Richard Pryor’s Designated Writer: An Interview With Paul Mooney
In a new memoir, veteran stand-up comic Paul Mooney reflects on his life and work with the legendary comedian Richard Pryor and their struggle against racism in Hollywood.
Black Is the New WhitePublisher: Simon Spotlight Entertainment
Length: 272 pages
Author: Paul Mooney
Publication Date: 2009-11
Paul Mooney remembers discovering the raw political power of the n-word. As a young comic honing his craft during the '60s -- a time when stand-up was undergoing a revitalizing transformation from punchlines to monologues -- Mooney and his better-known best friend, one Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, seized control of America’s ugliest racial epithet and wielded it as a comic weapon.
“When Richard and I use it on stage in front of an audience with both white and black folks in it, we are saying something that white people can’t,” Mooney says in his memoir Black Is the New White (Simon Spotlight, $24.95). “It’s forbidden to them, but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating.”
For decades now, Mooney has been doing the seemingly impossible: turning racism into comic fodder. Casual observers will recognize him as the comedian who renounced the n-word after Michael Richards’ racist onstage freakout in 2006 (even urging all African-American performers to delete it from their vocabulary), as the creator of Homey D. Clown for In Living Color and Negrodamus for Chappelle’s Show, or even as the actor who played Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story. Those paying closer attention know that Mooney was Richard Pryor’s writer, mentor, confidante, and designated driver, and that he was the comedy brain trust behind some of Pryor’s best bits.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1941, Mooney moved to Oakland in his youth and was raised by his grandmother -- a big, proud, loving woman who slept with a hammer for protection. Compared to Pryor, who was raised among pimps and whores and other ne’er-do-wells, Mooney had a stable upbringing and developed into a brash, cocky, ambitious teetotaler; Pryor, of course, was a legendary self-loathing drug addict.
Mooney and Pryor met in 1968 and were close friends until Pryor’s 2005 death. Mooney’s place in the pantheon of American stand-up comics is assured, but his contributions to the Pryor legend have gone mostly uncredited and unknown. In Black Is the New White Mooney not only lays claim to his part of the story, he also illuminates an under-told chapter in black Hollywood history: the period of the sixties and seventies when a surge of African American talent was met by the half-hearted embrace of a Hollywood that had not yet figured out how to exploit it. Mooney spoke with PopMatters by phone from his home in Harlem.
You and Richard Pryor were very different in many ways. Why did you bond so well?
Opposites attract. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on. It was just supposed to be. And Richard and I really had nothing to do with it. It just had to be, like old souls. Richard and I somewhere had been together as friends before. It’s like finding each other. It’s something you really can’t make sense of. It’s instinctual; it’s just the way it is.
The story of your first meeting, before you became friends, is hilarious.
I was living in a cheap apartment on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. A bunch of people would come and stay there with us, because nobody had any money, and we let them all sleep on the floor and in the bathtub or wherever. I was having a party, and a friend of my sister's, who was dancing at the Whiskey a Go-Go, had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment. This was during that whole era of [1969 comedy] Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice when everybody was sleeping with everybody. So Richard came in and said, “Let’s all get into bed and have an orgy.” And I threw him out.
You write about rubbing elbows with white celebrities during the late sixties, with Steve McQueen and other big stars slumming in South Los Angeles at legendary clubs like Maverick’s Flat. The Hollywood infatuation with black culture was already under way.
People don’t remember all this stuff going on back then. Janis Joplin fucking was crazy about Jimi Hendrix. She was in love with him. There was all this shit going on, Tammy Terrell, the Temptations, Motown, and everyone in Hollywood into this and that. Raquel Welch was coming out to Maverick’s, everybody came out to these fucking clubs, it was crazy. Then you had the reverse of that happening at the Candy Store [a Beverly Hills discotheque and celebrity haunt in the late 1960s], which was a white club that we integrated. And Richard and I used to go to all these private clubs all the time. It was crazy, it was so wild. And before our time, Marilyn Monroe would come out to the black area too. A black designer took her somewhere and they fired him… Because she was out there, and they would say, “Oh look, she’s out there with them niggers.”
This racist stuff is crazy. White people are always trying to write their bullshit out of history, because they don’t want people to know how evil they were. I mean, how do you sit somewhere and show how evil you are? Wrong is wrong, whether it’s 1801 or 1901 or 2001. It doesn’t change what’s right and what’s wrong. People don’t like to see it written down. It’s too ugly. Tennessee Williams knew about the South, but he would clean it up and lie about it. He knew the women, he knew the racial thing, he knew everything. He knew the incest, the child abuse, all that shit. He had to hide it because those white folks would get angry. A Streetcar Named Desire: trust me when I tell you that Marlon Brando’s character was a Creole, he was a black man. You see that movie or read that book, you’ll see it in between the lines. All Southerners know. Northerners won’t pick up on it, but we knew right away what it was about.
