Friday, February 27, 2015

Nonfiction: Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul

Richard Pryor is my father's favorite comedian of all time (with Red Foxx being a very close second). I remember as a kid my father retelling some of Pryor's jokes from his albums, while cleaning the language up considerably, and him laughing harder than I would. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I was even allowed to listen to cleaner parts of the albums, of which my father still owns on vinyl. And to this day, I haven't heard any of them all of the way through because they are so filthy, and Daddy still remains hesitant to share them with his daughter in all of their vulgar glory. I picked up Scott Saul's Becoming Richard Pryor not in an attempt to finally see the uncensored world of my father's favorite comedian, but also because I was genuinely curious about the man who set himself on fire in 1980, something I didn't learn about until I was an adult. I knew there was more to the man than just his comedy albums, 80's movies, and the fire incident. And while I like Wikipedia, I decided I couldn't lean on it if I wanted the whole story.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a biography of the late Richard Pryor, an African-American comedian and actor. The author begins the book a couple of generations before Pryor's birth, starting by framing the world in which his grandmother, Marie, grew up. Marie is the woman who would ultimately raise Richard and to whom he would refer to as "Mama" well into adulthood. From this starting point, Saul tells Pryor's life story with intimate, and often painful, details. And while the story naturally ends with Pryor's death in 2005, Saul stops telling the story with such detail when the narrative hits the year 1980. Of course Pryor was still active after 1980, even doing one more comedy routine after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but Saul decided to end the story right when Pryor reached the height of his popularity. Pryor's story is one filled with violence (a lot of which he was the source of), drug and alcohol abuse, racial tension, struggle with identity, and women (and even some men). Naturally, many other Hollywood names appear throughout the story whom Pryor came into contact, with some of the more notable ones being Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, James Earl Jones, Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Billy Dee Williams, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, and Pam Grier. His road to becoming a household name was not a straight one, and he wasn't completely out of the woods once he got there, as easy access to money and drugs often made it easier for him to get into trouble. Becoming Richard Pryor certainly doesn't seem to hold back on the truth about one of Hollywood's most interesting and mysterious figures.

My Verdict: Having a vague understanding of parts of Pryor's life, I new I was going to be in for a pretty crazy story, and I was proved right. Becoming Richard Pryor was often incredibly hard to read. And for some reason, I foolishly believed that once the narrative left Pryor's hometown of Peoria, Illinois, things would get better and maybe less tense, but I was wrong. Throughout many chunks of his life, Pryor was generally not a likable person, and many in Hollywood didn't want to risk working with him because he was so volatile. Saul certainly managed to convey Pryor's radioactive and almost always on the edge of exploding personality. The author gave a full picture of a man who would often be called one of the funniest people alive, while also being so troubled and tragic. Since honesty is something to be expected out of anything nonfiction, especially something like a biography, I would say Saul certainly met that expectation. He did his research, thoroughly, and put what he found on the page, as hard as it may have been to read sometimes. But I can also say that the book wasn't just 400+ pages of a hard life story. There were bits that would make many Pryor fans smile as they read some of the quotes from interviews, movies, TV, and especially his comedy routines. 

I will say that I was disappointed that the book didn't continue into the rest of Pryor's career after 1980. It gives a general description of were his career went after the fire incident, but not in the same detail and with the same amount of attention as the rest of the book received. It is still a thorough story of Pryor's life, but I wanted a little more.

Favorite Moment: When Pryor gave an Emmy he had won to Juliette Whitaker, a woman in Peoria who was one of the first people to encourage him in his talents and give him a venue to use them in a small local community theater.

Recommended Reading: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is more of a memoir than a biography/autobiography, and of course, Martin is a different kind of comedian. But it is still a good read and remains one of my favorite memoirs of all time.

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