Book Review: “Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor” by Cecil Brown posted 8/24/2014
When I think of the greatest comedians of my lifetime, three names come immediately to mind – Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. It is likely that many young people now may not know about Pryor. Really he was most famous in the 70’s. He died in 2005 although he had stopped performing in the 90’s due to his multiple sclerosis.
Cecil Brown, a writer, college professor and long-time friend of Pryor’s wrote “Pryor Lives” to give the world more background and understanding into who Pryor was as well as well as his evolution as a comic. I have to confess I did not know much of the history.
I mostly remember Pryor for his brilliant concert movies as well as Blue Collar, which was a great political movie. As a comedian, Pryor broke barriers and fearlessly told truths. He was not afraid to insult anybody and he did. He was a pioneer among Black comics, one of the first to tell it like it is. There was nothing tame about Pryor. While being outrageously funny, he delivered withering commentary especially on race and sex topics.
Brown recalls quite a few stories that demonstrate Pryor’s courage. He had a history of walking into the lion’s den and insulting the lion. Brown shows how Pryor went from being a clean comic modelled after Bill Cosby to becoming his later incarnations. There was nothing white bread about Pryor. He was a flamer.
Considering the dysfunctionality of his family and his poverty growing up, it is amazing how much Pryor overcame and achieved. He grew up in a bordello in Peoria Illinois that was run by his grandmother. Both his grandmother and his mother were prostitutes. Pryor’s father ran a bar. Brown says that many of the characters Pryor created were based upon people who showed up in his father’s bar.
Initially, Pryor started out singing, playing piano and telling jokes. He performed at a club in Peoria. The jokes got a much better response than his singing. Brown says Pryor did TV commercial jokes and he did a takeoff on Edward R. Murrow’s show, Person to Person. In Murrow’s show, the host interviewed sophisticated persons in exotic places. Pryor turned it around by pretending to interview Black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.
Early in his career, Pryor travelled frequently and played in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Chicago. After reading a piece about Bill Cosby in Newsweek, he went to New York City and the Village. It was 1963. At that point, he idolized Cosby but he wanted to go his own way. Brown tells about how Pryor connected with Cosby, and how he also appreciated Sammy Davis. He was envious of their stardom. Pryor did not want to imitate these mentors though. He chose to be an opposite of Cosby and he pulled all his characters from ghetto experience. The Wino, The Junkie and Mudbone were characters he evolved.
According to Brown, Pryor was very eclectic in his comedy tastes. Red Foxx was a huge influence. He liked Dick Gregory and Robin Williams. He also surprised Brown by telling him he thought Joan Rivers was funny too.
Pryor moved to the West Coast and Berkeley California. I did not know how big an influence the world of Berkeley, late 60’s/early 70’s was on him. He especially played at Mandrake’s, a Berkeley club. It was the time of the rise of the Black Liberation movement and especially the Black Panther Party.
Brown tells some good stories about Pryor and the Panthers. Oakland was a Panther stronghold. Pryor paled around with Huey Newton but it did sound like they had a very contentious relationship. They had a competition about who was the craziest. They competed over who could do the most cocaine. While Elaine Brown, a Panther leader, reported that Huey was the baddest, it sounded like Pryor was tough competition in the crazy department. The stories were mostly about macho bluster.
From Brown’s account, the Panthers shook Pryor down. Huey saw Pryor’s movie The Mack as exploitative of Black people. He tried to dictate roles and he interfered in the movie making. Pryor did contribute to the Party but he may have just considered it a cost of doing business. The Panthers were shaking down after hour joints and clubs in the Bay Area. Huey considered these contributions as akin to a tithe. It is hard to tell if Pryor’s contributions were genuinely voluntary. Brown says that Pryor read Malcolm X and he identified with George Jackson.
Movies brought Pryor to a much wider audience. Greased Lightning, Lady Sings the Blues, Which Way is Up?, Blue Collar, California Suite, Superman III and Stir Crazy were some of the movies that catapulted Pryor to stardom. It has been many years since I have seen Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset Strip. I think they were both hilarious and I would recommend them as a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Pryor’s work.
Pryor hated being called the Black Lenny Bruce but he certainly was in Bruce’s debt. His candor about race, sex, class and sexual preference is probably unsurpassed. Brown’s book gives a good feel for all the influences on Pryor, including Hollywood stars, famous authors, and politicos.
His life, as presented by Brown, was a pretty big mess. He could not hold it together with any one of his many wives. The famous incident in which he severely burned himself while free-basing is not that surprising considering what led up to it.
Pryor was a genius but in between his burning himself up and his MS he suffered terribly. His lawyer, whom he had trusted, ripped him off financially. Brown was close to Pryor for many years so the book does give a close insider’s view.
I did not think Brown’s efforts to present Pryor as a shaman worked. Brown does some academic type theorizing which could have been left out. I thought the book read better as a story. It looks like Brown self-published. Too bad the book did not find a publisher because it deserves wider circulation. Which gets me to a question: why read about Pryor now?
I will give my own view. Pryor was not a conventional comedian. He was a boundary pusher and an exposer of hypocrisy. He especially exposed racism. The world of celebrity is typically vacuous and self-referential. More often than not, it is simply another distraction in modern life. That was never true of Richard Pryor. He had something to say and he said it with guts, honesty and great humor. His example opened the door for others like Chris Rock and Lewis Black.
As a society, we honor so many celebrities who do not deserve it. Pryor deserves the honor.