…And It’s Deep Too: Jason Bailey Examines Richard Pryor’s Career Outside Film With ‘American Id’
Former Wichitan Jason Bailey has just published a new book about a major figure in American comedy.
When Jason Bailey sat down to begin work on his latest book, Richard Pryor: American Id, he knew that he didn’t want to write a biography of the late comedian and actor. A few excellent Pryor biographies had recently come onto the market, and films such as Omit The Logic had already captured the comedian’s life. Bailey also knew that he didn’t want to do a film-by-film examination of Pryor’s career. And for a simple reason.
“So much of his filmography is just terrible,” he says. “He really worked a lot, and a lot of it was not good. I thought, ‘What if I could just eliminate all of the stuff that I don’t want to talk about?’”
Bailey examines Pryor’s interviews, television appearances and other moments that might have been overlooked in an attempt to consider their place in the body of Pryor’s work. Pryor sometimes used the stage as a confessional booth but he also often used his spots on television programs such as The Tonight Show to similar ends. His relationship with the program’s host, Johnny Carson, and Pryor’s openness with him comes to mind.
“On the surface they did not have a lot in common,” Bailey says. “Their stations in show business were very different. But they were both Midwesterners. They both came up with a medium that allowed them to be themselves in a really new way for that time. For Richard, on the stand-up stage and for Carson on that nightly show. When you go back and watch those appearances, it is sort of startling, the candor. There’s one that I saw from ’78-79 when the drugs were getting really bad, when he tells Johnny, ‘Yeah, I’ve been tooting all week.’ Just like that! Johnny says, ‘Don’t do too much of that stuff.’ It’s a very sort of human interaction. He was one of those guests where you got the sense that there really was sort of an on-going friendship that was happening, probably only on those appearances but it was a constant.”
A popular belief about Pryor’s career is that he began as a middle of the road Cosby-style comedian who had limited success and then became the revolutionary comic he’s remembered as today. Bailey points out that that split in Pryor’s career is important but that the reasons for the change have been misremembered and exaggerated.
“He was doing great. He had done several appearances on Ed Sullivan. He was a national television figure,” Bailey says. “He was doing good. He was headlining in Las Vegas. He could have faked it for the rest of his life and done very well. Instead, he sort of burned it all down. He walked away from it. He went to this small, intellectual community, he started playing these really tiny coffee houses and clubs. He basically started the act all over again. In the process of doing that, he found the style and found the voice that would ultimately bring him much greater fame and acclaim than he would have achieved doing the other thing.”
Bailey explains that Pryor’s shift in perspective was not just about language or subject matter, it was about the shift of a whole aesthetic.
“He talked about wanting to create a stand-up act that was less about traditional joke-telling and that was more like a night in the theater. And you would see that in the way that the characters would take over in his act and the way that he would play the wino, the junkie, the reverend, and more than any of them, Mudbone,” Bailey says.
“These characters would take over the set for 10, 20, 30 minutes,” he continues. “There is an element of theatre to that, an element of experimental theatre to that, sort of performance art, all of which was sort of bubbling up at the same time. And also an element of southern storytelling. Mudbone was in the tradition of southern, almost plantation storytelling.”
Pryor’s career waned in the 1980s as he began to suffer from ill health, but he continued to appear on television shows and occasionally in films. And his spirit loomed large in the work of other stand-up comedians. But Bailey is quick to point out that for all of Pryor’s acclaim and influence, there is still no one quite like him.
“Every stand-up comic worth their salt will tell you what a huge influence he is. And there’s no doubt that he is, but I think what's interesting, when you look at the full body of the work, is how few, if any, have done all that he was able to do,” he says.
Jason Bailey’s book, Richard Pryor: American ID is out now.