Becoming Richard Pryor finds comedian's best artistic moments were ambivalent about laughter

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      Becoming Richard Pryor
      By Scott Saul. Harper, 352 pp, hardcover

      Like many children of the 1970s, I first experienced the comedy of Richard Pryor sideways and subliminally.

      The comedian’s name was mentioned by adults in hushed tones in front of kids. His records were kept apart from the general household collection in many homes; his standup films were watched, in the early days of VHS, only after the kids were safely asleep in bed. Children could intuit that there was something dangerous and alarming behind this man’s name—adults seemed to love his work despite themselves. What could possibly shock grownups so much that they seemed troubled by how funny they found it, and what kind of comedy could create both adoration and disavowal among them?

      In my child’s-eye view, I was already glimpsing the central truth of Pryor’s genius: his uncanny ability to make comedy out of confusion, to both distort and reveal the world in the mirror of his art. At his best, none of the laughs Richard Pryor elicited left you feeling at ease. He was a roller-coaster ride for your moral compass.

      In a biography that I think will prove to be definitive, Scott Saul gets closer than anyone else has to the meaning of Pryor, by way of both deep research and a critical eye that treats his work as art. Previous biographies, including Pryor’s own as-told-to memoir, are less thorough and were hamstrung by the problems of writing about a living subject. Saul, however, researching and writing after Pryor’s 2005 death, is able to open up interviewees to reveal a more candid and often significantly more complex figure.

      One detail uncovered, for example, is the heartbreaking fact of Pryor’s own misremembered custody trial between his mother and father over who would raise him. As Pryor recalled it, apparently to his dying day, he had been the one who, in court, told the judge he would rather live with his father, thus explaining the strange fact that the court ordered this young boy to remain in the care of a family that literally resided in a brothel, rather than releasing him to the care of his mother.

      Saul goes to the court records and shows that this simply did not happen, and that the criminal background of his paternal relatives was kept secret, and that the young Richard never spoke in court at all. Perhaps he transposed an attempt by his father to coach him in case he was called upon to speak with the real events of the decision.

      At any rate, Pryor remained dogged by the belief that this defining point in his life—the one that meant he was raised on the hard streets of Peoria’s red-light district rather than in the country setting of his mother’s home—was his own doing, perhaps explaining some of the self-doubt and self-destructive impulses that haunted him.

      As sad as it was that Pryor found himself raised in that setting, it was his comedy’s self-same abject roots that electrified the world.

      I was too young to know the 1960s Pryor, who began as a clean, TV-friendly lesser comedian in the manner of Jerry Lewis. And I missed his rise through a series of gritty film performances in the 1970s (Blue Collar, Which Way Is Up?) and was indifferent about his films that I did see in the 1980s (The Toy, Brewster’s Millions). I didn’t really understand the source of revolted wonderment that adults had for him until as a 20-something I found and consumed all his “blue” comedy records of the ’70s and his concert films. These, I discovered, were the real Richard Pryor, the one who was outrageously funny while he walked the razor’s edge of taste.

      But what I found at that time, and what has kept Pryor close to me over the years, was the film that is generally regarded as his worst—a film that was released many years after it was recorded and is therefore barely understood as part of the Pryor canon—an unadorned, poor-quality, short video called Live & Smokin’. It was recorded in 1971 by Michael Blum, another comic, mainly as an exercise, and was never meant to see the light of day. It eventually was released straight to video in 1985, it seems, only to cash in on the later success of Pryor’s name.

      Nevertheless, the video captures Pryor at the pivotal moment when he reassessed himself as an artist and daringly chose to work without censoring himself, deliberately razing to the ground his successful but safe career on the TV talk-show circuit. The film documents an artist who is both self-destructing and re-creating his identity.

      What I love about Live & Smokin’ is exactly what probably makes it Pryor’s least-liked film: it’s only occasionally funny; it’s pointedly sad; and Pryor seems to simmer with an uncomfortable disdain for his audience. It’s like Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, in which the artist berates the audience for their complacency.

      In another vein, it’s disconcertingly self-revealing. Pryor talks openly about cocaine addiction and the underbelly of sex and violence that he was witness to as a child. His language, which people remember as sexist, homophobic, and self-hating also undercuts all of the above with its demystification of masculinity, free admission of his own gay experimentation, and, up against his frequent use of the word nigger, an opposing redirect to Black Power and the hope of revolution.

      In this routine, during a mere smattering of giggles, he often steps on his own jokes, interrupting the laughter with something hostile or critical. He makes you laugh, then he hates you for laughing, which is often exactly the right response, given the subject matter.

