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'Becoming Richard Pryor' Is a Nuanced Biography of a Comedy Icon Who Once Lit Himself on Fire

We talked with author Scott Saul about how the legendary stand-up comic became who he was, and how his comedy was the opposite of Bill Cosby's.

by Louis Waldo
19 December 2014, 6:20pm

Pryor in a crucifixion pose for his first album's cover shoot. Image courtesy of Henry Diltz and Harper Collins

Scott Saul's Becoming Richard Pryor comes just a little over a year after another fine biography on the iconic comedian, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him (Algonquin, 2013). But the world can always use another book on Pryor—he was one of the most important stand-ups of all time, and his influence on both his time and ours is unmatched—and in any case Saul's may be the best, most complete look at the comic's life.

On top of interviews with his half-sisters, companion Patricia Heitman, and friends like director Henry Jaglom—who hadn't opened up to other interviewers in the past—Saul had "hundreds of hours of conversations" with people Pryor had less salient relationships with, such as neighbors from his hometown in the red-light district of Peoria, Illinois. (Famously, he grew up in a brothel.) The biography also comes with a complementary, interactive website that includes a curated archive of Saul's research if readers want to take an even deeper dive into the material.

While there will inevitably be several more Pryor biographies published in the future, few will be as nuanced as Becoming Richard Pryor. I talked by email with Saul about what makes his biography special, debunking popular myths about the comedian's life, and what Pryor would say if he were alive to see what's become of Bill Cosby.

Pryor onstage at Caesar's Palace in August 1968. Image courtesy of the author

VICE: What makes your book different from the earlier biographies of Pryor? Scott Saul: Pryor lived much of his life in the shadows of history, whether that was because, as a child, he was growing up in a red-light district or, as an adult, hunkering down in underground circles. Given that Pryor is such a huge figure in American comedy and American culture more generally, it was amazing to me how little had been done previously in terms of researching his life's major figures and episodes.

Take the example of his grandmother Marie, the woman he called "Mama." We knew her through the eyes of her grandson, but no one had tried to reconstruct how this poor black girl, a teenage bride abused by her husband, evolved into a formidable woman who defended herself and her grandson with straight razors and guns and changed the temperature of every room she entered. (I found my answer by poring through five different newspapers from Decatur, Illinois, her hometown.)

Or, take Pryor's exile in Berkeley in the early 1970s. We knew what Pryor had testified in his memoir—that he'd experimented there with his act like never before—but we didn't know what these experiments looked or sounded like, or how they related to the swirl of Black Power and the counterculture that he found in the city. (I got those answers in the eight hours of unreleased recordings that his Berkeley roommate let me listen to—and in underground newspapers like The Berkeley Barb.)

Or even take the writing of Blazing Saddles. Other biographers name-checked Pryor as a screenwriter, but no one had looked at the first draft of the screenplay for traces of how he'd concretely shaped it. In all of this, my goal was to show how Pryor was traveling through history and, eventually, changing history through the force of his imagination.

In addition to my archival research, I also engaged in hundreds of hours of conversations with people who'd known Pryor in some fashion—whether they'd shared a crib with him in Peoria, Illinois, had written a movie with him, or had tried to build a life with him. They were fascinating to talk to, spilling over with stories about their time with the ever-memorable Richard. A lot of these folks—like his half-sisters, or his Greenwich Village buddy Henry Jaglom, or his companion Patricia Heitman—hadn't talked at length with any previous biographer.

Why do you think they opened up to you in particular?
I think that partly I just got lucky. Since Pryor himself was no longer alive when I started the project, they were more inclined to feel free to speak their truth. But I think that they also sensed that I was approaching Pryor with an appreciation for the complexity and power of his story—that I wasn't approaching it sensationally.

You've pointedly titled your biography Becoming Richard Pryor , and cut it off at the point where you believe Pryor has evolved into the comedian of his best work. Can you talk about when this was exactly, and why you chose that point for your cut-off?
The book is called Becoming Richard Pryor because a lot of the beauty of Pryor's story is that he was in love with becoming—in love with experimenting as a comedian and an actor and, even, as a person in his daily life and in his relationships. So my focus is on that drama of development: How did a skinny black kid, abused from all sides and with few career paths open to him, become the fearless performer who revolutionized American comedy? The quick answer is that he did it through great struggle: His life was full of blockages and breakthroughs.

To my mind, the final great breakthrough is Pryor's Live in Concert, which came out of a stand-up tour that coincided with the death of his grandmother. That moment in 1978 is both the clinching moment of my tale— Live in Concert is the pinnacle of his achievement as a comedian who told the story of his life onstage—and the beginning of a new, and far more sobering, story. His grandmother was the central figure in his life. After she died in 1978, he spun into a depression that led him to become addicted to freebase and, eventually, to set himself on fire. And after the fire, he was a different artist: still deft and capable of hilarious moves in his comedy, but more guarded and risk-averse. I handle his life after 1978 in an epilogue, but the fascinating (and less understood) part of Pryor's life is, I think, what happened up to that point.

