Is there any showbusiness story more sadly familiar than the saga of the brokenhearted clown? Everybody knows his story: laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. Boozing, whoring, fighting, brandishing knives and pistols, snorting coke, freebasing, dropping acid, and various forms of domestic violence.
Have I left out anything? Oh yeah, setting himself on fire. ”You can really tell when you’ve f—ed up because the doctor goes, ‘Holy s—! Why don’t we just get some cole slaw and serve this up?”’ jokes Richard Pryor in his new memoir with People magazine’s Todd Gold, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, about the infamous 1980 incident in which the cocaine-addled comic doused himself with cognac and touched off a near-fatal blaze.
But then Pryor has always done his best work close to the edge. To hear him tell it, he never really had a choice. Pryor was born in Peoria, Ill., a city so quintessentially square that the rhetorical question ”How will it play in Peoria?” became a Nixon administration political touchstone. ”They called Peoria the model city,” Pryor writes. ”That meant they had the niggers under control.” But not down on North Washington, where the young comic spent his childhood studying the hookers, winos, and street fighters who patronized the various bars, and literally peering through the keyhole at his grandmother’s whorehouse.
Watching prominent members of the city’s white establishment slip down to the ghetto for illicit thrills taught Pryor early that things are rarely as they seem. The most painful wounds, however, were clearly inflicted by his own family: his mother’s drunkenness and desertion, his father’s brutality, and his grandmother’s tight-lipped anger. Like millions of kids in the ’50s, he imagined that everyone else — whites in particular — lived like the characters on Father Knows Best. ”On television,” he writes, ”people talked about having happy lives, but in the world in which I grew up, happiness was a moment rather than a state of being….It never stayed long enough for you to get to know it good. Just a taste here and there. A kiss, a sniff, a stroke, a snort.”
And so the comic himself has always lived his own life — apparently even after suffering two heart attacks and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. Readers seeking very much more than self-mocking wit and sociological generalizations, however, are apt to find Pryor Convictions pretty disappointing stuff. At the level Pryor has chosen to tell it, his life story amounts to an addict’s alibi.
Pity me, he asks, and indeed, it’s hard not to do so a great deal of the time. Not that Pryor excuses his actions or portrays himself in a consistently flattering light. ”When a man hits a woman,” he writes of his relationship with fourth wife Jennifer, ”one of two things happens: either she hauls ass in the opposite direction or she becomes yours.”
”Violence is like voodoo. The sting is like a hex. You become possessed by each other. Locked in a diabolic dance.” Like most Pryor aphorisms, that has the ring of bitter truth. But exactly who is Jennifer, apart from a fellow substance abuser and sparring partner? That, the comedian doesn’t, maybe can’t, tell us in any meaningful way. In the clinches, his instinct leads him to the punchline every time — sometimes by condemning his own actions in terms so sweeping that it’s not at all clear that he feels genuine remorse. ”As always,” he writes of the breakup of his marriage to Jennifer, ”Dr. Jekyll’s good intentions were f—ed up by Mr. Hyde. The s— was beyond my control. I couldn’t escape the darkness.”
Alas, little of Pryor’s comedic genius, neither the febrile, incandescent stage presence nor the painful vulnerability that so endeared him to audiences, survives on the printed page. As star autobiographies go, strictly routine. B-