Most people know Paul Mooney from his unforgettable appearances on Chappelle’s Show (“Ask a Black Dude, “Negrodamus,” “Mooney on Movies,” et al.), but the veteran writer/comedian has enjoyed a significantly more storied career that for decades ran parallel to his friend and writing partner Richard Pryor’s and included stints writing for shows like Sanford and Son, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color, and numerous stand-up albums and television specials.
In some respects, Mooney’s fantastic 2009 memoir Black is the New White reads more like an abridged biography of Pryor’s life, with Mooney’s own autobiographical exploits seeming more like footnotes or sidebars to the narrative arc of their intertwined careers.
Much like his standup routines, an all-encompassing preoccupation with race permeates the book and acts as backdrop for the story. After all, Mooney and Pryor arrived in Hollywood on the heels of the volatile Civil Rights movement, an era in which black comedians and performers were clamoring to infiltrate the mainstream consciousness while struggling against the endemic racism of the entertainment industry.
Add to this Pryor’s predilection for substance abuse and general self-destructiveness, and you have all the makings of a familiar Hollywood tale: early-failure-leads-to-breakthrough-moment-leads-to meteoric-rise-to-fame-leads-to-inevitable-bottoming-out-leads-to-eventual-redemption. And who better to tell it than a raconteur like Mooney, the man who was right there by Pryor’s side, sober as a nun, through all the turmoil and triumphs?
One of the great achievements of this book is the full-scale rendering of Mooney’s inimitable voice on the page, the mannerisms and cadences of his speech patterns captured so precisely as to sustain a level of intimacy and engagement with the reader from cover to cover.
At a little more than 250 pages, the book moves along at breakneck pace (my wife finished it in a matter of hours the other night), and rarely sinks into the suffocating autobiographical quicksand of self-indulgent languishing over irrelevant details.
The overriding preoccupation with race, however, can grow wearisome at times and is potentially alienating, not necessarily to readers who have a general aversion or uneasiness about racial discourse, but to those who maybe don’t find the subject quite as compelling or omnipresent as Mooney likes to think it is or should be. It would be obtuse not to notice that he has essentially made an entire career off his uncompromising point of view on the topic, and there are occasional and sometimes extended meditations on matters such as the function and persistence of the dreaded N-word in society, the Michael Richards meltdown, and other issues.
Additionally, Mooney’s occasional self-aggrandizing toes the line between smooth self-confidence and unbridled arrogance (e.g. he claims to be the progenitor of certain ubiquitous cultural expressions such as “nigga, please” among others, makes frequent albeit amusing references about his handsomeness, and more than once refers to certain of his work as among the “best” or “bravest” ever seen on television), but in many ways he is the perfect foil to the insecure, self-loathing Pryor.
For all of the transcendent humor it produced, the story of his lifelong friendship with Pryor and their pioneering of contemporary black comedy in America is ultimately a tragic tale. Without question, Richard Pryor was a comedic genius, and as with many geniuses, he was tormented by a host of personal demons.
Mooney tends to spare us the particulars of Pryor’s drug abuse and marital catastrophes, except to occasionally interject comments like “he was using more than ever” or “he loved drugs more than anything else” or “I know he was an abusive husband,” though he offers an unflinching look into some of the darkest recesses of his existence, most notably his infamous suicide attempt, an incident that they later chronicled in Pryor’s semi-autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.
Hollywood is simultaneously captivating and repulsive, and their navigation through the gauntlet of fame and recognition escorts us through fascinating vignettes of Mitzi Shore’s legendary The Comedy Store, Pryor’s seminal appearance on Saturday Night Live, the creation and dissolution of the ill-fated Richard Pryor Show, and other significant moments of their lives and careers.
Mooney’s memoir is a riotous account of one of the most influential duos in modern American comedy, but more than anything, it is a tale of friendship and unconditional love. Through all Pryor’s personal and professional failures and through the long, debilitating disease that eventually took his life, Mooney was right there by his side, determined to ease both his physical and psychological pain through the healing properties of laughter. We should all be so lucky to have such a steadfast companion.