Hard Laughter

Scott Saul’s massive biography of Richard Pryor reached bookstores just months after Mark Whitaker’s biography of Bill Cosby, another of the twentieth century’s most important comics (and one with whom Pryor had a famously complicated relationship). Neither author could have chosen a timelier moment. Whereas Whitaker’s book—inexplicably—all but ignores the string of sexual-assault accusations that once again have Cosby’s name in the headlines, Saul’s dives unhesitatingly into every aspect of Pryor’s conduct, including the many sordid parts that Pryor did little to shield from public view.

And, without overtly attempting to do so, Saul proves that there probably could be no period in which a biography of Pryor would be anything other than timely. As protesters in the United States and around the world have taken to the streets to demonstrate against two puzzling grand-jury decisions involving police killings of unarmed black men, interested observers have begun to circulate one of Pryor’s most famous bits. While videotape footage of Eric Garner’s death from a police chokehold plays in a seemingly endless loop, Facebook and Twitter provide searing commentary, courtesy of some Pryor concert footage from 1978.

“Police got a chokehold they use out here though, man,” Pryor begins. “They choke niggers to death. That means you be dead when they through. Did you know that? Wait a minute, niggers going, ‘Yeah,’ white folks, ‘No, I had no idea.’ Yeah. Two grab your legs, one grab your head, he’ll snap! ‘Oh, shit, he broke. Can you break a nigger? Is it okay? Let’s check the manual. Yep, page eight, you can break a nigger.’”

Four years before that routine, Pryor had mined similar nuggets from current events. “Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass,” he said during one monologue. “White folks don’t believe that shit. . . . White folks get a ticket, they pull over, ‘Hey officer. Yes, glad to be of help.’ Nigger got to be talking about: ‘I-am-reaching-into-my-pocket-for-my-license . . . ’cause I don’t want to be no motherfucking accident.’” That joke also continues to resonate, painfully: Twenty-five years after Pryor first told it, New York City police shot Amadou Diallo when he reached into his pocket for his ID. Forty years after, a South Carolina policeman shot Levar Jones at a gas station when Jones reached into his car to retrieve his ID. Motherfucking accidents indeed.

According to Saul, these jokes, like many of Pryor’s post–Black Power performances, “could cut you open with their poignancy or shock you with their bitterness. For years, Richard’s comedy had set itself apart from the conflicts of the times; now it drew on the energy of those tensions and played them out in spectacular fashion.”

These topical bits were shocking, perhaps, to “those white audience members who wanted to eavesdrop on the black community’s inside language,” as Saul puts it. But for others, particularly African Americans, Pryor’s comedy was an affirmation: He was simply telling it like it was, and continues to be.

His matchless blend of rapier wit, vulnerability, and uncanny insight was the stuff of genius, and it made him much more than a funnyman with a microphone. He remains of interest to biographers because, as comic Paul Rodriguez has declared, “There are two periods in comedy in America: before Richard Pryor and after Richard Pryor.”

Saul’s effort differs from earlier attempts in part because the author had far greater access to Pryor’s relatives and intimates. More than eighty people close to the comedian or with knowledge of his origins spoke to Saul. (The surviving members of the Pryor family may have done so, he speculates, because the statute of limitations on its illegal activities has expired.) In addition, Saul pored over reel-to-reel tapes made by a man who shared a house with Pryor during one of the comedian’s pivotal periods, some eight hours of unreleased recordings in all.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois, on December 1, 1940. Raised mostly by his grandmother (a madam and a bootlegger, among other things), he grew up in a brothel. Some of his most memorable material drew on his childhood experiences with pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and the strong-willed, larger-than-life adults who looked after him. Monologues spun from his unorthodox youth, Saul writes, “took his audience into the inner sanctum of this after-hours joint in Peoria,” a “world of hustlers, gamblers and every other form of trickster black Peoria had to offer.”

But Pryor didn’t unleash such routines until 1968. Up to that point he’d been a Cosby clone, competent but not special. A 1964 newspaper review observed, “Comedian Richard Pryor has got guts. He uses Bill Cosby’s style, mannerisms, inflections, and much of Cosby’s material without batting an eyelash. Be yourself, Richard, so we can pan (or applaud) you on your own.” By ’67, Pryor, despite mounting success in clubs and on television, was determined to shake off the anxiety of influence. He later told the Los Angeles Times, “I was doing material that was not funny to me. I saw how I was going to end up. I was false. I was turning into plastic.”

Richard Pryor, 1968.
Richard Pryor, 1968.