Marie Carter Bryant, Richard Pryor's grandmother, with her son, Dickie, in 1945. Image courtesy of Barbara McGee

You've put together a very sophisticated web site, impressively exhaustive and elaborate, to accompany the book's publication. It stands as a monument of research in its own right. Can you talk about what went into the creation of this site and what your ambitions for it were?
In order to tell the first part of Pryor's story, the story of a childhood spent in the red-light district of Peoria, I needed to be able to set Pryor and his family in a larger context. I had a lot of questions buzzing in my head: What was Peoria's vice district like? What kinds of schools did Richard go to? What sort of clubs did he perform in? And what kinds of audiences did he find there?

But there was no solid historical study of Peoria, so basically I had to do a great deal of that research myself. By the end of that process, I'd amassed what was to me a remarkable cache of materials: personal documents like Pryor's school records and his family's photo albums; the legal records of his parents (including their divorce papers); and a lot of more wide-ranging stuff that dealt with the history of segregation and desegregation in the city, and the fate of its red-light district.

My solution was to build a website that would be a curated archive of my research. So I assembled a team with a great number of diverse talents: in web design, coding, writing, even filmmaking (we made a short film about Pryor's childhood).

Since you debunk other popular perceptions about Pryor's life, I want to ask if you believe his time spent in Berkeley in the 70s really was the complete pivot we believe it to be?
I think Pryor's time in Berkeley did open up his style as a performer in a crucial way. It was in Berkeley that he first experimented with being unfunny, whether that meant being tonally perplexing or politically scathing. It was in Berkeley that his work really took on a new fearlessness: He didn't seem to care whether his audience followed him on his wayward path or not. So although the creative emanations of his Berkeley period (with the big exception of the transcendent "Wino and Junkie" sketch) did not ever see the light of day during his prime, Berkeley did leave a huge impression on him.

Much of his best stuff, post-Berkeley, has something of Berkeley in it. It pushes at the boundary of what comedy can be, sometimes because of the razor-sharpness of its politics, sometimes because it's blending together emotions that don't go together easily.

Pryor and Lonette McKee during the production of "Which Way Is Up?" Image courtesy of Marcia Reed

You say that Pryor's "self-understanding shifted" when he began performing characters. Can you talk about when that was and how that shift in self-understanding came about?
It was around 1972-73 that Pryor started thinking of himself as someone who loved throwing himself into character. He said that "being a character" was what made him "come alive"; he loved the feeling of "being in your conscious and subconscious at the same time." By 1972, he'd been experimenting with character-centered comedy for about four years, but starting at that point he comes to embrace the idea that he'll lose himself in character. And in losing himself in the flow of character, he gains enormously in power as an artist. The best of his acting—whether in stand-up or in his Hollywood films—comes out of his commitment to the integrity of that process.

We don't think of Pryor as much of a physical comedian, but you're very careful to give him his due as someone in total control of his facial gestures.
It's gratifying to me that you noticed that. To me, Pryor was a true virtuoso as a performer. It wasn't just that he was supremely inventive as a comic (though that's true), but that he was able to execute his ideas indelibly because of his gifts as a performer. He had great chops. His body was his most expressive medium—and had been since his earliest days as a performer, when his models were highly physical comedians like Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis. He layered on top of that physical grace all sorts of other gifts—gifts for storytelling, for political satire, for throwing himself into a character —but to me, his gifts as a physical comedian sit at the foundation of what he was able to achieve.

Pryor in character. Image courtesy of Henry Diltz.

Pryor famously kept a single set of books, so to speak—his life and his work are nearly perfectly consonant. What do you think Pryor would have to say about Bill Cosby's double-entry bookkeeping having recently gone awry?
Pryor appreciated the finesse of Cosby as a storyteller onstage, but he was also allergic to sanctimony and excellent at sniffing out hypocrisy in American life. So Cosby's hypocrisy—how he browbeat working-class black people for their lack of morals while also drugging black women himself—would have rankled him, not least because he was cudgeling people with whom Pryor identified.

Pryor's strategy onstage was the opposite of Cosby's: Rather than posing as a model of authority (rock-solid fathers like Cliff Huxtable), Pryor was the perennial underdog, always on the verge of cracking up under pressures he couldn't handle. Rather than covering up his flaws, he dramatized them. Cosby's disgrace suggests that Pryor not only had the more profound artistic strategy—he may also have had a more sustainable way of living in the world.

Find out more about Becoming Richard Pryor and order a copy of the biography here.