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Mooney and Pryor refused to shuffle for Hollywood

Bijan C. Bayne | 2/10/2010, 5:22 a.m.
(Photos courtesy of AP and “Black Is The New White”)Mooney and Pryor refused to shuffle for...

Yet America embraced the new, edgy Richard – his mid-1970’s albums won Grammys, his live concert films sold out theatres. In the background, Mooney wrote killer one-liners for the NBC hit “Sanford And Son,” created the famous 1975 “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Pryor and Chevy Chase traded racist epithets during a personnel interview, fighting producers and nervous censors all the way. The execs edited Mooney’s best bits, and producers distanced themselves from his “angry” humor. Routines about driving while black – or sitting U.S. presidents – were too hot even for the liberal 1970’s. To the author, race trumps financial profit in show biz.

Mooney and Pryor were the first mainstream comics to drop the “n-word” and employ the Oedipal expletive. Mooney and Pryor understood white audience members would laugh at the “n-word” out of nervousness and blacks out of recognition of street talk. This made the word territory on which white comics would not tread.

Though Pryor became king of his craft, Mooney says such status tortured Richard, who felt “mainstream popularity” was synonymous with “sellout.” The drinking and drugging are there – another part of Pryor’s life Mooney could not share. Hollywood’s invisible man, Mooney discovered and cast Sandra Bernhard, gave a young Robin Williams work on “The Richard Pryor Show” (before “Mork and Mindy”), and championed the careers of future sit-com stars Brad Garrett and Marsha Warfield at “The Comedy Store.”

It was Mooney who demanded that owner Mitzi Shore pay the comics, among them Jay Leno and David Letterman. “The Store” was Mooney’s longtime base of operations, as Goldie Hawn, Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, Donny Osmond and Lee and Farrah Fawcett Majors caught the shows. Mooney and Pryor had corroborative disappointments — Pryor was promised the starring role in “Blazing Saddles,” a script Pryor originally developed for himself as “Tex X.”

We hear the inside story of Pryor’s notorious demise — shooting up his wife’s car, setting himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, making a painful biopic and enduring multiple sclerosis. During these years, rising comics Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Dave Chappelle (who wrote the foreword to the book) borrow from and express their debt to Pryor and all hire Mooney as opening act (Murphy), writer (Wayans), or cast member (Chappelle).

It was Mooney who conceived the popular “In Living Color” character Homey Da Clown. You’ll never guess who taught then-Sen. Obama the fist bump. The author explains why he abandoned usage of the “n” word long after others made the same decision, including Pryor after a late 1970’s visit to Kenya. Poseurs, moguls and addicts are all presented as nakedly as Pryor in his controversial 1977 birthday suit sketch on his NBC show.

This is not a book of jokes; imagine sitting all night in a living room with an entertainment pro regaling you with, “True story, before anyone ever heard of so-and-so....”

“Black Is The New White” tells some agonizing truths about America and the industry that most occupies our fascination. Mooney has used his invisibility as a superpower for good.

Bijan C. Bayne is a Boston-born cultural critic.