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Laughter Along the Path to Oblivion: ‘Becoming Richard Pryor,’ Scott Saul’s Biography

Becoming Richard Pryor

(New York Times) – Richard Pryor was the subject of abundant hagiography during his lifetime. But it was not until he died at 65 in 2005 — from the combined effects of multiple sclerosis, career decline and horrendous self-inflicted bodily harm — that the floodgates really opened. By 2007, Scott Saul was at work on “Becoming Richard Pryor,” which he emphatically calls “different from other Pryor biographies” in its emphasis on the origins of his subject’s scathing comic brilliance. For the record, it’s at least the second recent Pryor biography (after “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him,” by David Henry and Joe Henry) to make such a claim.

Mr. Saul, who teaches English at the University of California, Berkeley, also asserts his props as something more than a celebrity biographer, now that his subject’s glory days are decades behind us. He says he used a historian’s techniques, too. “I needed to constellate my own ‘Pryor archive,’ ” he writes, in a gaseous tone that fortunately deflates quickly. Translation: He examined newspaper archives, public documents and criminal records to assemble an extended chronology of Pryor’s life and career. But he also had excellent timing. He came along when people who once would have been frightened to talk about the man were made voluble by his death.

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