Richard Pryor told "the jokes black people tell on themselves," and became a speaker of something approaching the Truth.
Outrageously human, fearlessly black, openly angry, and profanely outspoken, Richard Pryor was a man who did not just tell stories about winos and deadbeats and druggies. As Furious Cool (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013) shows, when he was onstage, Pryor was those characters. In this new biography, authors David and Joe Henry take a groundbreaking look at the comedian's life and the many influences that shaped him. In this excerpt from the introduction, the two authors recount staying up to record Pryor's late night television appearances, and of his unasked-for role as a true speaker of the Truth.
We tried not to laugh.
It was a Friday night, August 17, 1973. We had read in the Akron Beacon-Journal TV listing that Richard Pryor would be hosting NBC’s The Midnight Special. As the local affiliate’s late news ended, we placed both microphones of our new reel-to-reel stereo tape deck (ordered from the Sears catalogue and paid for by tag-team summer lawn mowing, assisted by our pal, Jamie Worrell) up next to the single speaker of our family’s color console TV (still a big deal at the time) and eased our way back to the couch, careful not to make a sound. We didn’t want to spoil the recording. We would laugh later, listening to the playback in our bedroom upstairs.
As a couple of 12- and 15-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 semi-rural 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.
For us, Richard was a gateway artist, opening the door to worlds of music, storytelling, and poetry that had been thriving just out of sight, humming beneath our radar. Suddenly we were awake to how African-American culture had shaped everything we knew and loved. We heard it first in the music: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it became clear, desperately coveted the strange fruits of the black man’s Delta. Bob Dylan seized upon those same fruits as a juggler might, keeping them deftly aloft while both blurring and affirming the through-line from blues to beat poetry. Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Jimmy Page viewed them in awe, faces pressed to the glass of some imaginary museum of natural history. Johnny Winter, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Janis Joplin, and Captain Beefheart borrowed it as freely as a neighbor would a cup of sugar.
Richard Pryor’s genius first blossomed in the steamy whorehouse atmosphere brought north when his grandmother’s generation migrated from Louisiana and took root in that most unlikely emblem of middle America, Peoria, Illinois, then a wide-open river town peopled by street-corner storytellers, hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, vaudeville had-beens, high-minded church folk, politicians on the take, itinerant show people, and riverboat tradesmen who all passed through his grandmother’s brothel, his grandfather’s candy store, or his father’s poolhall. By embodying such characters onstage, Richard gave voice to a raucous and jubilant side of life as authentically American as Mark Twain’s but one kept hidden away from the majority of white America.
His path led him through a dizzying patchwork of transient Americana, from touring all-black clubs on the midwestern Chitlin’ Circuit along with the stripper who inspired Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” crossing paths with “x-rated” comics such as Redd Foxx, LaWanda Page, Mantan Moreland, Moms Mabley, Skillet & LeRoy, to Greenwich Village coffee houses of the early sixties where he shared the bill with the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and George Carlin; from Sunday nights on The Ed Sullivan Show and weekday afternoons on Merv Griffin to Rat Pack-era Las Vegas; from trendy West Hollywood clubs in the late sixties and guest roles on sitcoms and TV dramas such as Wild Wild West and The Partridge Family to his self-imposed exile in Berkeley at the dawn of the seventies where he found his authentic, liberated voice through mind-expanding friendships with the founders of the Black Panther Party and San Fransisco literati.
The best of Richard’s immediate predecessors—Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Godfrey Cambridge, Timmie Rogers, Moms Mabley—retreated to relatively safe, homogenized material, scrubbed clean of earthier elements, when we saw them perform for a nationwide audience on afternoon talk shows. But Richard brought out the raw tall tales, mother-rhymes, boasts, toasts, and lies—the “jokes black folks tell on themselves” (Langston Hughes) in the privacy of pool halls, barbershops, barbecue joints, back porches—and paraded them naked out in front of everybody. There was no telling what he might say.
