Pryor Lives!


“There is nothing corrupt about his pride. I have never met a writer who loved his work as much as Cecil Brown. The humor, the warmth and even the smell are beautiful. The gentleness with which he handles the memories of his characters is great. I have had many Days Without Weather too.”                                                                        -Richard Pryor


       This is a book about how a scraggly stand-up comic became a culture hero. It is about how Richard Pryor took the traditional stand-up form and used it to become one of America’s most controversial social satirists.

        Cecil brown, who met Mr. Pryor in 1969 in Berkeley after witnessing a live performance at the Mandrake Club, became his cut buddy for the next 30 years. He traveled with Mr. Pryor, wrote screenplays and collaborated with him. Using many years of intimate experiences behind the scenes, Mr. Brown traces the evolution of Prior’s “white bread” comedy, in which he imitated Bill Cosby, to the hilariously raunchy material that catapulted him to international fame. 

        We follow Mr. Pryor’s career from the small stand-up performances in Berkeley with a largely counter culture audience, to the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., where he was playing to a more up-scale white crowd with exposure to show business celebrities. The author shows how Pryor used his stage performances to change the harsh and unforgiving reality of the social dramas that afflicted him.

        One of the oldest, and most universal forms of humorous expression, stand-up is a spontaneously informal form of public joking. If Pryor had stayed with this program, he would have been just another comedian. But, as Brown reveals, Pryor went much further. His art depended on his tracking down and exposing the demons that plagued his audience. His performance on stage resembled a shaman who was performing a ritual of exorcism. By saying forbidden words and imitating violent  acts of profanity, misogyny and racism on stage, he sought to elicit these same responses from his audience.

        Mr. Brown has developed a paradigm to illustrate how Richard Pryor dealt with social drama in real life (RL) through on-stage drama (OS). Central to Richard’s rise to culture hero was his awareness of the difference between RL and OS. Pryor’s public jokes were meaningless and not funny unless they were seen in the context of a “total social situation.” The Anthropologist, Mary Douglas wrote, “the joke form rarely lies in the utterance alone, but can be identified in the total social situation.”  Jokes “tear down, distort, misrepresent, and reorder usual patterns of expression and perception.”

        In this book, Mr. Brown analyses many of Pryor’s social dramas such as tax evasion, shooting his car, burning himself up, and bringing his pistols to script conferences. Pryor’s response to these was to create on-stage dramas in which he turned negative behaviors into virtues for the pleasure of his audience. He violated verbal taboos and used shock tactics to expose the fantasies of his audience, creating a liminal threshold and transition between the two worlds.

        It is a mistake to see Pryor as just a comic representative, whose violent outbursts made famous. He is beyond that category. To understand him, we would have to reach back to cultural anthropology. Geza Roheim’s description of the shaman is more in line with what he was doing. “In every primitive tribe,” the anthropologist wrote, “we find the shaman in the center of society  who…makes both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of society.” Richard’s performance on stage was to fight the demons so that others could “hunt the prey and in general fight reality.” After being burned in a suicide attempt, Pryor described the ordeal on stage, reenacting it as if he were in a state of painful rebirth.

        The book draws a vivid picture from extensive interviews with the “star groupies”,  who formed part of Pryor’s inner circle. Brown explains how Richard interacted with other major black comedians like Bill Cosby, Red Foxx, and Flip Wilson. He also describes a class he taught on Richard Pryor at UC Santa Barbara and the insight that younger generations, both white and black, took from experiencing Pryor’s work, many for the first time. The author is able to avoid the simplistic conclusions that most books rely on exclusively to explain this complex character, his violence towards women and his famously combative relationships with film directors. Brown reviews the incidents in Pryor’s life that justify the theory behind his art, and examines it as only someone who knew Richard Pryor intimately could.

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