than ever.