Remembering Richard Pryor’s Brilliant ‘Heart Attacks’ Joke – Vulture

Pryor in Live in Concert. Photo: Netflix

I once did a bar show with comedian Dana Gould. Another comic, after redeeming several drink tickets, asked him, “Is stand-up art?” Gould replied that if any bit qualified, it was Richard Pryor’s “Heart Attacks,” from 1979’s Live in Concert. Watch it now. It starts at 22:24:

I had not seen “Heart Attacks” since high school. Perhaps I had subconsciously avoided it, because I was born with a congenital heart defect. I got this gig because I can write from a stand-up’s point of view, but I am unfortunately just as knowledgeable about how it feels to collapse on a sidewalk clutching my chest as I am about how it feels to joke about it. I should not have worried. My emotions were safe in Pryor’s hands.

Due to a thicket of state and municipal laws based on standards of a bygone age, many of the words in Live in Concert would have been illegal to say onstage just a few years before the film’s release. Saying them anyway cost Lenny Bruce his career a decade earlier. Los Angeles’s Comedy Store, where Pryor pioneered his uncensored style, was only seven years old in 1979, and there was nowhere else like it. Live in Concert introduced this new visceral comedy to the nation just like Monterey Pop had given millions their first dose of psychedelic rock.

According to comedian Dwayne Kennedy, Pryor was unique in that his “comedic style and sensibility were vulnerable and self-deprecating,” which was rare for Black comedians at the time. “Eddie Murphy’s comedy and comedic persona … presented him as the self-assured, invulnerable over-dog whom the joke was rarely on.” Red Foxx projected a similar confidence. In contrast, Rodney Dangerfield laid bare his insecurities in character, with a wink, his shortcomings exaggerated into absurdity. Pryor was uninterested in artifice. It’s like he had a compulsion to absorb the world around him, in all its splendor and sickness, and show it back to itself. His ability to observe and present people as they really were was almost superhuman. As Patton Oswalt puts it, “Pryor — like Proust and Dickinson, and probably Janis Joplin and Edgar Allan Poe — was all-access, every nerve ending wired to receive everything the world was broadcasting. It’s no wonder he tried to silence it with flames.”

Pryor begins the “Heart Attacks” bit by saying, “Had a little pain in my heart there.” It is unclear if he is joking. His initial worried facial expressions elicit uncomfortable giggles from the audience. Someone yells something, a reminder that stand-up requires concentration equal to live theater, with no “fourth wall” shielding the performer from audience interaction. When he starts speaking from the point of view of his heart, with its own menacing voice telling him at 22:48, “Don’t breathe,” the audience is riveted.

Stand-up exists because vaudeville producers required performers who could entertain without musicians, costumes, or props — acts that could fit in the tiny area in front of the curtain if need be and occupy the audience’s attention while the crew changed scenery behind them. It was called performing “in one”: The comic is a self-contained show. Yet even though our own body is all we have up there, many of us employ precious little of it in our acts. But in “Heart Attacks,” Pryor shames us all. Few stand-ups have ever used more of themselves physically for a bit than he does here. At 22:55, he alternates his heart’s lines with his own voice in rapid-fire dialogue, all while balling his fist up violently to simulate each beat of a frantic cardiac arrest. “I won’t breathe,” he whimpers, and then, without stopping to breathe himself, he says, “Shut the fuck up” as his heart, and then, still without a pause, back in his own voice, “Okay. I’ll shut up. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.” By 23:03 he is down on one knee, literally begging for his life.

At 23:09 Pryor reveals his heart’s motivation: the punishment his diet has inflicted upon it. “The way the heart punctuates the apex of the attack with the word ‘Pork!’ is brilliant,” Oswalt says. Pryor fully commits: He lies down on his back, closes his eyes, and writhes in pain. He relinquishes his ability to check in with the audience, relying on faith that he has earned their attention. And he has, along with ten seconds of uproarious laughs.

“Can I speak to God right away, please?” Pryor pleads at 23:49. His prayer is blocked by an indifferent angel. “‘I’ll have to put you on hold,’” Pryor says, creating a complete character for this seven-word impression. No part of “Heart Attacks” is too small to warrant his careful attention. As Pryor’s hope for survival builds, he mirrors it by starting to get up off the ground, only to throw himself back down when his heart discovers his efforts. “You is a lying motherfucker!” it says, making excellent use of comedy’s new, hard-won freedom.

When the universe finally sends Pryor paramedics, they are all white. He fears that if he dies in their hands, he will be forced into white heaven where they play Lawrence Welk. A light pop-culture joke to break the tension is a smart decision, and Pryor’s writing is remarkably concise. He gets four laugh breaks and actual cheers at 24:24, and the entire section is just 45 words.

Moving on from humanity at our most frightened, Pryor shows us at our most petty. Seconds after forcing the audience to witness the desperation of the dying, Pryor confesses, “If I’m walking down the street and I see some motherfucker laid all out and slobber and shit hanging out of his mouth, he ain’t gonna make it.” This shameful admission earns three eruptions of applause.

A brush with death we survive can still bring us low. In the cold hospital system, we are just another numbered meat bag to be processed by an overworked staff while naked, afraid, and humiliated. “You’re not gonna leave here till you piss in that bottle,” a nurse says. Pryor adds a second nurse to collect the specimen, who he gives a distinct walk, all for a two-second interaction. He works hard here, presenting a series of extreme faces at 25:54 and a Michael Winslow–worthy heart-monitor impression at 26:48, earning whistles like an opera singer by 27:00. For a cardiac patient, this bit hits home. Their eyes are really glued to that monitor, even though they know in their head that any news from the heart will reach them before the machine.

Comedy’s highest purpose is to illuminate the scary aspects of life, get the audience to laugh at them, and reduce the power of fear over their lives. Pryor goes one step further and ends the bit with a human being conquering our greatest dread. In keeping with his vulnerable, underdog approach, this person couldn’t be Pryor. His choice is inspired.

“John Wayne can kick death’s ass,” Pryor announces, and then transforms physically and vocally into the Duke like some kind of boomer Super Saiyan from Dragon Ball Z reaching their highest form. He saunters across the stage and says, “Get the fuck out of here, Death” to 13 seconds of thunderous, rapturous applause. Pryor gives Wayne a line that no comedian of a previous era could have said, nor could the screen legend himself have said it in a movie. It’s a fresh concept for a new, more liberated era — an action hero who dispenses F-bomb-laden one-liners along with his bullets — and the crowd can’t get enough. Unable to leave a good thing alone, Hollywood would repeat Pryor’s gag countless times throughout the next decade, most faithfully with Bruce Willis’s iconic Die Hard line “Yippee-ki–yay, motherfucker.”

In “Heart Attacks,” Pryor found the possibilities in not just getting laughs off the titillation of breaking a taboo, but what new, deeper, more profound topics could be tackled onstage when the adequate language for them had been made legally available. He took his most vulnerable moment — a moment that is nightmarish to relive — and used everything he had to make it funny. Through the bit, Pryor attempted and succeeded to take the power away from death and give it to the audience.

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