Black stand-up comedians must get tired of being compared to Richard Pryor, but here we are 20 years after Pryor completed his concert-film trilogy and no one has come close to matching his achievement. Chris Rock? Unh-uh. Martin Lawrence? Puh-leeze. Eddie Murphy? Gimme a break. In Murphy's case, there was too much Cosby in his stand-up act. Pryor and Cosby have hovered over the shoulders of every black comedian who set his sights on "Def Comedy Jam" ' the one an angelic devil, the other a devilish angel. (They're like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.) But no one's figured out how to transcend their influence, to forge a genuine work of art out of contemporary African American experience. That's all been handed over to the rappers.
Eddie Griffin is the latest pretender to Pryor's throne. His new concert film, DysFunKtional Family, which combines his stand-up act with a behind-the-scenes look at the Kansas City people and places that shaped his sense of humor, has all the Pryor ingredients. Griffin revels in the word "nigger," which Pryor finally, famously, put behind him. He cusses like a muthafucka. He explores the no-longer-forbidden territory of sex and drugs. And, at his best, he generates laughs out of this crazy, mixed-race world we live in. But it's amazing how familiar his material seems ' riffs on the differences between blacks and whites, men and women, cats and dogs, for example. Cats, it seems, are more standoffish than dogs.
In his defense, Griffin puts almost everything over, no matter how trite or tired. Done up in black leather, he's equal parts sexy and goofy, which made him the perfect blaxploitation stud in Undercover Brother (recently out on video and well worth the trouble). But why does he have to put us through yet another learned disquisition on the ins and outs of cunnilingus and fellatio? And why, while we're at it, does he have to take the same old potshots at gay people? "I ain't got nothin' against homosexuals," he says, and I thought to myself, "Uh-oh, here it comes." Sure enough, same-sexers take it on the chin, although for the post-gay-liberation reason of being able to kick a straight guy's ass. "These are dangerous people," Griffin says. Then: "Did I go too far?"
The bits that aren't utterly familiar in DysFunKtional Family are utterly familial, including introductions to two of Griffin's uncles. Uncle Curtis is an unashamed porn aficionado, lovingly stroking his photo album of female genitalia. And Uncle Bucky is a former thief, hustler, pimp and junkie ' all the ghetto stereotypes rolled into one. These guys are ripe characters, and Pryor would have squeezed every last ounce of juice out of them. But Griffin seems content to air his family's dirty laundry. DysFunKtional Family has what it takes to at least do Pryor justice, but everything needs to be shaped, developed, transmuted into art. In that sense, anyway, Griffin definitely hasn't gone far enough.