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Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
by David Henry & Joe Henry
Richard Pryor, who died in 2005 having redefined the art of comedy, was among the most influential performers of the 20th century. A black man who spoke about race and the life of a hidden America in the demotic of his upbringing, he produced work that was, at its best, shocking, revelatory and extremely funny. His performance at Long Beach, California on December 28, 1978 - lent an afterlife by its cinema release as Richard Pryor: Live in Concert - remains, for many, the mountain top of stand-up.
Reading David and Joe Henry's jazzy, meandering biography, however, you might think that Pryor was not only a master of his art, but a demigod. They describe his genius as being like Shakespeare's - a serious claim, and not their only one. For instance, describing the comedian's journey to San Francisco in 1971, they write: 'Like Jesus to the wilderness, Robert Johnson to the crossroads, and Malcolm X to Mecca, Richard went to Berkeley.'
These overblown passages occur throughout Furious Cool, but they disguise a more balanced approach. In fact, this biography swings between purplish adoration and dark anecdote. Frequent evidence is presented of Pryor's violence towards women. There are many unvarnished stories about his drug addiction, including the notorious incident in 1980 when he poured rum over his body and set himself on fire after an ultra-marathon of smoking freebase cocaine. There is also a frank appraisal of Pryor's film career in the 1980s, when, by his own admission, he was only in it for the money. (The experience of watching one turkey from 1996, Mad Dog Time, was described by the critic Roger Ebert as like 'waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line'.)
The Henrys attempt to understand the whole man. Pryor was born in a rough part of Peoria, Illinois in 1940, and endured a vicious childhood. He grew up in a brothel. His father was a pimp. At the age of five, he was sexually assaulted by a teenager named 'Hoss' in an alleyway behind his house. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, the comedian recalls that the abuse he suffered made him feel violated, humiliated, dirty, fearful, and, most of all, ashamed. (Like many other shameful moments in his early life, this incident later wound its way into his stand-up material.)
Pryor's talents eventually flamed out - first at hometown clubs, where he would sing and do comedy skits, and then on the road with a troupe of transvestite dancers on the blacks-only 'Chitlin' circuit'. Inspired by Bill Cosby, and convinced of his destiny, he told hecklers in Youngstown, Ohio: 'Hey, y'all can boo me now. But in a couple of years I'm going to be a star and you dumb niggers will still be sittin' here.'
Pryor was right - although his timing, for once, was slightly off. He left Peoria in 1961, and arrived in New York in 1963, where he opened for acts such as Nina Simone in dingy Village clubs. In 1965, he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it was clear to many watching that Pryor was special. Two years later, he had a Damascene moment in Las Vegas, when he walked off stage, mid-set, appalled by the banality of his routine. What followed was a period in which Pryor immersed himself in black consciousness, by reading Malcolm X and meeting the Black Panthers. In doing so, he developed the material we think of as quintessential Richard Pryor: free-form monologues involving lowlife characters and shaggy-dog stories, mined from loitering in the pool halls and whorehouses of his youth.
From this moment, write the authors, Pryor 'outstripped the confines of stand-up comedy, ran circles around it, danced on its grave'. But Pryor was less bombastic in his own biography: 'I wasn't Malcolm [X] or Martin [Luther King] or anybody else,' he wrote. 'I was a drug-addicted, paranoid, frightened, lonely, sad, and frustrated comedian who had gotten too big for his britches.'
Many of Pryor's friends offer cooler, and more insightful, analyses - of both the man and the performer. To his long-time collaborator, Paul Mooney, Pryor was 'a junkie first, a comedian second. I've never seen anyone more messed up over success'. But Mooney also vividly describes how he deployed his talents onstage. At one gig, Pryor performed a bit about a crowd trying to talk down a stoned nine-year-old from a rooftop. Mooney recalls how Pryor acted all the characters, including that of the boy, and that the audience were roaring with laughter. At the end of the 15-minute routine, Pryor stopped talking, and jumped down into the audience, thus signalling that the boy had killed himself.
'He lands hard with both feet on the floor and then walks off down the aisle, through the audience, in dead silence,' remembers Mooney. 'Richie took an audience where there were people wiping their faces with tears from laughing so hard, to people actually crying, all in a millisecond. It's still the most devastating thing I've ever seen a comedian do.'
As the authors suggest, Pryor wasn't only or even pre-eminently a comedian. He was an actor, a brute, a storyteller, an addict and - maybe - a genius. When he died, in 2005, he left behind a trail of human wreckage and a generation of performers who remain in his debt. As Cosby once said of Pryor, he 'drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it'.
Even when success came to him, Richard Pryor (on stage in 1982) never lost his rage or defiance. Making his debut at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas in 1967, he stepped onto stage, looked out over the star-studded audience, including Dean Martin, and realised that his black grandmother would not have been welcome in the room. He said, 'What the f*** am I doing here?' and immediately left the stage.
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