Profane and Profound

How Richard Pryor Beat Bill Cosby and Transformed America

Biographer Scott Saul talks about spending 8 years studying Pryor and why he never got bored, why Pryor is still electrifying, and what he would have thought of Bill Cosby. Read an excerpt from his book below.

Paul Natkin/Getty

Richard Pryor was one of the funniest people of the 20th Century, yet his life was anything but. If his biography as an African American icon went from growing up poor in a whorehouse in Peoria to finding mainstream success as a comic in the mid ’60s—when he was goofy and unthreatening enough enough for Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin—it would have been an up from the bootstraps tale of success. But Pryor’s life gets really interesting when he’s radicalized and diving into darkness and drugs while creating a dangerous, cutting edge performance style; his art thrived when his life descended into chaos, at his creative peak in the ’70s. UC Berkeley English professor Scott Saul’s biography Becoming Richard Pryor captures Pryor at his most vital, in and out of drug addiction and all too brief marriages, while testing the limits of comedy with brutal honesty and candor. Pryor’s life may have been a mess, but his stand up comedy, at its best, was a virtuoso’s art. Saul spoke to us about why Pryor matters now—and what he might have thought of the Bill Cosby scandal—and how his rude truth transformed America.

Your first book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t is about the connection between jazz and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. Did you envision your Pryor biography as extending your previous investigation—aesthetically and historically?

I think that Pryor’s comedy was certainly jazz-shaped: he grew up hearing jump blues and bebop, loved artists like Miles Davis, and when he came to Greenwich Village he embraced improvisation as one of his central methods as a performer. And like the great jazz artists I wrote about in my first book—Charles Mingus, John Coltrane—he was both a virtuoso, in command of his technique, and a risk-taker who gave audiences a deep sense of electricity and vitality.

On a more historical level, we can see that, when Pryor emerged in the early ’70s as a breakout performer, he did something quite profound: he brought together the spirit of the counterculture (its affection for the absurd over the rational, its love of experiment) and the spirit of the Black Power movement (its unveiling of systems of racial violence, its sharp methods of counterattack). In a way, he was following the historical example of someone like Mingus, who brought an avant-garde spirit to the project of racial empowerment and, through the force of his genius, pulled American culture toward him. For whatever reasons, I’ve always been drawn to artists who, from one angle, seem to be on the very edge of the culture and, from another, seem to reorient the center of the culture around them.

Pryor was famous for being funny, even as his life was far from funny. This came across in the Showtime Omit the Logic documentary—in which you were a commentator—and it comes across here. But did you want the humor to come across also? How do you do that tightrope act?

I wanted Pryor’s artistry to come across, and a significant part of his artistry is that he marbled together joy and pain, hilarity and extreme pathos. So when I present his performances, I try to convey the complexity of them—and hopefully, Pryor’s slashing wit can be felt as a big ingredient in there. His life was similar in its emotional complexity, I think. One reader told me that, while she couldn’t stop reading the book, she also felt wrenched by the sorrow in its pages—and I understand why she felt that way, because sometimes in writing the book I felt weighed down by the sadness of parts of its story. Another reviewer has described the book as “jaunty.” How could it be both wrenching and jaunty? One answer might be that I tried to layer the book, similar to the way that Pryor layered his art, so that the incidents in his life have a surface fascination and a propelling momentum but also take on a deeper emotional resonance. I’ll be curious to see how different readers take the book—or feel it.

When did you know that you would devote so many years to Richard Pryor, and what is it about him that made you want to commit so many years to this book? How many years in total were you researching and writing?

I started this book in late-2006, so it took around eight years from start to finish, with the first five being research-intensive and the last three being writing- and editing-intensive. (I was also teaching my courses at UC-Berkeley much of that time, though I had time off in the summers and through a sabbatical.)

Writing a biography is often described as a marathon: you have to be quite dogged in your archival digging and interviewing, and then you have to be quite meticulous in stepping through your subject’s life in the writing. For me, the research process was long but fairly exhilarating. I couldn’t believe all the documents that I was able to unearth, ones that shed new light on the major episodes in Pryor’s life. And I felt very fortunate to interview so many people from Pryor’s past, from the person who shared a crib with him to those who collaborated with him in Hollywood. All these folks were full of gripping stories about their time with Pryor, since he created much drama offstage as well as on.

