Richard Pryor biographers try to put order to chaos
‘Is stand-up comedy literature?” David Henry and Joe Henry, a fraternal author team, ask this as Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him enters the home stretch. Their answer cites Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and follows a confident discussion about the resonance of Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip with Dante’s Inferno, a discussion made alongside a daring critical interpretation of Eudora Welty. Thus, their answer to that question is an excited “Yes, of course.”
One is willing to go with them a long way in giving the work of Richard Pryor (1940-2005) a grand reading. He was a superlative American monologist and comic writer. Furious Cool maps Pryor’s cultural heritage (Jerry Lewis and the Chitlin’ Circuit, vaudeville organs and whorehouse pianos) and suggests how he transformed such influences into an unprecedented voice creating works in the genre – naturally enough for a black American – of absurdism.
The Henrys acknowledge this with the book’s epigraph, which comes courtesy of Antonin Artaud – a passionate lament about our living hell of artists “dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” The authors link Pryor to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, thus encouraging a view of Pryor’s best work (which by any count includes That Nigger’s Crazy, . . . Is It Something I Said?, and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling) as surrealism attacking societal sickness.
But the Artaud quote takes on a special meaning in light of the death-defying, life-defining 1980 incident in which Pryor – during the most unpleasant of many mean and crazy drug binges – lit himself aflame. The Henrys are at once serious about reading Pryor rigorously and onto the game of riffing on his celebrity image and cultural symbolic value, and so for them that crazed self-immolation suggests not just temporary psychosis but an instance of performance art.
Which is a legitimate reading. The only way to construct narrative order from the ugly mess of Pryor’s biography is to understand the freebasing incident as existential protest art – as the act of a loudmouth voicing something unspeakable and of an author burning the text of his only book. This seems soft-headed, somehow – People magazine stuff. But Richard Pryor’s particular pathos is that this is the view of his life in which he’s most legible.
“Richard is a junkie first, a genius second,” said Paul Mooney, Pryor’s longtime friend and writer. This is not true of, say, Miles Davis, the comedian’s patron, colleague and drug buddy. Reading Davis’s life, you can grapple with a coherent self, despite the jazz artist’s thorough remoteness and years of junkie opacity. Pryor’s life was formless except where it was hollow.
Pryor’s lack of inhibition in picking at the scabs of black American history encourages a comparison with his era’s pop icons of black masculinity. He had designs on updating the snazziness of Sammy Davis Jr. but lacked the Candyland sweetness or the ability to be apolitical. He lacked the confidence and discipline to be a triumphant Ali and the smoothness to polish his raunch a la Redd Foxx. But there are traces of these archetypes in the Pryor icon, plus a lot of Stagger Lee. When we consider, also, Pryor’s flagrant history of abusing women, it becomes clear that it’s impossible to salvage him as a hero. The readiest way to make sense of him is to approach him as some kind of martyr. That formulation requires an embrace of rock and roll ritual sacrifice – the capital-R Romance of visionary gifts.
Thus, the Henrys’ intellectual approach to pursuing the helplessly sensational life develops a mystic quality. Of a transformative retreat amid the bohemian vibes of the Bay Area, they write, “Like Jesus to the wilderness, Robert Johnson to the crossroads, and Malcolm X to Mecca, Richard went to Berkeley.” This is how a stand-up becomes a saint.