      The culmination of this film, and the moment that I’ve always considered Pryor’s finest, is his one-man dialogue called “The Wino and the Junkie”. Here, his wino character is clownish (yet almost wise), starting the act with a rich rewriting of street life on his own terms.

      But when his junkie interlocutor arrives—Pryor does both parts—providing a far more despairing image of those same streets, what is meant to be a comedy act degenerates into a deeply affecting scene in which Pryor, in the junkie’s voice, sobs and swears incoherently, covering his face in self-disgust, shouting, “Kill me, motherfucker” to those passing by in witness of his descent.

      This “comedy” is a Trojan horse carrying within it a stark meditation on pain ("The Wino and the Junkie" starts at 29:17):

      It is in light of this that I would say Saul’s greatest gift is his recollection of the comedian’s television work of the 1970s, which he discusses at length in Becoming Richard Pryor. In later chapters, Saul exhumes the various TV specials that Pryor did during those years, and reexamines a treasure trove of similarly noncomedic but equally ingenious material.

      This work should cause us to rethink the Richard Pryor phenomenon as something that could be brilliant, strange, and productively alienating all at the same time. Three examples of his television writing that were never even intended to be funny, that pushed beyond the limits placed on him, are each worth comment and review, as each of them seem to age well from the vantage point of the 21st century.

      The first is a sketch called “Juke and Opal”, which was created by Pryor, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Wagner, first for The Lily Tomlin Show in 1972—where it was eventually killed by the producers before it got beyond script form. However, Tomlin loved the sketch so much that she was determined to run it again on her subsequent show, Lily—where producers again tried to block it, this time unsuccessfully. She fought and won its inclusion, but still the network tried, in a last ditch effort, to stop it during its filming.

      All this seems strange when you watch it, because it has no direct profanity. In fact, it is slow, claustrophobic, and minimalist—heart-wrenching but unsentimental. Years later, New Yorker writer Hilton Als would call it “the most profound meditation on race and class that I have ever seen on a major network”.

      Pryor, Tomlin, and Wagner themselves called it “a poem”:

      Another significant sketch, this time on his own series The Richard Pryor Show in 1977, repeated a similar framing trope as did “Juke and Opal”. Whereas “Juke and Opal” begins with a Julia Child-like voice on the TV, talking about the preparation of a rich person’s meal of lobster, contrastingly opening upon the proletarian setting of the diner, the sketch titled “New Talent” is framed more associatively with Pryor performing as the rock star Little Richard.

      The background to “New Talent”, Saul explains, is a disastrous performance that Pryor had done at a gay-rights benefit. Typically, Pryor’s appearance there was polarizing: he both frankly discussed his own gay love affair of earlier years, saying, “It was beautiful.” But then he drifted into a muddled tirade that bizarrely seemed to blame racism on gay indifference to the plight of the black community, and similarly suggested that feminism somehow took light off the problem of poverty.

      In interviews afterward, Pryor seemed to want to claw some of this back, but didn’t quite manage it. But Saul points out that it was shortly after his gaffe at the benefit that Pryor featured “New Talent” on his show, an experimental sketch by Kres Mersky that Saul identifies as “queer performance art”.

      Pryor let stand an untouched performance by Mersky, an almost cubist telling and retelling of a lesbian affair, his only comment on it being in the frames, in which his own performance of Little Richard appears to be interrupted by Mersky. Though the final product says nothing explicitly about these juxtapositions, Saul points out that what we get is Pryor appearing in the form of the most famous and well-loved gay African American figure, Little Richard, bookending Mersky’s complex piece, with the associations left for us, the viewers, to put together and interpret.

      And this time it was Pryor who had to fight to keep this sketch on his own show. Just as Tomlin did with the racially controversial “Juke and Opal”, this time Pryor went to the mat for Mersky’s lesbian content, threatening to quit unless they featured her monologue. The network eventually relented only after blacking out and muting segments of Mersky’s performance.

      The final result is dreamlike and arresting:

      Lastly, much like Dave Chappelle in later years, Pryor was ambivalent about his position as a comedian whose audience was at least as white as it was black, and the image he projected to a world that already didn’t take black people seriously. But unlike Chappelle, who famously flamed out during the difficult soul-searching a crossover star is forced to do, Pryor sometimes found a way to embody his ambivalence.

      In a late sketch on The Richard Pryor Show called “Once Upon a Time”, he revealed an elderly and strange avatar of himself, one similar to his wino character, but reconfigured in relation to the tortures of black representation rather than drink. In this vision, we probably come closest to seeing Pryor as he saw himself, a mind always in counterpoint: the poor kid who became rich through an art rooted in representing the poor; the star who commanded his industry by playing the fool; the child who survived abuse by being funny; and the artist who sometimes broke free of our laughter: