JANUARY 20, 2014
OUT IN ONTARIO where he believed the women and money were supposed to be, Richard Pryor was looking at the latest Newsweek (June 17, 1963) when he came across a full-page article on a black stand-up comedian whose name was not Richard Pryor. In the article, Bill Cosby explained that he didn’t tell “Negro jokes,” and that the reason he didn’t tell Negro jokes is that “I’m trying to reach all of the people. I’m trying to reach John Q. Public.”
“Goddamn it,” Pryor said to the close friend and fellow comedian who had talked him into Ontario in the first place, “this nigger’s doing what I’m fixing to do. Ain’t no room for two niggers.” That’s when he went to New York.
Turns out he was wrong — there was room for two and more than two. Which is good, because the epiphany from the Newsweek article had yet to take hold and begin informing Pryor’s act. One night, after he’d already been in New York for a while, Pryor went to the Bitter End between sets at the Cafe Wha? to see in person what it was Cosby was up to. “He was amazed to find that Cosby’s act was nothing like his own,” write David and Joe Henry in Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him.
[Cosby’s] jokes were clean—no profanity, no politics, no racial axes to grind. As [Pryor] walked back to the Wha? for his next set, Richard decided then and there that he would refashion himself in Cosby’s image. If Cosby did Noah and the ark, Pryor would do Adam and Eve. If Cosby spun stories of his childhood in the projects of Philadelphia, Richard would spin stories that sounded a lot like Cosby’s childhood in the projects of Philadelphia but set in Peoria.
Pryor’s routines of relatively risqué social commentary had, by that time, earned him some respect but very little fortune or fame. His intentional and shamelessly blatant imitations of Cosby would bring both, and quickly. This success, the Henrys write, “put a half-decade-long stranglehold on his true genius.”
But if it really was a stranglehold, then it was one Pryor not only survived but one that may actually have encouraged the passage of a more robust oxygen when finally released. Working within the limitations of social legitimacy forced Pryor to develop skills for crowd-pleasing that would surely have been less developed otherwise. At least the Henrys don’t try to deny — even if they fail to emphasize — two essential facts about the five years Pryor spent selling out: one, it made him a better comic, and two, it was something he undertook by choice.
But enchanted as Pryor was with Vegas success and all it brought him, “I knew I wasn’t as good as the reviews said I was.” It was hard for him to receive much personal satisfaction from doing an act that would compel Don Rickles to approach him after a show and say, in well-meant sincerity, “It’s uncanny. You sound just like Bill Cosby.”
It was shortly after this, in 1967, that Pryor took the stage for his opening performance at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, and, as he would later tell his close friend and collaborator Paul Mooney, “it hit me that all those motherfuckers out there [in the audience] wouldn’t make room for [my] Mama if you put a gun to their heads.” Pryor leaned into the mic and asked the audience, or perhaps himself, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
It was a good question to begin with; Pryor’s asking it made it an even better one. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t there anymore. He was walking off the stage. But it wasn’t that easy, or that quick. He’d attempted his exit the wrong way and was blocked backstage by some equipment. But there was no way he’d go back out there and let the audience witness his thwarted attempt to escape them. He managed to squeeze his way past the equipment, but it hurt and it took a long time. It was not quick and it was not easy.
The Henrys understand that quick and easy explanations for something as messy as life are simply not feasible; for a life as messy as Pryor’s, this feasibility is at least halved. So they’re willing to acknowledge that even though the incident at the Aladdin was a pivot point, the pivot happened gradually. Pryor still had some selling out to do before developing a sensibility that was uncompromising and entirely his own, and before mustering the courage to go with it.
When Pryor squeezed through that equipment backstage at the Aladdin, he did so through a gap “that was so tight he drew blood scraping his face against the brick wall, a scene that conjures up images of passing through a birth canal.” You’ll forgive the Henrys this melodramatic touch because it works — it works perfectly.
And they’ve earned the right to be indulged. The genuine enthusiasm and admiration the Henrys have for their subject (tempered by a sober-minded critical reserve), the tenderness and care they’ve given to their writing about him, the research they’ve conducted in trying to understand Pryor’s world — it all commands our respect. This is the kind of pop-cultural biography one always hopes to read but seldom gets the chance to. It’s a labor of love that’s emerged from the Henrys’s lifelong passion for Pryor (as well as an unproduced screenplay they wrote about his life), and in their introduction they make explicit what it is they owe Pryor:
As a couple of twelve- and fifteen-year-old white kids— sons of the South and sons of an automotive engineer (himself born of Tennessee dirt farmers who migrated to the Carolina textile mills), living in a semirural township outside of Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s — Richard’s blunt rants on race ought to have tightened our jaws, left us bristling with indignation. Instead, he did just the opposite. Suburban Ohio alienated us. Richard was a beacon that said, Take heart. Stay human. You are not alone.
Growing up in the 1940s and ’50s:
[Pryor] found all the materials he would ever need among the hair clippings, blood-clumped sawdust, and cigarette butts he swept up from the barbershops, meatpacking plants, and pool halls — blowing in the wind, as it were — in his native Peoria. He gathered it all together and deliberately, playfully rearranged and assembled that cast-off detritus into something unexpected, beautiful, frightening, and new.
