Scott Saul wrote much of "Becoming Richard Pryor" at The Beanery on College Avenue. Here is Saul with his son, Max, at the cafe. Photo: Frances Dinkelspel
Scott Saul, seen here with his son Max, wrote much of “Becoming Richard Pryor” at The Beanery on College Avenue. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Scott Saul moved to Berkeley about 12 years ago, and, right before his son Max was born in 2007, he developed a new obsession: Richard Pryor.

The talented but self-destructive comedian had lived in Berkeley decades earlier, a sojourn he credited with politicizing his stand-up routines. Pryor frequently said he re-invented himself in Berkeley, but no experts knew exactly when he lived here. (Pryor died in 2005.)

So Saul, a professor of English at UC Berkeley, whose PhD was in American Studies from Yale, decided to solve the mystery. But he didn’t just pick up a phone and make calls. Instead, he headed to the archives.

Pryor had been given a radio show on KPFA. He only recorded two shows before departing again for Los Angeles, but by looking at the Pacifica Network records in North Hollywood, Saul was able to pinpoint Pryor’s time in Berkeley: February through September 1971. It was information that no other writer had nailed down before.

Becoming Richard Pryor

Tidbits like these are embedded in Saul’s new, highly praised book, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” which was published in December. Saul will be talking about the book at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue.

While six other books have been written about Pryor, including Pryor’s own autobiography and a reflection by former Berkeley professor and Pryor friend Cecil Brown, “Pryor Lives!” no other book has relied as heavily on primary source material as Saul’s book. And critics have pointed to that research as the reason “Becoming Richard Pryor” is such a good read, filed with details about Pryor’s upbringing in a brothel in Peoria, Illinois. Saul even managed to track down Alan Farley, Pryor’s Berkeley roommate and the former operations manager at KPFA, to listen to seven hours of tapes of Pryor made in 1971.

“Because I came to the book as a historian, people were willing to talk to me,” said Saul.

Saul was so excited by the information he found that he built a special, interactive website to allow readers to access the same source material. There are photos, newspaper articles and documents that illustrate the history of Peoria, a city with a rich history of “sin.” There are numerous documents of the Pryor family as well, including Richard Pryor’s report card, his parents’ divorce papers, a clipping of the arrest of Pryor’s mother and stepfather for running a house of prostitution, and a review of his first theatrical performance in 1955, when he played the king in “Rumplestiltskin”.

“It’s an attempt to open up the biographer’s workshop and, through some extensive curation, enable readers to explore the primary research on which a book like mine rests,” Saul wrote in an email. “There are 200+ documents there, plus a short film we made, lots of maps, and other assorted goodies.”

Slate named Saul’s website as one of the top 5 digital history projects of 2014.

In advance of his appearance at Mrs. Dalloway’s, Berkeleyside asked Saul a few questions. (We stopped by The Beanery, his neighborhood hangout, to take photos. Saul lives with his wife, the writer Elana Roston, and their 7-year old son nearby.)

Berkeleyside: How did you first become interested in Richard Pryor?

Saul: As someone born in 1970, I grew up with Richard Pryor — and, in some sense, grew up through Richard Pryor too. When I was a younger kid, I caught his performances in the Gene Wilder buddy movies like Silver Streak and Stir Crazy and was magnetized. Then when I was a teenager, I heard his standup monologues about sex and intimacy, drugs and addiction, race and violence, and I felt like I was getting a fresh sort of education—one that my high school certainly wasn’t going to give me, and one that I was hungry for. An underground curriculum. I think that, like a lot of people in the 1970s and early 1980s, I turned to Pryor not just because he was hilarious but also because he was helping me figure out the mysteries and absurdities of my own life.

What prompted you to write his biography?

When I started the project in 2007, there was no seriously researched biography of Richard Pryor—which was an astonishing fact from one angle: it was hard to think of a figure of comparable importance in 20th-century America whose life hadn’t been investigated thoroughly. At the same time, I knew that there were some tough obstacles set in the way of any would-be biographer: Pryor had been proprietary about the facts of his life; his family and friends could be close-lipped; and his stand-up performances, which were often autobiographical, were themselves so powerful and indelible that any biography of Pryor would have to deal effectively with the shadow those performances cast. A successful biography of Pryor, I felt, would have to delve into archives, get new people to talk, and shed a compelling new light on his story.

So I started with the enigma of Pryor’s “time in the wilderness”—his sojourn in Berkeley in 1971. When Pryor moved to Berkeley in 1971, he’d already made it in mainstream venues as a standup comic—regular performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the like, regular gigs at countercultural spots like The Troubadour in LA—but he was frustrated with the terms of his success. He’d made a name for himself, but it wasn’t the name he wanted.

So I pursued various leads related to Pryor’s Berkeley time—interviewing people who knew him then, collecting the traces he left—and what I discovered, eventually, took my breath away.

What was interesting about Pryor’s seven-month stay in Berkeley in 1971?

Pryor’s Berkeley interlude was the hinge of his career, a crucial pivot point in his development as an artist. Just before it, he’d been leading a double life in LA, succeeding in the mainstream (e.g. guest roles on The Partridge Family and ABC Movies of the Week) while devoting himself, behind the scenes, to LA’s cultural underground (e.g. writing, directing, producing, and starring in an experimental film of his own design that sadly never came to fruition). In Berkeley, there was just the underground—and he burrowed deep into it, and deep into himself. He said, about his Berkeley time, “I felt free, like I had just come out of a dungeon I had been in for years.” He tried to whittle his life down to the minimum here so that he could explore his art to the maximum.

