My main experience of Richard Pryor before reading this autobiography was ‘Live in Concert’, filmed in 1978. It’s a pretty damn perfect introduction to the variety and humanity found in his performances — though of course, do remember it was the ’70s. Elements, like the Chinese waiter with the stammer, might not have aged well; but a lot still stands either because it’s universal or because, more depressingly, it’s still accurate. There’s a lot in Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences that’s universal too — and even more that’s uncomfortable reading but still holds true. The tension between these elements drives both the comedy and the tragedy or Pryor’s work and his life: no matter how many times he tries to come back to the idea that we’re all just human, just the same, he’s pulled back into the realities of inequality and racism that continue to dog society.
The book reads as a kind of therapy, set down and published during the 1990s as he struggled with the increasingly unpredictable effects of the MS he was diagnosed with in 1986. Although he seems to reach an acceptance of life by the end of the book, it’s never really clear how far he ever got with the occasional bouts of actual therapy: he’s self-aware, but remains fearful of confrontations throughout, not least when it comes to how his childhood informed his adult anxieties and addictions. This means it’s a book without very much closure: even the afterword in my edition, written by Jennifer Lee Pryor*, provides little of this kind of resolution. I’d been looking forward to hearing Jennifer’s side of things, too; Pryor is open about the violent, cruel side of their relationship with each other, offering neither excuses nor apologies, just context; but beyond his interpretation of Jennifer, all I got from her afterword was a sort of hardness amounting to protectiveness, but little more to help me understand her. But, to be fair, this isn’t her autobiography, it’s Pryor’s.
This is the kind of book where you’ll find yourself laughing along at an anecdote at the top of the page, but a couple of paragraphs down your jaw has clenched and you feel a bit sick, or wonder whether you should now feel guilty about laughing at what just came before. But, as Pryor makes clear, he was happy to use his own mishaps and mistakes for laughs from the beginning. Attention, any and all attention, is what he craves, from the moment his family laugh at him slipping in dog poo, to the fearful urge to be married at the time of his death — so there’ll be a woman to cry for him afterwards. Nevertheless, he lets a bit more context seep into his autobiography than he does his comedy — context and consequences. For instance, the ending to the skit about his relative’s Great Dane trying to hump his Shetland Pony: the dogs are left unsupervised in the backyard with the pony and they eat it, much to the horror of the housekeeper. It’s rather more gruesome than tragic, as in the vein of his self-gassing squirrel monkeys whose deaths do make it into his stand-up. Good comedy is as much about the pauses, the gaps, about knowing what to leave out, as well as knowing what to put in … but it’s not like life always ends on the punchline.
Above all, there is a good-natured, hopeful kindness to Pryor’s comedy and to his autobiography. Even the uncomfortable stereotype of the Chinese waiter I mentioned above isn’t meant to be nasty; he speaks of ex-wives and of the grotesques he grew up around (pimps and whores and thieves and fighters and more) with a fondness and a love that allows you to understand (or to come close to understanding) why he remains so loyal to people who had little use for him as a child, and seem to be primarily interested in his money once he grows up. There’s no judgement from Pryor — well, what precious little there is he reserves for the man who abuses him as a child, and even then Pryor chooses rather to present a faintly ludicrous scene, where the man later arrives at Pryor’s trailer asking for an autograph for his son. Pryor is torn between terror at seeing him again, and hope that the man’s child isn’t now suffering at his hands, but he simply signs the autograph and leaves it at that. He presents the scene, but he doesn’t delve into its depths: they’re there for his audience to see, should they wish to look.
This might again be why Jennifer Lee’s afterword is so jarring: she (rightly, it seems) has no patience for the hangers-on (‘locusts’) she finds taking advantage of him when she returns to him in 2001. She judges them plenty, and it highlights the fact that Pryor doesn’t mention this aspect of his care (there may be a bit of a time lapse though), reminding us again of the ever-present need to be wanted, loved, laughed at; to avoid confrontation at all costs. The closest his own words ever come to such bitterness is the way he talks about his time working on the script of Blazin’ Saddles, and you can tell it always rankled that he suspected Mel Brookes didn’t fight for him to stay involved once filming started.
It might sound weird to say that Pryor avoids confrontation, given his reputation as a brash, sweary and dangerous performer. But I’m thinking particularly of his reaction when he received a backlash for the realisation he came to after a trip to Kenya. How shocked he was to find out that plenty of people could not see things from his point of view, and how they claimed his identity as public property, not only his to define how he wanted any more. So he sank into depression and stayed away from the limelight for a while rather than engaging further. You might say the divorces amount to the same; rather than look too closely at himself, he moved on to the next relationship. See also: substance abuse. So rather than scrutinising his life up-close, he side-eyes it through the autobiography as he does through his comedy.
Throughout parts of this autobiography I found myself wondering what sort of influence it might have had on Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, which also began life as stand-up-comedy-cum-therapy. Her love for her dysfunctional family, her recurring addictions and her underlying insecurities all echo themes in Pryor’s autobiography. But then maybe they’re both just products of America in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
In any case, Pryor’s whip-smart intellect shines through it all, and he’s justly proud of the hard graft he put into his comedy. This book is eye-opening but not sensationalist, socially aware and angry, but not preachy. The success with which Pryor projects himself into other characters in his routines, into people of all kinds, as well as different kinds of animals, speaks to his ability to turn a situation around and empathise with others — at least when he has the distance to do so. No matter the proximity or the distance to his life(style), every reader should find something to empathise with in this book then, just as in his comedy.
*His fourth wife, 1981–2; they remarried in 2001 and she remained with him until his death in 2005.