It’s ironic that during those years, when you and Pryor and so many other black actors were trying to break through, Hollywood still practicing de facto segregation. When it came to African American stars, it was Sidney Poitier or nothing.
When they were making black films in the '60s and the '70s, everyone knew their place, if you get my drift. You understand? Everyone knew the rules and everyone knew their place. Everyone knew what to say. They had the written rules in Hollywood film, and the unwritten rules. That’s why when Sidney Poitier slapped that white man in In the Heat of the Night, the theater went crazy, because black people had never seen a black person slap a white person in a film. Did you see In the Heat of the Night?
Of course. That scene you’re talking about is a milestone in movie history.
That scene wasn’t in the script, you know. That was Sidney’s reaction. Sidney pimp-slapped him. That was not in the script; Sidney was not supposed to hit him back. He slapped Sidney, and Sidney’s reaction was to slap him back. And the theater went fucking crazy. They’d never seen no shit like that. They went fucking crazy. I remember.
Because like I was telling you about the rules and the unwritten rules -- now they don’t know what to do, because there are no rules now. You have biracial people, and you have all this stuff going on now, they don’t know what to do, so now they get crazy. Like that army movie with that what’s-his-name playing somebody in blackface [Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder], now they get nutty. They don’t know what to do anymore. When you watch TV, I didn’t know black people were that happy. I had no idea they were that happy. I’m trying to find them.
Poitier was the standard bearer for African-Americans in popular culture, but it was something of a myth. And as soon as Hollywood figured that out, he was suddenly obsolete.
He was the perfect Negro. But white people are not very loyal to their perfect Negroes or to their house Negroes. As soon as they’re not “in", they’ll drop them like a hot potato. They have no further use for them. It’s a very interesting phenomenon to watch. I remember when Calvin Lockhart died [in 2007], all the press was about the movies he did in Hollywood, like Melinda, Cotton Comes to Harlem. But the press never mentioned that he was a big international star. His biggest movie was Joanna which came out of Europe. They never even mentioned it.
Lockhart could have been Poitier’s successor, but his career was over before it really began.
It was just arrogance. I knew Calvin real well. He came from those islands, and he had that arrogance. Like Sidney. Calvin was super-arrogant. And being black, Hollywood couldn’t deal with that.
Even today, some consider your comedy controversial or offensive because you talk so bluntly about race and racism. But you’ve been doing that since the seventies, and it must have really made people uncomfortable then.
Now people say whatever they want to say. White people and Black people. They’re bold. But they weren’t that bold back then. That’s why they hated Lenny Bruce. They couldn’t stand him. In the movies and all that, they say, “Lenny, we love you, we love you.” That’s bullshit. That’s not true. Those white folks didn’t like him. The same way they didn’t like Jane Fonda when I was hanging out with her -- you know, I was in Fuck The Army with her [FTA was an improv troupe that performed in protest of the Vietnam war in the early seventies; other members included Fonda and Peter Boyle]. They hated her. Just like the hippies. Those white folks did not like those hippies. I remember. Those white folks did not like those hippies, because the hippies were talking about love and peace and let’s all together. They were not having that. And of course with the free love, the prostitutes wanted to kill those hippie girls. [Laughs.] I’m serious. They wanted to fuck them up. They hated them. They would chase them off the street.
People may know that you wrote for “In Living Color” and Dave Chappelle, but you were writing for TV much earlier, and were one of the first black writers to break into television and films during the early 1970s.
I was like E.T. There were no black comedy writers. It was either a Jew who was married to somebody black, or who went to school with those people.
You and Pryor wrote a few episodes of Sanford and Son, but institutional racism was so strong that not even Redd Fox and Norman Lear could get you hired beyond that. It’s ironic to look back at the credits for that show -- a black cast, and most episodes were written by Jewish guys.
All the shows were like that. Richard would bring me in and I was like E.T. to these people. It was a trip. If my last name was Goldberg, let me tell you -- NBC, ABC, Saturday Night Live, none of them would have ever let me out of that studio. They would have never let me go. No way they would have let me go work with Richard.
You also wrote screenplays, including a sequel to the seminal Blaxploitation film The Mack, although it was never produced. And you did uncredited, behind-the-scenes, script doctoring work.
That was always brought to me. Richard would always have me rewrite shit. I rewrote the first episode of Fridays [ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live, which ran 1980-82]. That’s why the first one’s so funny. The rest of them are not as funny. But the point is that stuff was always brought to me from somewhere. It always came from out of the blue. I would never solicit it; it would just come to me because my reputation preceded me. And then, my association with Richard and through my dealings with other people, that’s how it would happen. In Hollywood it’s about controlling. If they can control you they like you, but if you speak up and you have an opinion, have a brain, it turns them off.