The writing process was more difficult, more of a grind, but while I sometimes got tired of writing, I never got tired of Richard Pryor. Partly because he was such a conflicted soul, he was also infinitely complex as a subject, with a personality that went as deep as I was willing to go with him. And then, in addition to the complexity of Pryor’s psyche, I also had to wrestle with the intricate way his life collided with the larger dramas of American history and changes our understanding of them. The bustling home front of World War II, the struggle over desegregation in the ’50s, the development of bohemia in the ’60s, the sharpening of political divides across the ’60s, the rise of “New Hollywood” in the ’70s: all these stories got stretched into a new shape when I put the life and art of Richard Pryor at the center of them. So yes, there was a lot of meaty stuff that sustained me over those eight years.

I realize that a big part of reading about Pryor from the mid ’60s to the late ’70s is that he was always in motion, always changing. How do you get that dynamic across in the narrative? What did it bring out in you as a writer?

I’m glad you noticed that: I titled my book Becoming Richard Pryor because I felt that he was in love with becoming, in love with testing out new possibilities for himself. Take the three films he helped make in 1972, just after coming back from his Berkeley exile: as an actor, he spun Lady Sings the Blues off its melodramatic axis, so that it became much more than a formula biopic. As part of the writing team on Blazing Saddles, he gave its parody of the Western a sharper political edge. And as a writer and actor on The Mack, he made that film feel both more desperate and more poignant. Whatever project he involved himself with, he changed that project—and the project changed him, too.

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As a writer, I tried mainly to stick close to the concrete particulars of the events and the performances I was describing. I didn’t want to get in the way of my story. My goal was to make the scenes vivid, so that the reader felt that Richard Pryor was alive on the page—in all his creativity, electricity, danger, and beauty.

Why did you decide to end in 1978?

Pryor’s career really does snap in two: you have his life before Live in Concert and then his astonishing crossover success in Hollywood after it. And the first part was really the one that fascinated me: how did this black child, subject to abuse from all sides but gifted with a raw understanding of the world, become a world-altering performer, someone whose innovations set American comedy on a new course? Later, as I was writing the book, I discovered the power of another reason for ending my book, basically, in 1978. (There’s an epilogue to give readers a broader view of his whole career.) Pryor’s grandmother, whom he called “Mama,” was the central figure in his life; his relationship with her grounded him, and so grounded my book, too. She died in 1978—just before Pryor recorded Live in Concert. So there were deep reasons, both personal and artistic, for stopping my story at that point.

Some readers might wonder why there was not a discussion of his 1981 Sunset Strip appearance, when he memorably told the story of setting himself on fire while freebasing. It seems to be the ultimate example of Pryor using his platform as a comedian to do something that’s more like performance art or even a serious improvised monologue.

Pryor was not happy with Live on the Sunset Strip after he made it, and I think that a big reason for his unhappiness is that he essentially fudged the story of how he’d set himself on fire—presenting it as a drug-related accident rather than an unhinged yet purposive act that came out of a severe depressive episode. There’s amazing stuff in the film about what it means to be an addict, or about Pryor’s painful recovery from the fire, so I think that the film still holds up well in general, but for me its achievement is diminished by the fact that, on a main point, Pryor was evasive with the truth. Pryor himself didn’t like having been morally evasive: when he made Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling and wrote his memoir, he cleared things up considerably.

All of which is to say I wouldn’t call Live on the Sunset Strip the high point of his stand-up. For that, see “Wino and Junkie” (for comedy as performance art), “Mudbone” and “Little Feets” (comedy as tall tale and “conjure” tale), “Hank’s Place” (comedy as multi-character playlet), or the routines that, stitched together, make up Live in Concert (comedy as autobiographical monologue).

Shortly before he died, Pryor won the Mark Twain award. At one point you compare Pryor to Twain, and I wonder, as a literature scholar, if you see a place for Pryor among American literature or among satirists in general. Have you taught him in literature classes?

