Thursday, November 06, 2014

Still Crazy

I just read David and Joe Henry's biography Furious Cool: Richard Pryor And The World That Made Him.  It has its flaws, but tells a fascinating and often infuriating story.

Pryor was a giant in standup. If you took a poll of comedians I'm certain he'd be named the top in the field in the past half century. And it's easy to forget how revolutionary he was, since half of all standups are now imitating him.  But as they say, often imitated, never duplicated.

Pryor was born in Peoria in 1940, raised in a brothel run by his grandmother.  He was exposed to a lot as a child, and was even sexually molested.  But he was also a charmer who loved the movies and loved to entertain.  He came to New York in the early 60s and performed in the Village, the same place where Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan and so many others were finding their chops.  The book sometimes compares him to Dylan--whereas Dylan changed what pop music could be about, Pryor did the same for comedy.

He did characters, often down and dirty ones who embodied the black experience (at least the black experience that he'd seen growing up).  But when Bill Cosby hit it big--after making a conscious decision to leave most racial topics behind--Pryor starting copying him.  Pryor, in fact, became highly successful as a sort of Cosby-lite, playing Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show and Vegas and appearing in movies.  But by the late 60s he'd had enough.  He moved to Berkeley and stayed underground for a couple years.

David and Joe Henry, two white boy apparently down with the Brothers, go into the counterculture and how it affected Pryor.  Unfortunately, they present some violent beliefs and an uncritical, almost rosy light.  They also quote Paul Mooney a lot, who may have been Richard's closest friend, but doesn't strike me as necessarily that insightful.  From his comments, it's all about being black. That certainly is part of Pryor's story, but it strikes me as too limiting.  (Maybe that's why Pryor was a great artist and Mooney is a reasonably talented but not especially memorable comedian.)

In the early 70s Pryor returned to standup with a new passion and a new style and language.  He'd moved beyond jokes.  He was more an actor than a comedian, creating little one-act plays out of the characters he inhabited.  It was the beginning of his greatest work, but he couldn't resist the siren song of Hollywood.  Here the Henry brothers compare him, quite properly, to Elvis--the king of his field who'd rather be a movie star by making so-so films.

Pryor did fine supporting work in a number of films, such as Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack and Uptown Saturday Night.  And he could play drama as well as comedy. (Plus a lot of his best stuff was improvised on the set--it got to be that filmmakers would count on him to enliven a scene.)  And then there was his appearance on the first year of Saturday Night Live--the show needed him more than he needed it, and his episode is still one of the best-remembered.

A big disappointment, however, was being a writer on Blazing Saddles but not being allowed to star in it.  He almost certainly would have done a great job, but Hollywood didn't trust him enough yet.

Mind you, there was a reason, and it wasn't just his politics, or his swearing, or even his tempestuous relationship with women.  It was his drug use.  He was generally a professional, but he was also a junkie, always looking for his next fix.  Eventually he became a big enough star that the studios would throw money at him, but not yet.

By the mid-70s he'd released a handful of bestselling comedy albums and was recognized as a master at his craft.  And then in 1976 he made--in more ways than one--the big comedy hit Silver Streak.  From that point on he was a major star.  For the rest of the decade, he'd so some of his best work in film, including Greased Lightning, Blue Collar and Which Way Is Up?

But the big moment, the highlight of his career, was his concert film Richard Pryor: Live In Concert.  It showed him at the top of his game, getting deeper into his characters (and not even relying on old mainstays like Mudbone) and being funnier and more truthful than ever.  The film significantly increased his already sizable fan base.  And it showed you could be a standup and a movie star at the same time.

It didn't take too long for him to tumble.  Always seeking a new high, he started freebasing cocaine, and stopped doing almost anything else. In 1980, in an attempt at suicide, he set himself on fire.  He would recover, but his work would never be the same.  The standup was still good, but not great, and the movies--even as he was offered more and more money--got worse and worse.  Most of them are hard to watch today.

In a final blow, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. He kept performing, but got weaker and weaker and died in 2005.

The book does a decent job of taking us inside Pryor's world.  As great as he was, however, they sometimes overpraise him (not easy to do).  There are also a number of errors in the book making one wonder how much of it can be trusted.  For instance, on page 171, talking about his SNL experience: "He and Jim Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtain interviewed him...." I can almost understand misspelling "Jane Curtin" but saying his performed with Jim and not John Belushi?

Anyway, whether or not you agree with the political and aesthetic judgments, the book is recommended for the well done biographical material.

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