Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Book Review: 'Black Is the New White' by Paul Mooney
What do you call a person who "ham-bones" his way from Louisiana, to Berkeley and on to LA, where he then helps his best friend become a wildly successful comic genius before the friend self-destructs?
I call Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor's alter ego, his "shadow partner;" the little leprechaun sitting on Pryor's shoulder telling him what he already knows: For, whatever Mooney exhaled, Richard Pryor inhaled it, and it all came flowing out on the stand-up stage as comedic genius. These two were comedic soul mates; joined at the hip and made in heaven: They were one of a kind duo, ordained to complete each other's comedic lines.
This book is a glimpse into how they did this and succeeded beyond either of their fondest dreams -- that is, until Richard's personal demons got the best of him and took him on to comedic heaven. In a most serious way this book is Richard Pryor's unauthorized biography as retold through Paul Mooney's life.
Mooney is a good-looking good dancing, always funny, smoozing-type Louisiana boy, whose family migrated to Oakland in the early 50s. He had gotten the "entertainment bug" by winning "Ham bone" contests in Louisiana cinemas. He succeeded in parlaying this rather meager and questionable talent into a spot on a San Francisco TV dance band show. For both Mooney and Pryor, entertainment was the only way to fly because it offered them the love and acceptance they needed and could find nowhere else.
After knocking up his white Berkeley High girlfriend (with twins, no lest), and being unable to find steady work, Mooney hightailed it to LA to seek his fortune in the Hollywood comedy business. He met Pryor at a Hollywood party where Pryor propositioned him and his date (his step sister, whom Mooney was escorting) to join a pairwise sex-orgy. Although Mooney turned him down, and did not take it personally, he and Pryor, against all odds became not just friends, but became a singular "unified comedic mind" that would eventually take Hollywood by storm. And comedy in the US, or in their respective lives, was never the same afterwards.
Pryor at the time was much troubled by having taken the non-confrontational, neutered fork in the comedy road, the one best perfected by the then black comedic giant Bill Cosby. Cosby was considered a "neutered black comic" because his compromises with the system forced him to ignore the 800-pound Gorilla in the living room of every American: race. And by pretending that comedy in America could be operated from a safe non-existent stand-off "race-free-zone," Pryor was left with nagging feelings of inauthenticity that haunted him each time he received a pay check, no matter how large. It did not seem to affect Cosby's conscience at all.
What he and Mooney had in common is that neither of them were scared of the white man, or his racist system, and thus both were unprepared to play the Hollywood "coon clowning" and "tap dancing" roles reserved for black comics. This undignified neutered form of entertainment was the only kind acceptable from black comics during those days -- until, that is, Cosby waltzed through the doors of Fortress Hollywood and struck pure gold with his "racially sanitized," socially adjusted, carefully and sensitively censured and neutered stand-up skits -- ones that he would eventually parlay into an equally racially-neutered all black hit TV sitcom.
After a famous Pryor melt-down at the Aladdin Hotel in Vegas, the soul mates retreated back to the Bay Area to plot their return. And after a year of "wood-shedding" and a sheaf of new more lethally authentic and edgy material, Pryor and Mooney returned to take Hollywood by storm.
Like Lenny Bruce's biting satirical comedy, Pryor's new material had switchblades concealed inside it too. It was mostly stories rather than jokes, taken from the real side of American inner city ghetto life, all designed to take America's racist system on mano-a-mano. The duo began their joint assault on "Fortress Hollywood" on Sunset Strip in 1972. But what they had not counted on was that "racism always trumped capitalism" in Fortress Hollywood. They discovered the hard way that the clique of moguls who control Hollywood would rather lose millions than see a couple of back dudes turn the well-ordered but extremely racist social order on its head using comedy that tells the truth about how America's system of racism really works.
So they had to go around the system to get readmitted to it; and then they had to get its attention all over again. Richard did this with comedy albums that sold millions and won Grammies, as well as following this success up by accepting invitations to appear on the nation's best TV Talk Show spots. "Fortress Hollywood" came crawling back to Pryor on bended-knees and with their pocketbooks wide open, forced to sue for peace on Pryor's financial terms. And even though they were now ready to deal, they bargained hard: taking away with one hand, what they had previously given with the other. Despite this, and a few other set backs, Mooney and Richard had a spectacular run of success. That is, until Richard began a rapid descent into booze, cocaine and pussy hell that caused him to self-destruct.
Mooney is an above average comic with a natural funny bone, and lives in his grandmother's glow by a steady pristine set of Pentecostal values. He is also an excellent storyteller, who reminds me of what Pryor might have become had he not been checkmated by the three food groups that eventually took him down: booze, cocaine and pussy. And while Mooney also had a healthy appetite for the last of these, he did not imbibe the other two. He remained clear and level-headed, although, had he wanted to, his life circumstances could have surely provided him with more than the normal parcel of excuses needed to justify a career filled with self-induced failures. This is both a a funny and a deadly serious book. Among the biographies I have read and reviewed lately, only Andre Agassi's and Harry Belafonte's are better. Five Stars
Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.