He had a raw edge before it was fashionable, and many found his rough, ghetto-based comedy vulgar and profane. Yet Richard Pryor brought authenticity to his comedy, a streetwise savvy he learned growing up in a black neighborhood in Peoria, Illinois, where prostitution was common and liquor stores plentiful. A fourteen-year-old dropout from elementary school, he escaped Peoria’s mean streets by joining the Army, and was sent to Germany, but a life-long pattern of self-destruction was starting to emerge. He was imprisoned for knifing another soldier and discharged from the Army.
He did have one special talent—the ease with which he could make people laugh with mimicry and funny stories. Working his way up through the ranks, from local clubs back in Peoria again, through small time engagements in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Buffalo, until finally making a big hit in New York’s Greenwich Village, his controversial routines included the crude but eloquent language of back streets and barrooms. These appearances helped him achieve increasing notoriety and, soon, a succession of major gigs and acting roles in several comedy films.
Yet success came with a heavy price. Always quick to try the new and forbidden, Pryor soon became a helpless crack addict, a death spiral that culminated in his accidently setting himself on fire in 1980 while freebasing cocaine. His extensive womanizing began to take its toll, and permanent, supportive relationships seemed elusive. Finally in 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease which has left him largely an invalid.
Pretty grim stuff, but throughout this engrossing narrative Pryor repeatedly criticizes himself for his errors and indiscretions, which makes him a rather sympathetic character, one to be pitied rather than condemned. While there are excerpts from Pryor’s comedy sketches, they are not frequent, and the book comes on more as a humble, self-effacing confessional than a predictable collection of comedy routines. The typical Pryor comic persona of a separate, imaginary person talking to him takes on frightening dimensions when he uses this device in the narrative as a means to criticize his own behavior, as if his predicament is a fitting retribution.