In Saul’s telling, a combination of factors contributed to Pryor’s transformation—the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Pryor’s growing fascination with the Black Power movement, and his grueling battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, among others. It appeared that Pryor had to hit rock bottom before he could rise. Before his meteoric ascent in the ’70s, he had become infamous for canceling gigs, ranting at audiences, and poisoning relationships with managers and club owners. “I didn’t know who Richard Pryor was,” he would later recall in his memoir, Pryor Convictions. “And in that flash of introspection when I was unable to find an answer, I crashed.” He landed in Berkeley in 1971, having tossed away most of his connections to Hollywood—“house, car, clothes, women, friends.”

One of the most intriguing passages in Saul’s book is one of the briefest. He chronicles Pryor’s association with a group of notable black artists and intellectuals in Berkeley that included memoirist Claude Brown and novelists Ishmael Reed and Cecil Brown. Reed gave Pryor a biography of the great black vaudevillian Bert Williams, further prompting him to critically assess his material. While Pryor joined his new friends in discovering ways “to turn the language of the streets into the language of art,” he was also consuming large amounts of cocaine. Claude Brown remembers coke-fueled episodes in which “we’d be up at dawn and going for two or three days. I used to have to keep away from him to get some sleep.”

I wish Saul had provided a lengthier discussion of that little-known interval instead of the overly detailed dissections of Pryor’s films that get more space. Some of these behind-the-camera stories are revealing—for example, the accounts of Pryor’s breakout role in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), his involvement in Blazing Saddles (1974), and, especially, an early collaboration with filmmaker Penelope Spheeris that never reached the screen. But they cover familiar ground, in fairly perfunctory fashion. Likewise, Saul gives dutiful attention to well-known mileposts in Pryor’s career, including his long and fruitful partnership with writer-performer Paul Mooney, his guest-hosting of Saturday Night Live in 1975, his successful writing ventures with Lily Tomlin and Mel Brooks, and his short-lived, albeit legendary, television series. Saul’s accounts of less successful projects, including Pryor’s attempts at poetry and screenwriting, are less engaging still, of interest mainly to completists.

Of course, it’s no fault of Saul’s that great comedy translates with great difficulty to the printed page. Much of Pryor’s finest output—his Grammy-winning albums That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976), his 1979 Live: In Concert film, the TV specials with Tomlin—speaks for itself and defies both critical analysis and easy description. Nevertheless, for a figure as revolutionary as Pryor, the saga of his Berkeley years could have furnished crucial clues to how his thinking shifted as he approached his craft from a radical new vantage.

Pryor’s admirers might have expected Saul to report in greater detail on another dramatic episode in his personal and professional life: the June 9, 1980, incident in which, after a five-day bender of booze and freebasing, Pryor doused himself with liquor and set himself on fire. His painful recovery, which Pryor recounted—and embellished—brilliantly onstage, is rendered here as a transition to a comparatively mellow period. “I don’t have the same desire to succeed anymore,” Pryor said after his brush with death. “I don’t have that push, push, push I used to have. I think I had it until I burned up.”

“Whatever the personal benefits” that may have accrued from Pryor’s tempered partying habits and career ambitions, Saul notes accurately, “the artistic benefits were more minimal.” While Pryor’s subsequent performances were seldom without a glimmer of genius, his most masterful routines were behind him. Saul warns readers early on that he has no plans to dwell on Pryor’s final years, filled with illness, decline, and awful films, and few will quarrel with his choice. Neither, probably, would Pryor, who died at the age of sixty-five in 2005, felled by a heart attack.

Instead, Saul concludes with an examination of Pryor’s status as a standout artist who struggled throughout his career to attract projects and a legacy commensurate with his talent. He quotes Reed, who suggested that Pryor was “a comic genius who let Hollywood use him.” Saul disagrees with that simple summary, seeing Pryor’s life less as a case of exploitation than as a colossal missed opportunity. “His non-concert films would stand as evidence of how an obtuse Hollywood failed to adapt to the arrival of a formula-shattering black talent,” he argues. That Saul has to wrestle with such questions is additional evidence of Pryor’s evergreen status as influence and symbol. As Chris Rock’s recent essay in the Hollywood Reporter shows, the challenge of “crossing over” into mass success in a white-dominated industry endures for black performers in Pryor’s wake. The man from Peoria may have shattered the formula, but the restrictions he confronted are still firmly in place.

Jabari Asim’s novel Only the Strong will be published by Agate/Bolden in the spring.