On Richard Pryor: Hilton Als, White Girls and the Greatest American Comedian

Comedy Features Richard Pryor
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Hilton Als is the theater critic for The New Yorker, and his 2013 collection of essays White Girls is one of the most provocative and original books on race, gender, culture, celebrity and art published in recent years. The pieces in the book blur all sorts of lines between fiction and nonfiction, the public and private, the female and the male, cultural critique and memoir, and Als’s elastic category of “white girls” — roughly, a type of glamorous and self-involved privilege that is nevertheless limited in scope — is stretched to include everyone from Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor to Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little and Michael Jackson, all of whom are the subjects of individual essays. The only person who merits more than one essay in White Girls is the comedian Richard Pryor, who gets two — or is it really one-and-a-half, or one-and-a-quarter? Looked at from one angle, Pryor is the focus of nearly the entire final third of the book, but looked at from another, he is barely there, disappearing and reappearing from view like an elusive mountain in the rearview mirror of a car. The two essays on Pryor, the first a straightforward appraisal of the comedian’s life, work and legacy called “A Pryor Life” that was originally published in The New Yorker in 1999, and the second a 75-page dramatic monologue called “You and Whose Army?” told from the point of view of Pryor’s imaginary (and unnamed) sister, are probably the most direct and opaque selections in the book, respectively, and taken together, they function as a strange and unexpected pair of twins, one of the weirdest, most illuminating and perplexing takes ever on the man who was America’s greatest comedian.

“A Pryor Life” is moving and revealing, a New Yorker-style magazine piece at its best. It makes grand claims for Pryor (“in his life and onstage, he performed the great, largely unspoken story of America”; “the enormous territory he carved out for himself remains more or less his own”), and it backs them up. The article traces the unlikely highs and lows of Pryor’s life and career with aplomb (the whorehouse in Peoria, Illinois, where he was raised by his much-beloved paternal grandmother Marie Bryant, his truncated early successes with Cosby-esque standup in 60s New York, his eventual supernova decade of the 70s, the subsequent physical and artistic decline that tailed Pryor from the 80s to his eventual death from multiple sclerosis in 2005), and it even ferrets out obscure works to champion (Als calls Pryor’s mostly unseen sketch “Juke and Opal” from the 1973 Lily Tomlin special Lily “the most profound meditation on race and class that I have ever seen on a major network,” a quote cited by President Obama last year when he awarded Tomlin the Kennedy Center Honors). The article ends with a lament that Pryor’s celebrity, drug abuse and notoriety (especially his infamous 1980 suicide attempt by self-immolation) have detracted from “the subversive impact of his work,” “the excess of both empathy and disdain for his audience” that made his art and life so contradictory and ultimately tragic. Als’s evaluation of Pryor is respectful yet critical, well-researched, surprising and compelling. It’s a damn good magazine piece, about as solid a thirty-five pages about Pryor as the average reader could hope to find anywhere.

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So how does Als follow “A Pryor Life”? With this wild, vile, scabrous, angry, novella-length thing that is neither entirely fictional nor nonfictional and is narrated by an invented sister Richard Pryor didn’t have, an aspiring actress past any reasonable hope of aspiration who makes a living doing voiceovers for porn films, who is alienated from her more famous brother, who is telling her story, at least most of it, to the framing device of a journalist who wants to know what it is “like” to be Richard Pryor’s sister. I read “You and Whose Army?” almost a year ago, and I still don’t know what to make of it. It contains references to everything from Kafka and Gertrude Stein to banned practices in Bush-era pornography, and it juggles multiple digressions, asides and storylines in a dizzying collage unified by a tone, or voice, that alternates between distress, damage, wisdom, insight and hilarity. Pryor’s sister launches an unforgettable attack on the economic privilege and casual racism of Virginia Woolf (rechristened “Suicide Bitch” for the purposes of the essay) that is both a devastating, subversive riff on the idea of “Shakespeare’s sister” in A Room of One’s Own as well as a reminder of how black women are often excluded from the conversation, any conversation, even that of a celebrated feminist like Woolf. In many ways “You and Whose Army?” undercuts the neater judgments and certainties of “A Pryor Life” and the type of coloring-inside-the-lines it represents in terms of style and approach (Pryor’s sister says that “[b]iography explains nothing” as well as that “[j]ournalism” is “bullshit”), but in others it extends the criticisms of Pryor in the earlier essay even further, makes them rawer and more immediate: her brother might have helped reinforce white stereotypes about black men, her brother avoided the type of real risk and work that might have made him into a truly great actor, her brother’s transgressive genius was ultimately co-opted by power and fame. And, more personally, in Als’s conception of the siblings’ relationship: she loved her brother, and he abandoned her.

The essay ends, however, with a refusal to give the interviewer (and, by association, the audience) what he wants—some platitudes about Richard Pryor, a clichéd closed case to seal the story into, a sense of finality—and the insinuation that all that Pryor’s sister just said might have been only a performance. She is an actress, after all, a real one unlike her brother, and she ends her monologue with a weird koan: “Actresses are themselves, if only they had one. Women are themselves, if only they could stop acting.” This is not Richard Pryor’s voice, but it’s perhaps a voice he could have found if he had taken his vulnerability even further.

My first time through White Girls, I found “You and Whose Army?” infuriating and confusing. I struggled to make it through, and I suspect most readers will too. It nagged at me, though, like Pryor has over the years, and rereading it, I discovered what might be a more honest tribute to his legacy than any number of more conventional magazine article or talking-head documentaries: it keeps his voice alive and dangerous by interrogating and extending it.

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.