What was gratifying for me, as a biographer, was that I was able to reconstruct what Pryor’s “freedom” looked like and sounded like. I discovered that he experimented with all sorts of genres during his Berkeley time. He pieced together a sound collage in response to the suppression of the Attica prison uprising; he tried to create stream-of-consciousness poetry; he wrote screenplays for films that were cousin to midnight movies like El Topo; and he tested out new rhythms, new tones, and new topics in his stand-up too.

How did the late Alan Farley, a longtime figure in Bay Area public radio, help you out?

In 1971, Alan Farley was KPFA’s operations manager and and a great fan of Pryor’s. (He was also a former Mathematics PhD from University of Michigan and later hosted a long-running Noel Coward show on KALW, which gives you a sense of how Pryor touched all sorts of people from the start.) He was Pryor’s roommate during his first months in Berkeley and, as a devoted Pryor fan and a devoted gearhead, he followed him wherever he performed and taped whatever he did. Later, Alan lent his recording equipment to Pryor so that Pryor could tape himself, and even collaborated with Pryor on his sound collage. Best of all, Alan meticulously catalogued and dated everything he recorded, so a biographer like myself could listen to his Pryor tapes in sequence and hear how Pryor was searching for a form as an artist. I owe so much to Alan—and was deeply saddened to hear about his passing a few years ago from liver cancer.

How did hanging out with a group of black intellectuals, including the writers Cecil Brown, Claude Brown, Ishmael Reed and Al Young affect Richard?

Meeting Cecil Brown (who has written his own memoir-biography of Pryor) was crucial. Cecil introduced Richard to a group of local black writers and intellectuals, and this scene was something very new for Richard: he’d never been around a set of black artists who took their art, and him, so seriously. Which is not to say that they were all seriousness: in fact, writers like Cecil Brown and Ishmael Reed were some of the most irreverent artistic voices coming out of Berkeley at the time. And so they offered a model for how to be engaged with the churning politics of the times, the counterculture and the Black Power movement, while keeping a healthy sense of irony about what it meant to be committed to a cause. Meanwhile they encouraged Pryor to throw himself into his artistic process—even if that meant that he wouldn’t know where he was going to end up, whether his performances would be comedy or drama or something that resisted categorization.

Much of Pryor’s best stuff, post-Berkeley, has something of Berkeley in it. It pushes at the boundary of what comedy can be, sometimes because of the razor-sharpness of its politics, sometimes because it’s blending together emotions that don’t go together easily.

Even though you must have an office at UC Berkeley, you spent almost three years writing regularly at The Beanery on College Avenue. How did you write a serious biography sitting at those tiny tables surrounded by the sound of coffee cups clinking?

The Beanery was my ‘clean, well-lighted place.’ In my book’s acknowledgments, I estimate that I consumed roughly 100 gallons of coffee while writing my book there! I love The Beanery’s vibe, which is congenial but not too lively. I must have heard the same mix—the Gypsy Kings, Caetano Veloso—being played kerjillions of times, but the ambient noise was just what I need to focus on my own words. My mother was a piano teacher who taught her lessons in our house, so I learned to do my homework with the theme from Hill Street Blues looping in the background. One of my quirks, as a writer, is that I don’t like utter silence and unobstructed views—they make my mind wander. At home, I have trouble resisting the urge to potter about.

How did it feel to spend so much time with a man who was both brilliant and impossible—a man with an acute sense of timing and an ability to cut through social mores, but also a destructive drug addict who lashed out at anyone who got too close?

Richard Pryor was (and still is) endlessly fascinating to me. On an intellectual level, I always felt myself drawn deeper into his struggles as a person and as an artist. I was ever intrigued by how he turned the confusions of his life into the complexities of his art. The emotional side of the work was different, though. Emotionally, I sometimes felt that the project was too heavy—that I was struggling to metabolize the pain that Pryor felt and inflicted on others; that I was inadequate to the demands of the writing. In the end, it took everything I had, as a person and as a writer, to produce this book.

Why did you end the book in 1978 when Pryor died in 2005? 

Pryor’s career really does divide cleanly in two: you have his life before his film Live in Concert and then his astonishing crossover success in Hollywood after it. And the first part was really the one that fascinated me: how did this black child, subject to abuse from all sides but gifted with a raw understanding of the world, become a world-altering performer, someone whose innovations set American comedy on a new course? And there’s another reason, more personal, for stopping in 1978: Pryor’s grandmother Marie, whom he called “Mama,” died in 1978, just before he recorded Live in Concert. She was the central figure in his life; his relationship with her grounded him, and so grounds my book too. Once she’s gone, he loses something of his ballast as a person and starts drifting emotionally and artistically. (In 1980 he ended up setting himself on fire, partly, because he was still wracked with grief for her.)

I really do appreciate biographies that take us from cradle to grave, but I felt that, in the case of Pryor and his life, the most compelling and useful book I could write was a detailed examination of how his life and talent evolved up to 1978. A 600-page story that ends on a high point (and covers later developments in an epilogue), rather than an 800-900-page story that might flag in energy and interest at its end.

What is your favorite Richard Pryor routine? His most poignant? Did you stop laughing at his acts by the time you listened to them over and over?

I have so many favorites, so let me name a few. “Hank’s Place” is an insanely freewheeling and hilarious portrait of the “sporting life” of his hometown in Peoria, Illinois — and a great example of how Pryor turned the standup stage into a carnival of character. “Little Feets” is a great unleashing of Pryor’s storytelling imagination, a conjure tale conveyed through the unforgettable voice of Pryor’s character Mudbone. “Wino and Junkie” is an alternately comic and poignant playlet about the meeting of two street people, one young and one old—two misfits who, in the end, complete each other. And no, I never stopped laughing. Sometimes, in fact, it took 20 or 30 listenings before a joke of Pryor’s, some improvised phrase that he wove into his standup, landed fuly. Then I found myself laughing not only at the line but also at my own limits as a listener. Pryor was always several steps ahead of me.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...