ABOUT SCOTT SAUL
SCOTT SAUL is a historian and critic who has written for The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, Bookforum, and other publications. The author of Becoming Richard Pryor and Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, he is also the creator of Richard Pryor's Peoria, an extensive digital companion to his biography of the comedian. He teaches courses in American literature and history at UC-Berkeley, where he is a Professor of English. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and son.
On the occasion of the publication of Becoming Richard Pryor, HarperCollins released a "Behind the Book" interview with the author, reproduced below in a slightly edited form.
SHARE A FEW THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR DECISION TO WRITE THE BOOK.
I was born in Los Angeles and was raised—as I discovered while researching Becoming Richard Pryor—just a few blocks away from one of Richard Pryor’s children in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Studio City. (Our paths never crossed.)
For the past fifteen years, I’ve been teaching twentieth-century American history and literature— first at the University of Virginia, now at the University of California at Berkeley. My first book was Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, which told the story of how jazz shaped the black freedom movement and the counterculture. From jazz titans like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, it was only a small leap to Richard Pryor, whose comedy was energized by a similar spirit of improvisation.
For the past seven years, my mind has been consumed with one thing (and you can call my wife and son for confirmation of that fact): the great riddle that is Richard Pryor. His genius, his life, and the connection between the two.
WHAT INSPIRED BECOMING RICHARD PRYOR?
You could say that the seeds of this book were planted when, at ten years old, I saw Silver Streak and identified with the Gene Wilder character, who needs the Richard Pryor character to jolt him out of his nebbishhood. Or perhaps when, as a teenager, I listened to Richard Pryor’s albums and heard in his electric monologues about sex and race an answer to my own confusions about the world I was growing into.
The more immediate story behind my book begins, seven years ago, with my attempt to solve a basic mystery: When did Richard Pryor live in the city of Berkeley (where I now live and teach), and what did he do when he was there? The mystery was compelling because in Pryor’s memoir he said that he woodshedded intensely in the Bay Area and that he reinvented himself as a performer during that interlude. But he was very fuzzy with the details; earlier biographers couldn’t even agree on when he left LA for Berkeley, dating his Bay Area sojourn anywhere from 1969 to 1971.
WHAT RESEARCH WAS ENTAILED IN TELLING YOUR STORY?
I knew that Pryor had DJ’ed a bit for KPFA, the local Pacifica station, so I went to the Pacifica archives in North Hollywood and looked through a pile of old newsletters to see if his name popped up in them. Sure enough, it did—and almost always in connection with a man named Alan Farley, who was the operations manager of KPFA at the time.
I tracked down Farley, a genial soul who was still working in Bay Area public radio, and interviewed him about his connection with Pryor. As it happens, he had been Pryor’s roommate in Berkeley and, later, his road manager. Even better for me, Farley was a gearhead who had followed Pryor with recording equipment during his Bay Area sojourn (which, I discovered, lasted from February to September 1971). Farley presented me with eight hours of recordings of Pryor—recordings that were basically unknown.
Listening to these tapes, I felt like I had been “raptured” to Biographer Heaven. The tapes, which were meticulously dated, labeled, and preserved, encompassed so much: Pryor’s programs on KPFA, his concerts at local clubs, his ideas for screenplays (never produced), his attempts at spontaneous poetry, and even some chitchat with a friend about his love life (recorded when he didn’t realize the mike was on). I could hear exactly how he had given himself over to the experimental spirit of Berkeley. I knew I could reconstruct his Bay Area interlude—formerly so out of focus—with fine-grained, novelistic detail.
The “Farley tapes” were just the first in a series of astonishing archival finds as I delved more fully into the life of Pryor. With the help of Pryor’s widow, I procured his school and Army records. With the help of librarians and county officials in Pryor’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois, I uncovered the divorce records of his parents, the court records of his family (who ran brothels in Peoria from the mid-1930s to the 1970s), and material relating to Pryor’s first performances at a local community center. With the help of Pryor’s sister Barbara, I was able to examine her invaluable cache of Pryor family photos: these gave a rich view of the world of the Pryor family—the lively tavern that the family operated during World War II; the “red light district” that, for the young Richard Pryor, was simply his neighborhood—and captured the individual spirits within it. Later, through some concerted digging, I was able to find the screenplays of most of the films Pryor had worked on—which allowed me, then, to trace what he had added, as an improviser of genius, to the roles he’d been given in Hollywood.
As I went about reconstructing Pryor’s past using various archives, I was also interviewing his friends, family, lovers, and artistic collaborators. I spent hundreds of hours speaking with those who had known the comedian from his first days (one person had literally shared a crib with him!) to his breakout. The book owes its existence to the generosity of all these people who shared so much of their time and, often, welcomed me into their homes. Sometimes the social distance I traveled from one interview to the next could be disorienting: I might be speaking one day with a film director in his sun-drenched villa in Malibu, and the next with a childhood friend of Pryor’s who had spent time on the streets and was now living in an SRO facility. I imagined how Pryor must have been disoriented, too: his black friends from Peoria had often been lost, he noted, to what he called America’s “suicide traps”—prison, drugs, unemployment—and yet he had come to inhabit another world entirely, the world of Hollywood glamour and seven-figure paydays.
What I discovered, through my interviews and my digging in archives, was that Pryor had led his life with the same incisive imagination that he poured into his comedy—and also with the same gamut of often troubling emotions. I can’t imagine a richer tale than the story of his life and art.
WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK RELEVANT TODAY?
Every time someone turns on Comedy Central and laughs, they should thank Richard Pryor. He’s the alpha and omega behind the programming on that channel.
He invented, more than anyone else, the art form of stand-up comedy. Before Pryor, comedians told jokes; after Pryor, they told their story—and, if they followed Pryor’s lead more fully (as have comedians from Roseanne Barr and Dave Chappelle to Sarah Silverman and Louis CK), they felt free to lean on those parts of their story that made their audience squirm as well as roar. He was the master artist who rewrote the rules.
In addition to being a stand-up comedian who talked about his life, Pryor was a social critic who pointed out the absurdity of the world around him. He was “Dark Twain,” as his friend Paul Mooney called him. He was the predecessor to Comedy Central hosts like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the team of Key & Peele. Of course, Pryor didn’t invent social satire, but he opened up the field of what could be satirized in America. Sex, race, violence in all its forms—nothing was taboo.
All that said, Pryor was much more than a comedian. He went to some extremely dark places in his life and his art, places of fear and bottomless loss. He risked all, partly because he felt the alternative was worse. He never escaped the shadows of his childhood, which chased him for the rest of his life. But by peering deeper into those shadows and exploring them from the inside out, he managed to turn his pain to account. He opened up Hollywood and the concert stage to a new complexity of emotional life.
There’s an emotional power to Pryor’s story that lends my book a greater reach than the typical biography of a comedian or actor, I think. Becoming Richard Pryor is the story of a skinny black kid, abused from many directions and from a young age, who became a world-changing artist by ventilating his demons for all to see. Though he was never able to exorcise those demons from his own psyche, he gave his audience a supreme gift: the ability to see their world without illusions, and laugh at it.