[8 February 2010]
With Black is the New White, 68-year-old Paul Mooney, a comedian, writer and actor most famous for collaborating with the late great Richard Pryor, has delivered his twilight-years memoir. Practically a rite of passage for the modern entertainer, such books are generally straightforward endeavors, crafted (often with more than a little help) to slip fans savory behind-the-scenes morsels while the author documents their point of view for prosperity.
It’s hard to mess up this type of vanity project, especially when your wagon’s so firmly hitched to a star as big as Pryor. So how did Black is the New White go so wrong?
The writing itself is the standard fare of memories dusted off and adequately polished into smooth anecdotes—though it’s a bummer that many of Mooney and Pryor’s adventures here are just (oddly, sometimes different versions of) episodes already covered in Pryor’s autobiography Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences (Pantheon, August 1997).
Still, Mooney manages to turn phrases lightly enough to not break the yokes. Classics of the genre have been written much better and bestsellers worse. But sifting in chunks of stale stand-up bits into the prose (some of the prose is straight out of Paul Mooney: Analyzing White America) is not only boring, but just one of the many ways the narrative reads like a sanitized PR pitch for Paul Mooney, the brand.
A weird feeling starts to take over as the paragraphs chug by and the book splits into two different directions. It’s as if Mooney couldn’t decide whether he wanted to write a breezy buddy memoir pivoted on his relationship with Pryor or a manifesto on racism in Hollywood and America, so he winds up flailing—when not outright failing—on both accounts. Dick Gregory, he’s not. Instead of using the absurdity of truth as a springboard, he aggressively forces set-ups that ring false: comedy’s death knell.
For example, Mooney’s recent appearance on Tavis Smiley:
Smiley: “You may not know who Paul Mooney is, but he made you laugh a whole lot of times… it’s the words he’s written for other comics you probably know best. In fact over the last 40 years, he has written for just about everybody including the late great, greatest of all time, Richard Pryor….”
Mooney: “I love you, black radio! You know I used to be in black radio in New York, what I love is that you guys dinosaurs, and you don’t know it. All of you. This is the end, because these white folks do not want these black males talkin’ your mind and saying things.”
Smiley: “But I’m on public radio. This ain’t black radio. I’m on public radio.”
Mooney: “Public, unpublic. It’s like Democrat, Republican. It doesn’t exist. These are only words. These white folks are going to fix all of you. You kill me.”
Tavis: “If I’m irrelevant, why are you here?”
Mooney: “You’re naïve.”
Tavis: “If I’m a dinosaur, why are you here?”
Mooney: “All of you are. Black radio is. You’ll see.”
Tavis: “If I’m irrelevant, why are you in my studio?”
Mooney: “You’re not irrelevant, I want to be here for the end. It’s the end.”
Smiley: “You want to see the end?”
Mooney: “You’re gonna be in a museum. Look don’t get mad at me dinosaur because you scare everybody. But it’s great.”
Maybe it’d kill on stage — maaaaaaaaybe—but it failed on the Smiley show and it fails on the page. Mooney’s refusal to acknowledge the simple reality behind his appearance, that he’s appearing on a public radio program hosted by an African-American to promote his book, is awkward in the same way the book is awkward. There actually are differences between Republicans and Democrats, and between “black radio” and public radio. By throwing punch lines that only hit after forcing the set-up reduces Mooney’s bits to predictable posturing. Throughout the book, Mooney’s spiel is a one-schtick pony.
If the first most obvious problem with the book is its lopsided struggle between light-hearted entertainment memoir and a manifesto; the second problem is Mooney’s truly strange relationship with Pryor on the page. For a guy who constantly crows about how he and Pryor were best friends, he places Pryor in the most unflattering light possible.
The book literally begins and ends with Pryor, save a few of last chapters about Mooney’s current life in Harlem and ruminations on Barack Obama. This isn’t a memoir of Mooney’s life as much as it is a memoir of Mooney’s recollections of his life and times with Pryor. The plot points rotate on the milestones of Pryor’s life and career, not Mooney’s.
The book begins—after a pointless introduction that reads like an extended pull-quote from Dave Chappelle’s PR department—in Santa Monica in September,1968. Mooney and Pryor are hanging out at a coffee shop when Mooney slaps the table to wake Pryor up from his “hangover nod”. Mooney tells him, “Man, I just saw a lady so pretty, somebody should suck her daddy’s dick for a job well done.”
Pryor laughs, and Mooney describes the brandy he smells on Pryor’s breath. Later that night, Mooney’s in the audience as Pryor works the stage at the Troubadour. “He’s a different comic when I’m in the audience. He hears my laugh and he shifts gears, elevating his act to a higher, edgier level,” writes Mooney.
