What’s striking, though, is the way that — Mad Men style — the ethos of the ’60s and ’70s shapes Pryor’s art. When Pryor was living in Greenwich Village in the bohemian era of 1964, he was influenced by wild nights of improvisation at Cafe Wha? and a cross-cultural friendship with rich boy and future film director Henry Jaglom. And Bill Cosby was in the air. Cosby was the black comedian at the time, and his clean style meant that he had the potential to cross over to a white audience. Pryor followed in his footsteps, coming up with funny, absurd stories about his regular-type family that were all complete and utter fabrications, as he grew up in a whorehouse. When Pryor and Cosby’s paths crossed, Cosby — far more profane in person — would insist that clean comedy was the only way to get people to listen to you.
Years down the line, however, Cosby would kick in money to Melvin Van Peebles’ independent black classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but his purse remained closed when Pryor screened his very own work of auteurism, Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales. All Cosby had to say about the film was, “Hey, this shit is weird.” Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, an anarchic independent production about the token black executive who gets put in charge of an advertising firm, making things groovier as a result, scooped Pryor’s film anyways.
To see how someone could start out as Bill Cosby II, the shadow that Cosby cast over comedy at the time, and the pressure around the fact that there could “only be one” successful, mainstream black comedian gives Becoming Richard Pryor a heft that feels awfully current. The recent revelations about Cosby, and the squashing of his long-planned comeback as a result, makes him already in the past. We need to see the barriers that Cosby broke while also understanding his failures as a human being. Placing Cosby against Pryor is enlightening on both sides regarding their work.
Aspiring artists are always tangling with each other, seeing who’s going to end up in the canon and how other people’s work can inflame and inspire their own. Pryor had more of a past than I knew about. Cosby was an angel and a devil on Pryor’s shoulder, and eventually Pryor threw him off and became something wild and singular in comedy: an American genius.