They called it Roaring Peoria back then, and it was known for its prevalent houses of vice, of all manner. One of these, a whorehouse, was owned by Pryor’s own grandmother.
Pryor did a couple years in the army, at one point finding himself in the brig over a racially instigated assault. He went back home, married, had a child, divorced, and worked toward becoming a comedian.
There had been black stand-ups before Pryor. There had even been rich and famous black standups who also got away with indulging controversial humor. There had been Godfrey Cambridge and Redd Foxx and, most exalted of all, Dick Gregory. But nobody had seen anything quite like Pryor. His virtuosity was of a different caliber — his style looser, his humor sharper, his presence more commanding, his gift for nuance of character so subtle, and, eventually, his subject-matter raunchy enough to make Lenny Bruce himself blush. Soon, it became unnecessary to talk of Richard Pryor in terms of blackness at all. But people did anyway.
And even before his slow transition was complete, he had begun to exhibit the behavior that would culminate, in 1980, with Pryor lighting himself on fire after freebasing cocaine. Even in the mid-1960s, he was drinking and snorting too much, hallucinating, committing random acts of violence and infidelity, and missing gigs on Ed Sullivan. And this was before Richard walked off that stage in Vegas, or tried to, finding his way momentarily blocked.
Two years after his meltdown at the Aladdin, in 1969, Pryor had another child, his third; divorced his wife, his second (of an eventual six); and moved to Berkeley, California. It was still the 1960s, after all, and Pryor made himself a full member of the counterculture. Pryor got in with the Black Panthers and other members of the revolution and recorded two albums that are still considered among his very best, Craps (After Hours) (1971) and That Nigger’s Crazy (1974). The Richard Pryor of enduring popular legend was, in these years, fully minted.
Success did nothing to diminish the sort of behavior that previously had led to his canceling appearances on Sullivan. People had always thought Pryor was crazy and brilliant, but now they knew it. He starred in several movies high on cocaine, nearly all of them bad, and they are mentioned now as little more than auxiliaries to his real work, that of standup. This is the run of movies that includes Car Wash (1976), Silver Streak (1976), Greased Lightning (1977), Blue Collar (1978), and The Wiz (1978).
The Henrys have too much respect for their subject to condescend to him. This allows them to emphasize one of the least forgivable flaws in the man, not as a human being (everyone knows about those), but as an artist: “Richard, for all his fearless, self-revelatory truth-telling, consistently lied about one thing, and that was cocaine. In every interview, performance, or personal encounter, he cheerfully reported that he was off drugs for real this time.” If we’re to exalt Pryor as a teller of truths, then we have to acknowledge that this was one truth he preferred not to tell — that his honesty had its limits.
Then, late one afternoon, Pryor was sitting at home when he got the idea to douse himself with alcohol and make himself a human torch. He went running around his California neighborhood trying to put himself out, deciding that maybe he’d rather live after all. The residents of Northridge, California, had never seen anything quite like it.
Neither had anyone else. The story went wide, with Pryor in the hospital for third-degree burns over half his body. His drug abuse had become such a dominant part of his life that it almost ended his life, and so to deny his drug abuse was to deny his life itself. Pryor had to deal with the issue now, in his art, or risk seeming a total fraud.
Hence, one of Pryor’s most memorable routines, on the concert film he made shortly after the incident, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). That he was able to take the tragic and make it comic, that he was able to find the poignant levity in one of the most dramatic things that can happen to a person, speaks to the singularity of his control, over both his material and its delivery. You’ll have a hard time finding anyone who believes Pryor gave a better performance than the one in Live on the Sunset Strip. Many consider it the greatest performance in the history of comedy.
And yet, he still wasn’t done selling out. In The Toy (1982), he played the title character, a man hired by a white family to be their little brat’s plaything. One of Pryor’s daughters says of The Toy, “It’s very disturbing. I have not let my children watch that movie.” Then he co-starred in Superman III, for which he made more than Christopher Reeve himself ($4 million), whether he earned it or not.
He made an earnest movie based on his life, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986), that’s better than the Henrys give it credit for, though not by much. It proved once again the limits of his acting when placed against the reach of his stand-up. But when multiple sclerosis came, in 1986, it put an end to his standup before it was able to put his movie career out of its misery.
Just as Pryor was to blame for the five-year stranglehold put on his stand-up career in the 1960s, he’s to blame for the caliber of movie he starred in in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s not like he was without options. Mel Brooks wanted him for both Blazing Saddles (1974) and History of the World, Part I (1981), but he was deemed a liability and had trouble even getting insured by the studio. These are just two examples; many of the others we’ll never even know about.
The final chapters of Furious Cool are profoundly dispiriting, even to one who comes prepared for the story found there. In the decade Pryor spent frantically discovering just how low he could go, Bill Cosby was starring in one of the most popular series in the history of television, his name in the title and everything. But if you listened, you didn’t hear anyone comparing Pryor to Cosby as a stand-up, because most believed Pryor had far transcended such a comparison. Now, when he’s compared to anyone, it’s usually Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, and even in those comparisons Pryor often comes out favorably. Only Pryor can possibly know whether it was worth it. I like to think it was.