Berkeley based novelist Cecil Brown, the author of "Stagolee Shot Billy,'' a scholarly examination of the Stagger Lee mythology, knew Pryor well as a friend and as the co-screenwriter of "Which Way Is Up.''
"Comedy is about trouble,'' Pryor tells Brown in the course of his memoir. He got that right.
But the author breaks new ground detailing Pryor's involvement in the Berkeley and Oakland political scene of the late '60s, including his sometimes contentious relationship with Huey P. Newton and his breakthroughs to a new, more improvisatory style of comedy at clubs like Mandrake's. He also relives some of Pryor's relationships with more "acceptable'' black comics like Bill Cosby, implying that Cosby was a bit threatened by Pryor's high-flying style. And he revisits Pryor's infamous Hollywood Bowl gig, widely reviled at the time for perceived homophobic slurs, but interpreted by the author as a way to speak about societal hypocrisy, in the spirit of Lenny Bruce's work.
Although this book is seen primarily through the prism of the meaning of Pryor's life as a groundbreaking African-American performer - which seems understandable, Brown also explores his role as someone enacting a "social drama'' in which the inherent conflicts of society are revealed, even when it comes at the detriment of the person who has become a lightning rod for social and political change.
There are flaws in this self-published book - the fact that it had to be self-published may say something about the state of American publishing itself - but they are far outweighed by the uniquely personal insights and experiences these two men shared. (At one point, they had plans to make films about the famed black vaudevillian Bert Williams, and another project, about Charlie Parker, that was ultimately helmed by Clint Eastwood).
Read it to find out things you didn't know about Richard Pryor, and the times in which he lived.