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Mooney and Pryor refused to shuffle for Hollywood

Bijan C. Bayne | 2/10/2010, 5:22 a.m.

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Mooney and Pryor refused to shuffle for Hollywood

Hollywood’s attitude toward black issues and performers has been the subject of criticism from the films of Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”) and Spike Lee (“Bamboozled”), to the comedy and interviews of Dave Chappelle. Few inside observers have the laser-like analysis of veteran comedian and writer Paul Mooney, who takes us behind the cameras and into the boardrooms in his memoir “Black Is The New White.”

Mooney, 68, is a survivor of two worlds that consume lesser beings – standup comedy, and Hollywood. Raised in Shreveport, La. and Oakland, he recounts the dues he paid as a dancer on the Bay Area’s most popular teen music show, a fledgling actor, and woodshedding his standup material in nightclubs owned by Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx, and Pauly Shore’s mother Mitzi. Along the way, Mooney met up-and-coming comic Richard Pryor, a singular but emotionally troubled talent whose career was always a couple steps ahead of his friend’s.

The contemporaries bond at a late 1960s club called Candy Store, where Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Ava Gardner, Flip Wilson and Billy Dee Williams hung out. Mooney and Pryor find common ground: both their grandfathers were hunters, they grew up in river cities (Pryor famously in a Peoria, Ill. brothel) and they both despised the Hollywood system and its limits on black freedom of speech.

One major difference is Pryor needs more love and affirmation, the classic inspiration for standup comedy, while Mooney received so much adoration in childhood, he is more “self-contained.” Pryor claimed he didn’t care less what the studio suits thought, Mooney doesn’t.

The strengths of this autobiography are Mooney’s insight about his gifted best friend, and his frankness about the entertainment industry. He feels Pryor was a junkie first and a comic genius second, but realizes the public would reverse the order. The author didn’t “hate (Pryor) because he’s a degenerate drug user,” nor “love him because he’s a comic genius. I love him because he’s Richard.”

Mooney’s resume is a psychedelic collage — he was a dancer on Hugh Hefner’s syndicated late 60’s series “Playboy After Dark,” meeting guests such as Linda Rondstadt, Sonny and Cher, Billy Eckstine, and Ike and Tina Turner. He sold shoes by day and honed his act free of charge at the Comedy Store when the spot was new. He toured with an anti-war comedy troupe called “FTA” (for F--- The Army) run by Jane Fonda. The book is full of anecdotes about the famous before they were celebs, in some cases before they changed their names.

Mooney spares no details, no matter how scandalous or personal. He writes that Pryor’s transition from a clean cut, Bill Cosby style performer to an in-your-face comic who addressed race relations, was “midwifed by” Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye. Pryor holed up in his home reading the former, and listening to the latter’s 1971 album “What’s Going On.” Mooney introduces Pryor to his old high school buddy and former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. The Richard most of the world knows emerged from that period.