Book review: Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor

It’s something of a surprise that Richard Pryor gets his entire life into just the one book; after all he’s lived more in one week that most of us live in a lifetime.

Born in a whorehouse to a prostitute mother in the ghettos of Peoira, Illinois, to become one of the greatest comics of all-time, yet forever chasing women and drugs in a lifetime of addictive but unfulfilling hedonism that landed him in jail several times, and almost killed him.  His is certainly a life less ordinary, if so often an utterly screwed-up one.

Such extreme experiences informed his astonishingly frank stand-up routines, that were little short of revolutionary in their uncompromising approach.

Not that his act was always this way. In the early days he emulated the homely style of Bill Cosby; even though such a colourless approach hardly related to Pryor’s harsh reality amid the often murderous racial tensions bubbling in Peoria.

Still, with this second-hand persona he could earn a few bucks a night at the black-and-tan nightclubs – as venues with a mixed racial clientele were known. Enough to fund his habits, and it sure beat working at the local Caterpillar factory

Such a lifestyle was a big deal for a boy born with no apparent prospects, growing up with the hookers, hermaphrodites and freaks who hung around his insalubrious neighbourhood.

Life was tough. In the matter-of-fact style that’s a hallmark of this book, he coolly notes: “When I was a kid, I found a baby in a shoe box.” That his family kept him, made him one of the lucky ones, an acceptance of his plight that seems to sustain him through moments that might break a lesser man.

Pryor Convictions contains many revelations from those childhood years. Once a priest  ‘gave me a smooch on the lips… like a girlfriend’. His family conspired to encourage the abuse, in the hope of extorting a quick buck, until his fearsome but level-headed grandmother put a stop to things.

Even more terrifyingly, a 17-year-old lad once threw Pryor against a wall in an alley and forced him to give him oral sex. He was six at the time.

The formative experiences keep coming. Another came at primary school, the little Richard gave a white girl he had a crush on a gift; next day the father stormed into school and yelled at him: “Nigger, don’t give my daughter anything,’ as the teacher stood ineffectually by.

Pryor Convictions is anecdotal rather than exhaustive about his early life – and indeed every other stage - fragmented scenes creating a more vivid picture than any painstaking documentary of every moment could ever do. Not, of course, that he could remember every moment.

Pryor is never self-pitying about his background, nor does he use his experience to excuse his litany of unforgivably bad behaviour as his life went on. Like his stand-up came to be, the book tells it as he sees it with natural good humour, a keen intelligence and – yes – lots of naughty words. It’s even written in short, staccato sentences – just like stand-up.

It was – bizarrely enough – Groucho Marx who helped inspire Pryor to find his own style. At a Los Angeles party Bobby Darin threw in Pryor’s honour, the veteran comic berated him for wasting his talent on the bland comedy he was performing at the time. ‘Do you want a career you’re proud of, or do you want to end up a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis?,’ Groucho told him.

The words made Pryor realise he was ‘pimping his talent like a cheap whore’, so he decided to start doing his own thing. Only problem was ‘I didn’t know shit about myself.’

This led to a crisis of confidence and an on-stage breakdown, only resolved when he joined the hippies, radicals, bohemains and drug dealers of Berkeley, California, where he explored his attitude to life and to comedy - reclaiming the word nigger and talking with scabrous honesty about everything important to him.

It brought him huge success, and deserved acclaim as a comic, and the cheques started pouring in. Even more so when he began landing roles in such well-paid, if artistically bankrupt movies as Superman III and See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

Still, for all his success, his life was still a mess. Sad and paranoid, as he acted like a grade-A prick, firing shots into his car (landing him in jail again), or beating up his many women.

Then one night the devil appeared to him. He freebased all the cocaine in his house – which it’s fair to say was probably quite a lot – and in a paranoid, hallucinogenic Haze doused himself with a bottle of cognac and lit it. Flames lapping every inch of his body, he leapt out of a window and ran through the streets, his flesh burning up. His eventual, possibly miraculous, recovery was long and painful.

Oh yes, and then, a few years later, he went and got multiple sclerosis; his speech and mobility gradually eroded, a potentially tragic decline to such a vibrant life.

But, after initial uncertainty, Pryor seems to have accpted it with the ‘shit happens’ attitude that has permeated his life. After all, the disease still hasn’t done what the lifetime of self-destructive behaviour described in the book could do – be it heroin, coke or promiscuity in the age of Aids. As he likes to remind us, he still ain’t dead, motherfucker.

These funny, engrossing and confessional memoirs will help keep his legend alive, too.


Richard Pryor: Pryor Convictions And Other Life Sentences is published by Revolver at £16.99. Click to buy from Amazon at £11.89

Steve Bennett
May 22, 2005

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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