There’s an anecdote in Scot Saul’s new Becoming Richard Pyror, where the heretofore straightlaced comedian punctured the solemn, celebrity-fund-raiser mood of a Hollywood Bowl event for 10,000 people after Martin Luther King’s assassination with just a sentence. “All these people here are giving money,” Pryor said, “but if your son gets killed by a cop, money don’t mean shit.”
It was a Kanye West-like, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” moment for the comedian, and an indication that Pryor, who was previously carving out a precarious, likable ’60s career in New York and Los Angeles, was more than just a Bill Cosby clone.
There’s plenty of biographies out there about Richard Pryor — including this year’s Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, which goes over similar ground — but Saul brings extensive interviews with the people that knew Pryor, and provides valuable context, along with fluid, smart writing. Before this book I had never considered the childlike innocence inherent in Pryor’s work, but Saul makes sure that we see the man behind the incendiary work. He covers Pryor’s life before he was “Richard Pyror” with his name in lights, and the stories end in 1978 once Pryor’s career is on its ascendant, legendary path.
What’s striking, though, is the way that — Mad Men style — the ethos of the ’60s and ’70s shapes Pryor’s art. When Pryor was living in Greenwich Village in the bohemian era of 1964, he was influenced by wild nights of improvisation at Cafe Wha? and a cross-cultural friendship with rich boy and future film director Henry Jaglom. And Bill Cosby was in the air. Cosby was the black comedian at the time, and his clean style meant that he had the potential to cross over to a white audience. Pryor followed in his footsteps, coming up with funny, absurd stories about his regular-type family that were all complete and utter fabrications, as he grew up in a whorehouse. When Pryor and Cosby’s paths crossed, Cosby — far more profane in person — would insist that clean comedy was the only way to get people to listen to you.
Years down the line, however, Cosby would kick in money to Melvin Van Peebles’ independent black classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but his purse remained closed when Pryor screened his very own work of auteurism, Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales. All Cosby had to say about the film was, “Hey, this shit is weird.” Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, an anarchic independent production about the token black executive who gets put in charge of an advertising firm, making things groovier as a result, scooped Pryor’s film anyways.
To see how someone could start out as Bill Cosby II, the shadow that Cosby cast over comedy at the time, and the pressure around the fact that there could “only be one” successful, mainstream black comedian gives Becoming Richard Pryor a heft that feels awfully current. The recent revelations about Cosby, and the squashing of his long-planned comeback as a result, makes him already in the past. We need to see the barriers that Cosby broke while also understanding his failures as a human being. Placing Cosby against Pryor is enlightening on both sides regarding their work.
Aspiring artists are always tangling with each other, seeing who’s going to end up in the canon and how other people’s work can inflame and inspire their own. Pryor had more of a past than I knew about. Cosby was an angel and a devil on Pryor’s shoulder, and eventually Pryor threw him off and became something wild and singular in comedy: an American genius.