In the book, “Pryor Lives!: Kiss My Rich, Happy Black…Ass!”, Cecil Brown tells the story of a mega-popular counterculture icon, from the perspective of someone he personally knew.
Cecil Brown met Richard Pryor in the parking lot of a club in Berkeley; Pryor was taking pulls from a cigarette, relaxing. He had just knocked the audience back with a comedy routine.
Brown last saw Pryor as he sat wheelchair bound, terminally ill, in his mansion in Southern California. Pryor had just enough energy to crack a joke or two about life.
In between, Cecil Brown, a writer from North Carolina, would become the best of friends with this comedian from Illinois, named “Rich”.
Before he met Pryor, Brown had already tasted stardom. After earning a Masters Degree from the University of Chicago, Brown published the book “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger”. The book was immensely successful, and lead Brown to a career of writing everything from TV shows to movie scripts, and even opened the door for him to become a teacher.
While working as an educator in the Bay Area during the late 60’s, Brown got word of a hip comedian who was in town and decided to see his show. Brown ventured from his residence in the Berkeley Hills to Mandrake’s, an old nightclub that once stood on the corner of 10th St. and University Ave.
Pryor, a young but experienced comedian, was looking for a new act. The counterculture lifestyle inside of Mandrake’s (and in Berkeley as a whole) assisted him in developing that new act, according to Brown.
Within the first couple chapters of his book, Brown writes:
“Frank McConnell said the court jesters had a magical function. They could say things that nobody else would dare utter to the King. They had license. But sometimes they went too far. Not only would they expose the disease of the society, but also often they embodied the disease and acted out the ritual.”
That was Pryor, according to Brown.
Pryor has been the subject of many documentaries, news reports and even an autobiography called “Pryor Convictions”, which was co-written by Tom Gold.
But Brown felt as though something was missing from history’s library.
“I wanted to show all of the aspects of Richards life,” said Brown, during an interview in a coffee shop near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. “And through that, I’d be able to show how comedy works. The comic is a rep or spokesman for a group of people who’ve been marginalized,” Brown concluded.
Brown’s expertise in storytelling is shown in this book, threefold.
He is a history buff, with knowledge of the ancient methods of storytelling. He references everything from the Dogon Nation’s way of laughing during funerals to Juvenal, the Roman Satirist.
Secondly, Brown looks at Pryor’s method of storytelling; much of which is done through analyzing the four stages of social drama: breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration (citing sociologist Victor Turner). Brown says that Pryor, although unintentionally, would go through the stages of social drama– and that’s where he’d get his best material.
The third lens is what makes this book special; Brown shares the perspective of two friends. The journey from their first meeting in the late 1960’s, to the last time Brown saw Pryor, before the comedian passed at age 65.