I haven’t taught him in a class of mine, but I know many other professors who have done so in classes dealing with American comedy and satire. From what I’ve heard, Pryor goes over extremely well with younger students today—but they often end up asking questions like “Is this satire? Is this comedy? It seems so much more.” Pryor played with the edges of every genre that he took up; that was a big part of the energy of his performances.

Was the blackface scene with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak an important step in how American audiences view minstrelsy?

I think the scene is notable for making a new kind of self-aware comedy out of blackface—comedy in which the laugh is on the grotesque mask itself, and where the mask is forcefully detached from an actual black person. Pryor improvised the key line in it. When Wilder’s character complains that the blackface will never work, Pryor’s character has a no-nonsense riposte: “Al Jolson made a million bucks looking like that.” What he’s saying is that blackface isn’t about black people themselves; it’s about an absurd fantasy of blackness that has been mass-marketed, commercialized, and hungrily absorbed into the culture.

What do you think that Pryor would make of the current allegations against Bill Cosby?

Pryor told an interviewer in 1967—just as he was about to break definitively with the “Cosby school of comedy”—“They always say ‘be clean.’ They want you to be something that really doesn’t exist at all.” For him, the profane and the profound were intimately connected: if you wanted to go deep, you had to be willing to risk getting your hands dirty, too.

All of which is to say that I think that Pryor, for all his admiration of Cosby as a performer, would have been suspicious of how Cosby took on the politics of responsibility and portrayed himself as the epitome of moral rectitude over the past few decades. He had a fine eye for moral hypocrisy, and I know that a glaring example of it would not have escaped his notice.

Ironically, Cosby’s fall from grace may also have a positive effect on how people see Pryor, who could be brutal as a man but was also brutally honest onstage. His strategy as an artist was to dramatize his own imperfections, as part of dramatizing the world’s. In light of the revelations around Cosby, that seems not just more penetrating and compelling as an artistic strategy, but also a more ethical route. Cosby’s record of sexual violence seems like a textbook case of “the return of the repressed”: impulses which are disowned, with high protestation, will find expression somehow, and it won’t be pretty.


How Pryor Put Cosby Comedy Behind Himby Scott Saul

When Richard Pryor first came on the national scene in the mid ’60s, he was a comic who consciously followed the blueprint established by Bill Cosby. Never mind that Pryor, even when he was doing a clean act, lacked Cosby’s assured and relaxed self-confidence. No, Pryor’s demeanor was something else—anxious, hyper, caffeinated. But even after he achieved a degree of success doing his version of Cosby clean, Pryor began to question himself and his act (fellow comedian George Carlin experienced a similar transformation).

It would take years for Pryor’s mature comedic voice to emerge but as this excerpt from Scott Saul’s terrific new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, shows, that change was underway as the events of the late ’60s spiraled into a kind of madness. Pryor had yet to become the volatile social satirist who unnerved white industry executives and delighted black audiences. He barely cursed in his act. But he had already begun to start speaking his truth, consequences be damned.

—Alex Belth

Excerpted from Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor

On January 13, 1968, Richard Pryor and Shelley Bonis were married in a quick impromptu ceremony at a small chapel in Las Vegas. They consecrated, in the city of Richard’s recent obscenity-laced flameout at the Aladdin Hotel, a relationship that sometimes played out as a political allegory of late ’60s America. Shelley was the white romantic, Richard the black cynic. It was Shelley who had avidly read Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers, and who believed that a new day was dawning and that the love she felt for Richard was proof of it. Richard, meanwhile, had been hardened by his family and his struggles with school, the army, and show business—every institution he’d come into contact with. He tended to shield himself from disappointment by expecting the worst—of people and of his country.

