Legion are the biographies I have never finished because I couldn’t fight my way through the first thirty, or fifty, or one hundred pages, depending, of what Holden Caulfield calls in The Catcher in the Rye “where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”: prefatory genealogy and familial back-story about the subject in question. I understand this type of information is important, necessary even, but sometimes it grinds the forward motion of a biography to a crawl before it’s even good and begun.
I am happy to report that Scott Saul’s fascinating new biography Becoming Richard Pryor avoids such a frontloaded morass. Its exploration of comedian Richard Pryor’s childhood in Peoria, Illinois, where he was primarily raised by his paternal grandmother Marie Bryant, the proprietress of several notorious Peoria brothels, is surprising and essential to what comes after. Plus, it’s really interesting to read. Did you know that Peoria, later a byword and stand-in for the entire concept of the staid, boring, hypnotized American Midwest (“If it’ll play in Peoria….”), was once, in the 1930s, the vice capital of the U.S.A.? A hotbed of gambling, prostitution, and free-flowing booze that rivaled and bested any number of other American sin cities and was once dubbed “wide open as the gateway to hell” by its hometown newspaper? Pryor’s early years coincided with the fading-away of this wide-open era in Peoria’s underground history and the official corralling of its wilder licenses, but what he witnessed there—a raw and chaotic panoply of the highs and lows of human existence that Saul refers to memorably as “confusions of love and violence”—proved to be the loam and seedbed for the great flowering of Pryor’s artistry in the mid- to late-‘70s.
It took the comedian a long time to reach his apotheosis. Saul’s biography traces Pryor’s life and development as an artist thoroughly up until his grandmother’s death in late 1978 and the release of his epochal film Live in Concert soon after in 1979; Pryor’s life after that point, mostly a protracted anticlimax beginning with his suicide attempt in 1980 and ending with his death from multiple sclerosis in 2005, is dispatched with in the book’s brief, yet revealing, epilogue. Saul’s choice to concentrate on “the shaping of a talent until it rose to the level of its full genius” yields a clear and gripping narrative that at times reads like a novel, especially in its depictions of Pryor’s many battles with network and casino censors, managers, and an ever-revolving cast of wives and mistresses as his career gained in momentum and chaos.
Saul’s background as a historian and literary scholar (he is a professor of English at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of a previous book, 2001’s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties) also enables him to place Pryor’s career firmly in a historical context, a decision that affords rewarding dividends. The trajectory of Pryor’s comedy from imitative sub-Cosby routines in the mid-‘60s through onstage meltdowns and creative frustrations as that decade ended makes even more sense when read against the backdrop of the civil rights and Black Power movements and the explosions and implosions of the counterculture, just as the increasingly improvisatory, risky, profane and groundbreaking standup routines that marked Pryor’s breakthrough in the early ‘70s refract differently when seen in the light of the momentarily unrestricted cultural mores of the era. Saul’s historical interpolations are never heavy-handed or too broadly done, however; one of the book’s great triumphs is how skillfully Saul is able to interweave the personal, the professional and the historical dimensions of his tale.
Saul digs up a lot of new information especially about the beguiling lost year or so Pryor spent in Berkeley, California, in 1971, during which the comedian experimented with things like DJ’ing on local radio stations, making sound collages, writing weird poetry, and hanging out with Ishmael Reed and Cecil Brown. For Pryor it was an era of deep retreat from the burdens of show business, an idyll during which he was able to “strip his life to the core,” work on new material, and prepare himself in safety (and bohemian splendor) for the storms his life and art were soon to encounter. Pryor’s most productive and artistically daring years as a comedian and actor followed close on the heels of this woodshedding period in Berkeley, and Saul’s detective work on this opaque era is revelatory. Largely as a result of this section, Pryor comes off as more politically attuned, introspective, and intellectually curious than in many earlier takes on the comic, an admirable feat and welcome deepening.
Much is debunked in the biography, and much is revealed. Judging from the acknowledgements and author’s note, Saul interviewed almost everyone still willing to talk about Pryor’s complex and exasperating existence, and the book’s depth of research and objective interrogation of many of the myths about Pryor’s life (often perpetuated by Pryor himself) are among its strongest features. Becoming Richard Pryor makes a powerful argument for its subject’s centrality to not just twentieth-century American comedy, but to twentieth-century American culture: at several points, Saul refers to Paul Mooney’s nickname for Pryor (“Dark Twain”), and he argues for Pryor as the unlikely inheritor of Mark Twain’s mantle as an American teller of uncomfortable truths about “how people remained unfree after the watershed of emancipation.”
I worry along with one of the book’s interviewees, the late great poet and activist Amiri Baraka, that when people think of Richard Pryor these days, they remember only things like Superman III and the later Gene Wilder vehicles, his legendary and prodigious abuse of drugs and women, his run-ins with the law, the matchstick-running-down-the-street joke about his suicide attempt—that, in Baraka’s words, “All they remember is the profanity, and they can’t get to the profundity.” Pryor’s best work cuts deeper and reveals more than that of any other American comedian, and Saul’s intriguing new biography reminds us of how and why that work came to be. Many of the questions Pryor asked his audience, his country and (less frequently) himself, especially about race, class and sexuality, remain to be answered. Maybe they never will be, but Pryor asked them with unrivaled humor, heart and urgency. He held out hope for us, too—in the last sentence of the book, Saul quotes something Pryor said in a 1980 interview with Barbara Walters: “I see people as the nucleus of a great idea that hasn’t come to be yet.”
Jeff Fallis is a Ph.D. candidate in English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American and The Iowa Review.