I’m a big fan of Scott Saul’s pretty-much definitive new biography of the late/great and deeply messed up comic Richard Pryor. Saul himself credits the passage of time for a lot of the access he got to Pryor’s friends, family and intimates, people who wouldn’t talk to biographers while Pryor was alive. The result is a book that reveals the true nature of his childhood, the dark family life of brothels, bootlegging, crime and violence that he illuminated in his act — onstage — in his peak years.
I like that Saul stops the book, basically, at Pryor’s “Live and in Concert” breakout concert documentary. So we get a taste of his scene stealing in smaller roles in films from “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Mack” to “Silver Streak,” which led to his film stardom and — according to one and all — his selling out.
I doubled back to an online PBS documentary on Pryor to see just how the new book reinvents Pryor’s past. The man lied, onstage, to reporters, all his life. And didn’t make many bones about it. The PBS doc has an academic or two repeating the stories Pryor told in his autobiography, but Saul gets at the real history and the naked truth — drugs, the ways he “tested” white people he’d meet, his greatest collaborations (Lily Tomlin, Paul Mooney), the frankness with which he talked about race, sex (including his occasional suggestion that he’d had a homosexual experience or two) and America.
Saul doesn’t hit Pryor hard enough on his treatment of women, his propensity for violence. But some of that becomes clearer when he reminds us of the documentary Pryor took part in and basically stole — “Wattstaxx” — about Watts, almost a decade after the mid-60s riots there, and a tribute concert with the likes of The Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes. Black people, talking in the vernacular of the day, women talking about loving their “abusive” men, men talking about their promiscuity, and Pryor telling stories about his culture that allowed him and the rest of black America to own it — the good and the bad.
Watch that “Wattstaxx” bit, or any of the scores of sketches, etc., sampled on Youtube, and be amazed. Eighth grade education, never the best reader or writer. But incisive, biting insights into the human state and the American state. Clever doesn’t cover it. Everybody else seems but an imitation, and only a contemporary — George Carlin — comes close in the social commentary with wit business.
Look for the book. It’s worth a read. I never “got” Lenny Bruce. What survives of his comedy just doesn’t age well. But “Becoming Richard Pryor” gives one a whole new appreciation of the most important stand-up — maybe ever. Most imitated, most revered, and, as you can see in “Wattstaxx” (above) — still funny as hell.