Pryor uses the daddy’s dick line and, Mooney writes, “The way Richard tells it, it kills. The audience practically vomits laughter.”
Afterward, Pryor slips Mooney an expensive watch as payment for the joke. “A $10,000 beauty. The kind of watch you call a timepiece.” Mooney calls this pact, symbolically sealed through time, a Batman-and-Robin thing. He calls it a beautiful friendship. “My loyalty is to Richard, and my relationship with his is authentic, as though he is my brother,” he wrote.
It’s no secret that Pryor, though recognized as the best and most ground-breaking comic in American history, also partook in ridiculously excessive amounts of drugs and routinely abused his girlfriends and wives. Pryor was a cocaine-hoovering wifebeater, and he admits as much in his own book.
Pryor’s a superlative example of the ancient tension between artistic genius and flawed human. That dichotomy is as old as the chicken and the egg. So who is Mooney to assume that such aspects of an artist’s life need to be prioritized to make sense and more importantly, why should the reader assume Mooney is fit above others—wives, kids—to do so?
No wonder Pryor made him promise to not write about him until after he was dead.
In her memoir Jokes My Father Never Told Me, Pryor’s daughter, Rain, handles the dichotomy by painting a portrait of a man tethered by these two extremes while stretching the canvas to include her own struggles and journey as a biracial child raised in his shadow. (Incidentally, it doesn’t mention Mooney.)
By contrast, Mooney seems more interested in telling the reader how much he loves and respects Pryor while repeatedly grinding the reader’s mind into Pryor’s grosser flaws, without revealing any insight. The two Pryor extremes just sit there, “junkie” on top of “genius”. while Mooney—the supposedly adoring sidekick who is comfortable with being famous for not being famous—just kind of crudely points.
It’s a shame too, because Mooney’s own accomplishments in the comedy world, though under the mainstream pop culture radar, are well known to comedy fans. His resume sports his formal and informal collaborations with Pryor of course, and he’s credited with creating In Living Color’s Homey D. Clown character and Chappelle Show’s Negrodamus. He’s been performing stand-up on stage for decades, no easy feat. And he is, this cannot go without saying, an extraordinary dancer—a talent he briefly touches on in the book. Anyone who has glimpsed Mooney’s groovy boneless moves on old bootlegs of Playboy After Dark can attest to that.
With so many creative accomplishments under his belt, it’s hard not to cringe when Mooney, never shy to call his own work “brilliant”, or bray about how good-looking he is, goes on a credit rampage.
Aside from claiming credit on many famous Pryor bits, including the one where Pryor lights a match and zooms it in front of him and calls it “Richard Pryor running down the street”, Mooney claims that he invented the phrase “Nigga, please” (“the phrase is revolutionary… the first time black-on-black criticism goes public”) and to have personally taught a bewildered Barack Obama how to fist-bump (“I kept my head down over that shit. I didn’t want people to say, you taught Obama the fist bump, Mooney, now we got that Arizona Mr. Whiteman in the White House”). Mooney doesn’t just bravely ask a white girl to dance, he integrated a dance hall, and so on and so on.
The non-stop boasting gets tiring, quick. He doesn’t just gild the lily, he encrusts it with diamonds and builds a moat around it. After all that, he refers to himself as a dragon.
I’m trying to come up with a comparison. Say there’s a single surviving dragon, the last one in all existence. People are fascinated by it, but they’re terrified, too. You can imagine all the excited chatter… Then the dragon wakes up and spits out a few fiery words, and the people are shocked and even more fascinated and terrified.
You mean it can talk?
I can not be any way than how I am.
And what way is that? Aside from any grown man seriously describing himself as a scary dragon, this passage cuts to the heart of the ultimate problem with this book: it’s weirdly egotistical and amateur. (Not to mention that for someone who claims to keep it so real, he’s stingy on personal details, not even addressing the persistent Hollywood rumors that he’s gay.)
Without having been there, it’s impossible to know for sure which parts of Pryor’s performances were actually Mooney, and which weren’t, and in what ways Mooney affected Pryor’s path in general. Again, Rain Pryor’s memoir doesn’t mention Mooney and on this book’s release, Jennifer Lee Pryor—herself a very controversial figure—twittered: “Paul Mooney has a new book out: BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE, seems he takes credit 4 anything that ever cam out of Richard Pryor’s mouth-LIAR!”
The one message that’s clear is that Mooney think he is just unbelievable. And maybe he is.