When Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III died in December 2005 – at age 65 of a heart attack, after years of treatment for multiple sclerosis – the comic was acclaimed for his role in blazing a new trail for American comedy, opening wide a window on the bitter corners of African-American life, and placing that life in a perspective that made that pain not just palpable, not even just funny, but truly, deeply universal. What’s gotten less attention has been the contributions of Paul Mooney, a close friend of Pryor, a standup comic in his own right, and the writer of many of the gags and routines that Pryor made famous.
“Black Is the New White,” a memoir of his life in the orbit of Pryor and others in Hollywood, has a pace and energy that make it read more like a conversation — or a long and pungent standup routine — instead of a conventional narrative. Mooney takes us through Hollywood of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when prospects for black actors and actresses were more dismal than they are today. Combining observations of American race relations with a cautionary tale of the price of success in L.A., Mooney challenges readers the way he challenges his audiences: directly, no holds barred.
Born in Shreveport, La., in 1941 (“the same year a scientist creates plutonium … Me and plutonium, born simultaneously, both with designs to blow up the world”), Mooney lived there until the age of seven, when he and his family moved to northern California. Showing a talent for dancing and improvisation, Mooney eventually enters and wins area dance contests at age 14. He achieves a breakthrough at age 18 when he stars on “Dance Party,” a local West Coast version of “American Bandstand.”
“As the 1960s dawn, I’m getting more and more restless,” Mooney writes. ”[M]y first taste of celebrity is sweet, but suddenly Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco — the whole place seems too small to hold me. … The Dance Party gig ends abruptly when I get drafted into the army and sent to West Germany.”
After two years in uniform, Mooney returns to California with few options that could help him as a breadwinner (one with three children to feed, at that).
His life changes again after a chance visit to Ann’s, a San Francisco nightclub. Onstage: a largely unknown comic named Lenny Bruce. “I stumble out of Ann’s a changed man,” Mooney writes. “He talks onstage like the people around me talk in real life. Plus his laughs have bite. His routines have switchblades concealed inside them.”
Hollywood beckons, calling Mooney loudly enough to put him behind the wheel of “my baby blue 1959 Bonneville convertible, tailfins sweeping off the back like a Cadillac.” With two friends in tow, Mooney makes for Hollywood.
The mad, outrageous rush of these pages yields a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress in the entertainment biz. Mooney joins the Second City comedy troupe, then joins a circus that travels the Southwest. Eventually, all roads lead back to Hollywood, a place on the wrong end of Sunset Boulevard, and a chance meeting at a party with Pryor, the “twisted imp” who’d change his life, and standup comedy, forever.
Much of the book is a tale of two dudes: Mooney is the industrious teetotaler eager for a breakthrough in the entertainment world; Pryor is the erratic genius in waiting who’ll seemingly try anything once. Or twice. “Yeah, Richard Pryor is the funniest man America has ever seen,” Mooney writes. “But I know he is a junkie first, and a genius second. It’s cold, but it’s the hard, sad truth … I’ll never have a closer friend than Richard. I don’t love him because he’s a comic genius, and I don’t hate him because he is a degenerate drug user. I love him because he’s Richard.”
Mooney dishes the casting-couch dirt on some of what Pryor himself had to do to succeed. Pryor had a bit part in “Wild in the Streets” (1968), an apocalyptic fantasy of teenagers taking over the government. “It’s Richard’s first movie,” Mooney writes. “Shelley Winters, one of the most cock-hungry actresses in Hollywood, gives him a job. Richard is happy to pay the price of admission. They get wild in the sheets.”
Mooney’s passion for standup comedy dovetails with the rise of a new, hard-hitting topical style of comedy, one that isn’t afraid to rub up against social conventions. Comedians like Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen (in his pre-movie days) and Godfrey Cambridge are busy breaking the rules. Mooney eventually joins their number after his debut as a standup comic in 1970, at Ye Little Club, a Beverly Hills club owned by Joan Rivers.
You expect history from a memoir; we get plenty. Mooney crosses paths with movers and shakers: shaking hands with John F. Kennedy before the presidency; making friends with Tammi Terrell before Marvin Gaye (and stardom); huddling with first-magnitude stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner; watching as his wife fends off would-be suitors like once-legendary Hollywood horndog Warren Beatty.
And Mooney transports readers to the ‘70s-era scene at the Comedy Store, where young talents like Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze and yes, David Letterman sharpen their comedic skills. We’re witnesses to Mooney’s own breakthroughs as a writer for “Sanford & Son,” “In Living Color” (he created the Homey D. Clown character) and “Chappelle’s Show” (whose groundbreaking host, Dave Chappelle, returns the favor, writing the foreword to Mooney’s book).
But Mooney takes the book in another direction with his frank assessments of the differences between black audiences and white audiences. He also reckons with his own onstage use of the n-word, which he discontinued after the infamous Michael Richards incident in 2006. Mooney bitterly notes how old Hollywood morphs into a younger consciousness in the late ‘60s; he makes some acid observations of Los Angeles, “the bourgeois town of all bourgeois towns, a vile, racist city from the very start.” And Mooney speaks to his unhappy fascination with the very different prisms through which blacks and whites look at life.
“For white people, watching the Rodney King video is like a world premiere movie,” he observes. “For black people, it’s a rerun. It’s been in syndication for a long time.”
Comedy is meaningless without its opposite number, and Mooney is no stranger to tragedy. With typical candor, Mooney confronts the passing of his beloved grandmother in 2000; the loss of his son Symeon, slain on the streets of L.A. in 2001; and four years later, the death of Pryor, friend, mentor and sounding board.
Mooney’s frequent references to Pryor in the present tense are of course literary devices to keep the story fresh and to-the-moment. But it’s also a moving indication of the depth of their friendship, how hard it still is to let an old friend slide into the past tense of history.
“Black Is the New White” is the kind of fiercely uncompromising memoir we might have expected from one of the more unsung heroes of the history of blacks in Hollywood. Fans of a more stylistically measured, chronologically specific style of memoir may be disappointed. The book, which borrows from Mooney’s own standup material, is a heartfelt look back at one man’s adventures in the comedy trade. It’s also a reflection of the struggle for acceptance and self-determination in our private American lives.
Black is the New White
Simon Spotlight Entertainment
257 pages, $24.99