Still, a piece of Richard longed to believe, as Shelley believed, in what was pure between them and how it might spill beyond their cottage in Laurel Canyon—and here, again, the two lovers were emblematic of larger hopes and tensions. Around the country, the Black Power movement and the largely white counterculture were engaged in a delicate, circling dance, as each group wondered what they might give to, or gain from, the other. In Los Angeles in 1967, white hippies had sought to bring together “the city’s two hip communities” by organizing two “love-ins” at parks in Watts, with tellingly mixed results. The first love-in drew a crowd of seven thousand whites and blacks, who danced together to a mix of blues and rock groups; the alternative paper Open City raved that the hippies “short-circuited the ghetto’s mental hate syndrome with smiles, freaky renaissance clothes … and an open attitude which became contagious.” The second love-in, more poorly attended, was disrupted by a stone thrown at a white photographer and a “get whitey” speech from the stage—and the hippies, discouraged, left Watts for good.

For their part, black militants looked at the counterculture and saw two things at once: some of the least racist and most engaged people in America, and some of the most privileged and committedly naïve people in America. A case in point: the Los Angeles Free Press and Open City ran some of the most detailed and sympathetic coverage of the Watts riots and the Black Power movement, but they also published articles like “Hippie: The New Nigger” or “Diggery Is Niggery,” which appeared to turn black suffering into someone else’s plaything. H. Rap Brown expressed a typical ambivalence when, in a 1967 interview, he called the hippies “politically irrelevant,” but added that he wished “all white Americans were like the hippies, because they ARE peaceful, and that’s more than can be said for most honkies.”

Richard’s stand-up was one of the great beneficiaries of this dance between Black Power and the counterculture. In 1968, performing for Troubadour audiences that, for him, were half white and half black, he invented a style that was as far-out as Frank Zappa and as defiant as H. Rap Brown, and was catalyzed by the fusion of the two movements. On the one hand, the freewheeling ethic of the counterculture shaded Richard’s act with irony, making his more political moves seem provisional and subject to revision. On the other, the militancy of the Black Power movement sharpened his zaniness, giving it a point: his improvisations 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.

He needed his art because, offstage, the chaos was sometimes too much. When news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination reached Richard on April 4, 1968, he was between sets at Mister Kelly’s nightclub in Chicago. The second set was immediately canceled, and everyone was warned to take caution and head home. Richard did the opposite. He smoked a joint with Jeff Wald, the booker at Mister Kelly’s. Then the two hopped in a car and “drove around Chicago like lunatics,” Wald remembered. They felt aimless, high on grass and miserable about the state of the world, and were curious to see where their careening would take them. Richard was sobbing uncontrollably; he couldn’t believe how crazy America had become. The two heard shots fired around them but raced through the streets anyway. It was the beginning of a riot that would wreathe the streets in smoke and tear gas, and leave at least nine black Chicagoans dead.

The death of King reverberated in Richard. He canceled a scheduled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and returned to Los Angeles, where two weeks later he performed in front of an audience of ten thousand at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. The tone of the King event was set by actor Rod Steiger, who proclaimed that “we are here today because of a man with a purpose and a dream. We are gathered for one reason and one reason alone—to raise money to help fulfill that dream and that purpose. We mean to guarantee that a future shall exist without ignorance and without prejudice.” These were high-minded thoughts, and Steiger was joined in his solemn tribute by entertainers ranging from Jimmy Durante and Edward G. Robinson to Bill Cosby and Barbra Streisand.

Richard punctured the mood. He looked out at the largest live audience of his career, one assembled to mourn one of the most grievous losses in American history, and spoke with the brazenness of his father at his stepmother’s grave. “All these people here are giving money,” he observed, “but if your son gets killed by a cop, money don’t mean shit.” There was a collective gasp at both the four-letter word and the bitter sentiment it carried. The show, after all, was meant to embody King’s vision and raise money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Urban League, two organizations that represented the civil rights establishment. Richard, meanwhile, was refusing to turn the other cheek. He was pointing his audience’s attention to those, less sainted than King, who had been killed by police bullets in the riots following King’s assassination, and he was refusing to forgive.

For Richard, it was almost like a public “coming out”: no one with a decent pair of ears could mistake him for Bill Cosby any longer. Forty-five KLAC listeners withdrew their pledges in protest at his remarks.

Excerpted from BECOMING RICHARD PRYOR Copyright © 2014 by Scott Saul. Excerpted by permission of Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.