Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor could make us laugh until it hurt, and from the 1960s through the 1990s they did, as iconic comic entertainers. Two new books illuminate their singular talents — and suggest the lion's share of pain was on their side.
Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him is a biography by brothers David Henry, a screenwriter, and Joe Henry, a singer-songwriter and music producer. They describe themselves as "a couple of twelve- and fifteen-year-old white kids" in Ohio the first time they saw Pryor on TV in 1973: "For us, Richard was a gateway artist, opening the door to worlds of music, storytelling, and poetry that had been thriving just out of sight, humming beneath our radar. Suddenly we were awake to how African American culture had shaped everything we knew and loved." They're unabashed fanboys (although unafraid to detail Pryor's chaotic personal life), and they're most interested in putting him and his work in a wider cultural context. They knew Pryor slightly, but the book is the product of substantial research.
Johnny Carson is a memoir by Henry Bushkin, the lawyer whom Carson caricatured so often as "Bombastic Bushkin" in his monologues on The Tonight Show that many viewers had no idea he was a real person. Bushkin was indeed not only Carson's attorney but his "partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dining companion, and foil" for 18 years (longer, Bushkin notes, than three of Carson's marriages). Hired almost on a whim in 1970 — his first assignment was accompanying a pistol-packing Carson and entourage to break into an apartment the star's second wife had rented to carry on an affair — and fired in a three-minute conversation in 1988, Bushkin had an intensely personal relationship with Carson. He doesn't hold back on his boss' dark side, but it's also clear that tagging along with Johnny was the ride of his life, and that he regrets its end even though he knew better than most people how lousy Carson was at sustaining any kind of relationship — except with an audience.
Born almost a generation apart — Carson in 1925, Pryor in 1940 — the two men had very different styles. Carson ruled late-night television for 30 years as host of The Tonight Show, his smooth, sophisticated — but not too sophisticated — style making him the man millions of Americans chose to end their day with. His comedy was squarely in the style of his generation and that before him, including his idol Jack Benny: fresh with cultural comment but not overtly political, sharp but self-deprecating enough to soften the edge and, at least while the camera was rolling, family friendly. Carson aimed to perfect the tradition of standup comedy, not revolutionize it.
That was Pryor's aim. Born just ahead of the baby boom, he was the comic of the '60s generation, using standup as a weapon against racism and hypocrisy, aiming not to winkingly rib the powers that be but to burn them down. He kicked open doors for countless comics who followed him, transformed standup from a string of one-liners to character-driven psychological humor, and, for better or worse, put the n-word square onto TV screens and in the middle of the national conversation.
Carson hung out with stars of his generation, like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, and hosted Ronald Reagan's first inaugural celebration (although only grudgingly, after Sinatra put the arm on him). Pryor hung out with Black Panthers and, in the most infamous incident of his personal life, set himself on fire with a crack pipe. Despite the obvious differences between them, though, these books show that Carson and Pryor had a surprising number of things in common, and not just the fact that Pryor's appearances on The Tonight Show, and Carson's clear favor, were instrumental in kickstarting the younger man's career.
Both were sons of the Midwest heartland. Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, and grew up in small towns in Iowa and Nebraska, getting his show biz start as a boy magician. Pryor was born and raised in Peoria, Ill., a river town that was a regular stop for vaudeville performers, many of whom passed time in Pryor's childhood home, the brothel run by his grandmother, Marie Carter. His first gig was playing drums in a Peoria theater.
Both Carson and Pryor struggled throughout their lives with the effects of cold, cruel mother figures. Carson's mother, Ruth, whom he called "the toughest son of a bitch of them all," rejected him all his life and never acknowledged his success; he refused to attend her funeral. Pryor's mother, who worked as a prostitute in Marie Carter's establishment and married Carter's son, deserted Richard when he was 10, leaving him to be raised by the formidable and often physically abusive Carter.
It's no wonder, perhaps, that both men were lousy fathers and serial husbands. Carson had four marriages and three sons; Pryor married seven times, to five women, and had six children. They were prodigious philanderers as well. Bushkin recounts one memorable occasion when he arrived at his boss' Las Vegas penthouse late one night to find three nude women (including Bushkin's date) bobbing in the rooftop swimming pool and Carson, dressed only in an apron, pouring them wine from a $3,000 bottle of Petrus. Pryor didn't need a posthumous biographer to detail his sexual escapades — he made them hilariously explicit (and unquotable in a newspaper) fodder for his act.
Substance abuse was a problem for both men, mainly drugs for Pryor, alcohol for Carson. Work was a driving and stabilizing force for both of them, although these books detail instances when their egos, stoked by stardom and drugs or booze, led them to appalling tantrums and abuse of colleagues, friends and family. In short, as much as we loved them on screen — and as a baby boomer I loved them both — these two books make clear that art, comedy included, often transcends personalities.
Both of these books give their subjects context. Bushkin's is mainly an insider view of the business of show business, the glad-handing, deal-making and back-stabbing, which Carson both reveled in and reviled. The Henry brothers have a wider scope, doing an especially fine job with the history of segregated entertainment in the first part of the 20th century and Pryor's role in breaking those lines. Neither of these books is a definitive biography, but taken together they're a fascinating look at two indelible forces in 20th century entertainment, one who looked backward, the other to the future.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.