There’s a special brand of anger that can fill the heart of a writer. It’s a mix of jealousy and joy with a dash of self-loathing that boils into rage, and it’s caused by reading something so insightful, so humane, so damn good that you wish you wrote it yourself. Jason Bailey’s new book Richard Pryor: American Id is so good it makes me mad. By page 17, I was seething.
Bailey has previously penned books on Pulp Fiction and the works of Woody Allen. He’s also one of the New York critics I’m quick to snag after screenings because he’s an enthusiastic, funny, and thoughtful appreciator of all things entertainment. So, when he offered me a copy of his new book for review consideration, I said yes without a moment’s thought, even though I had forgotten what his latest topic was.
Richard Pryor. A comedian who dared to joke nakedly about his struggles with racism, sexuality, drugs, self-sabotage and suicide. As a kid, Pryor’s brand of humor scared me, so I hadn’t dug much deeper into his works than repeated watchings of his PG-rated The Toy. But Bailey’s book has me intrigued, seeking out the obscure interviews, talk show appearances, and stand-up recordings that he uses to shape not only the story of one of comedy’s most provocative icons, but also one of race relations in America.
This is not a straightforward biography, though it offers a brief summary for those in need of a Pryor preface. Instead, Bailey’s essays explores themes in Pryor’s work, his diction, his confessions and the evolution of bits and characters like his pontificating alter-ego Mudbone. Bailey describes crucial scenes and skits with a careful detail that gives them full-bodied form even if you’ve never before seen or heard them. From there, Bailey delves into the genius of Pryor along with his flaws. Through discussing Pryor’s humor in context of his addiction, a unique and compelling portrait of the comedian emerges. But where things turn really interesting, and heartbreakingly relevant are in Bailey’s discussions of race and how a black stand-up challenged white audiences to see repellant truths about America.
Reading American Id similarly challenged me, forcing me to consider a brand of comedy that I once wrote off as too caustic. Bailey’s book is not just a riveting read about a complicated American entertainer. It’s a gateway into Pryor’s works, revealing why the pugilistic star’s candor, outrage and vulnerability was not just mesmerizing but also groundbreaking and important. Best of all, Bailey tackles complex arguments and taboo topics with a tone that’s sharp, earnest yet empathetic. Reading his essays feels like a conversation with Bailey himself, full of passion, thought and a humor that is sometimes bittersweet. All of which suits his flawed but fascinating subject perfectly.
Get a sense of Richard Pryor: American Id with its trailer, which has Bailey reading selections intercut with the eyebrow-raising interview at its center:
Kristy Puchko has fallen down a Youtube hole. Don’t send help.