This was no small breach of the wall. Louie Robinson, writing about Richard’s short-lived NBC variety show in the January 1978 issue of Ebony magazine complained that one could not sit back and relax while watching The Richard Pryor Show. “Instead, you perched on the edge of your seat, ready just in case Richard at any moment did something that would make it necessary for every Black person in America to suddenly drop whatever he or she was doing and run like hell!”
At times, both of us have wondered whether Richard Pryor was truly ours to approach, ours to embrace as a game-changing force, ours to hear as a part of our collective heart’s voice, an authentic part of our heritage. When John Cage (another voice in our choir) first began studying Zen Buddhism, he too wondered if it was really his to study. “I don’t worry anymore about that,” Cage came to say, and neither do we. We knew Richard as we did, and felt not a racial but a human kinship to his fears and desires, triumphs and failures. Like Dizzy Gillespie said of Charlie Parker, “Bird’s music was a gift, and if you could hear it you could have it.”
Richard Pryor’s gift was Truth. He turned a gritty corner one day as a young man in Peoria, Illinois, and The Truth was on him like a feral alley cat. And he held on to this cat; made a coat out of it and wore it to New York; hid his secret heart underneath it and opened it like a curtain onstage; wore it when he read Malcolm X, scrapped with Huey P. Newton; when he got high with Miles, sparred with Ali, and went down on Pam Grier. Then he tried to pretend he’d never seen it before…swore he didn't know whose coat it was; gifted it to girlfriends who all threw it back in his face. When he married up with a freebase pipe, he and his glass bride huddled under that coat for days on end. It kept in the vapors and blocked out the sun until, angry and tired, beset by demons and filled with self-loathing, he doused himself with brandy and lit the fuse, melting that animal spirit deep into his own. He tried to swear it off, but by then Truth had gotten under his skin, was a part of him, even if he couldn’t live up to its message.
We didn’t set out to write the definitive cradle-to-grave biography of Richard Pryor, and haven’t. We chose instead to go exploring, to mine the soil out of which he grew, and map the cultural landscape from which he emerged.
What we found more inspiring than the romanticized idea of genius that springs fully formed out thin air is the evidence that Richard found all the materials he would ever need among the hair clippings, clumped sawdust, and cigarette butts he swept up from the barbershops, meat packing 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. (Even the God of our Old Testament shaped creation not out of nothing, but out of chaos.) Richard spun his out of straw. And when he held this thing up for all to see, not only did we all recognize and embrace it, we could no longer remember a time when we had been without it. That this gift came from a broken and tragic figure should come as no surprise. It is the cracks, after all—the holes in the firmament—that let in the light.
The greatest tragedy of Richard Pryor may have been that he contented himself with the label of being a “comic.” We heard this over and over in our interviews with Richard’s colleagues and idolaters: he was beyond mere comedy. If you read transcripts of his breakthrough routines, you’ll find nothing remotely funny in the words themselves as printed on the page. It was all in his delivery, his empathy, his willingness to give himself fully to the characters he portrayed, and to let them take possession of him—so much so that it seems like laziness to speak of “other comedians” when discussing Richard Pryor. There are no others. No one else could do onstage what Richard Pryor did. As his friend David Brenner says, “There was no one else like him. He stands alone.”
Stories abound from the early days of radio when white comics would trek uptown to the Apollo, pencil and paper in hand, and help themselves to the best gags. One clear mark of Richard’s genius is that his comedy remains absolutely theft-proof. No one else could do his material. No one else would dare.
We watched in real time as Richard’s genius outstripped the confines of standup comedy, ran circles around it, danced on its grave, even while—in the same way a length of rope can let you know about a knot’s design—it was his comic persona that allowed us to see what his genius was all about, which was this: It reflected our flawed and brutal humanity back to us as something we could both love and forgive.
That it still accomplishes this in his absence is testament to the fact that the truth Richard spoke lived outside of his particular alchemy and his frail, fleeting times. But if truth is luminous, Richard was, for a while, the wiry, fragile filament, humming in a glass bulb. A brilliant and ferocious light danced through him. We laughed in private, as he invited us to, all the while vaguely sensing what novelist Walter Mosley would later state plain: Richard Pryor wasn’t joking.
From Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry. © 2013 by David Henry and Joe Henry. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.