What Richard Pryor’s Stand-Up Can Teach Writers

The nonfiction author Cutter Wood on how the comedian’s work helped him imbue minor characters with emotional life

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

One of Richard Pryor’s many gifts, his friend the comedian Paul Mooney once said, was an ability to “lose himself”: to channel characters with such eerie totality that he almost seemed to disappear. “When he told a story, it was like a movie. You believed it was happening. ” Mooney told NPR, shortly after Pryor’s death in 2005. “When he did the drunk, you believed you were seeing a drunk. When he talked about the deer in the woods, you believed it.”

In a conversation for this series, Cutter Wood, the author of Love and Death in the Sunshine State, discussed the influence Pryor’s stand-up has had on his writing—especially in his uncanny ability to portray nonhuman characters. For Wood, watching Pryor’s 1982 performance Live on the Sunset Strip was a revelation, a reminder that imaginative empathy is the engine of great art, and that anything that appears in a story—from an animal to an everyday household object—can be given the full range of emotional life.

Love and Death in the Sunshine State explores the tragic story of Sabine Musil-Buehler, a woman who was murdered on Florida’s Anna Maria Island in 2008. As he attempted to reimagine the circumstances of Musil-Buehler’s life and death, Wood spent years interviewing locals—including many hours with the man who ultimately confessed to brutally killing her. We discussed how this experience challenged his “commitment to empathy as a worldview,” his struggle to find humanity in a man capable of horrific violence, and the emotional difficulty of writing about his victim—an enchanting, troubled woman he’d never met.

Cutter Wood is one of 36 writers to receive this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. His work has been featured in Harper’s and at The Paris Review Daily; he’s a graduate of the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program, where I first met him. He spoke to me in his studio apartment in Brooklyn.

Cutter Wood: My first year as an MFA student out in Iowa, I was suddenly expected to be a teacher. The university really dumped us in there—I think we had five days of training before we got pushed out into the classroom, and I had no clue what I was doing. I was only two years older than some of my students.

At the same time, I was also trying to figure out who I was as a writer. I was trying to understand what I wanted to sound like, but it was much more fundamental than that. I was forced to ask myself: Why am I doing this shit in the first place? I’d always wanted to make beautiful stuff and describe things well, and I had this lingering sense that to be a good writer you had to be an essentially empathetic human being. But I couldn’t articulate my motivations much more clearly than that. So as I looked for material for my students, I was also looking for work that would help me explain my own attraction to writing. I was willing to assign anything I thought might draw an 18-year-old in flip-flops into a meaningful conversation about the value of literature.

That was how I ended up stumbling on Richard Pryor.

I don’t remember exactly why I decided to show them Live on the Sunset Strip. For whatever reason, I came home from the library one day with two DVDs of live Pryor stand-up. And they affected me as much as anything I encountered in grad school.

The first Pryor film I watched was Live and Smokin’, which I love for its own reasons. It’s in a dingy nightclub, shot on grainy film with hardly any production value. Pryor’s jittery and confrontational, and you get the sense he’s willing to try almost anything, just to see what will work. At one point, he spends what feels like a very long time narrating an imagined dialogue between a wino and a heroin addict, and it’s more heartbreaking than anything. The material is riveting, but there are few jokes—it’s not really even intended to be funny.

Then I watched Live on the Sunset Strip, which is a completely different experience. It’s shot with maybe five cameras, and Pryor is dressed in this gorgeous red suit head to toe, very polished and proper. The whole thing is hilarious, masterful, a classic. And as I watched, I noticed one thing in particular Pryor kept doing again and again: He has this amazing way of personifying nonhuman things, inhabiting their points of view and working them into his act.

The example that struck me most is this long bit about visiting Africa, the joy and pride of visiting the motherland. Within that, there’s a section about going on safari, and how animals in the wild just look nothing like the ones you’ve seen in the zoo. He does a series of impressions of common zoo animals, portraying them as neutered and stifled and angry and depressed—a series of grotesques. He becomes the bear in the cage, the lion pacing behind the glass. And then, suddenly, he talks about going on safari with his wife, and how in the jungle even a rabbit is scary. The way he portrays these creatures is hard to describe, they’re so tied up in his slight facial gestures and the subtle movements of his body.

Then, he proceeds to inhabit a series of wild African animals, as well as occasionally the humans viewing them. The one that really got me was this domestic scene he creates between two male cheetahs, just sitting there watching a herd of gazelles:

“You wanna go after that herd?”

“Nah, man, they’re too close. Shit, why don’t we give them another 100 yards.”

To pass the time, these cheetahs start talking about the wife and kids, and the upcoming tourist season. When they finally decide the gazelles are far enough away, Pryor blows into the mic—woosh—and they’re gone. As a joke, it’s so satisfying. The audience eats it up. For me, it brought back a kind of childhood fantasy of the cheetah just being the coolest animal in the world. But there are so many other levels to what he’s doing in that moment. And it became absolutely elemental to my thinking about things—about everything I was reading at the time, and everything I hoped to write.

One thing the scene demonstrates to me is that the pathetic fallacy is somehow true: You can take anything and breathe life into it. It doesn’t matter what it is. When you take an empathetic perspective on the world, and step into things that don’t have human consciousness, you’re allowed access into moments in a way you never would be otherwise.

I don’t know if I can explain this fully. But I feel like every piece of writing I’ve ever read that moved me deeply comes from a place where objects themselves are somehow alive. It’s like what Nicholson Baker wrote recently about the line that made him decide to be a writer: a line in Nabokov’s autobiography where he describes a marble rolling underneath a piano across a hardwood floor. When you read Proust, it’s obvious he’s thought about how the water lilies feel when they sway back and forth in the waves. It makes your own experience of the world so much richer when you can see everything as though it’s you, and see yourself as though you’re everything.

I have a friend, a philosopher, who recently described to me a theory about the way objects become externalized ways of thinking, repositories for our emotions and thoughts. Memories can be hidden in them, ways of thinking can be inside them. A crucial piece of you can be contained inside an everyday object, some aspect of self that might be difficult or impossible to access otherwise, even if it’s just the sound of a marble rolling across a childhood floor. Of course, it’s easy to say a table is just a table—that’s not inaccurate. But objects can have such powerful associations for us that they take on a kind of emotional life. Objects are things that your mind takes and fondles and applies itself to, and entirely new thoughts come out the other side.

Personification also allows us to explain ourselves better. You can see this in the old medieval allegories: A story about a guy going out to kill a lion in a forest becomes a way of describing someone’s inner life, before there was psychological terminology. I think that’s part of what Pryor’s doing with his cheetahs—an exacting kind of self-reflection. That kind of empathy—the desire to meld minds with something, even if just for a moment—is what I think drives my interest in reading, and in writing.

For me, nonfiction has always been about the brain. If story is the motor of fiction, then the motor of nonfiction is thought. And so in nonfiction, it seems very natural that you follow your thoughts wherever they take you, even if it means going into other people’s perspectives. That’s a good thing. As people, it’s so easy for us to start feeling that people of X political party aren’t human beings—or that this guy committed murder, he should get the electric chair. It’s unfortunately easy for us as a species to place others outside the zone of what we feel comfortable calling human. But literature is an attempt to do the opposite. It’s an attempt to locate humanity where we might least expect it, an exercise in broadening the scope of what can be said to be “like us.”

I will say that writing this book challenged my commitment to empathy as a worldview. I thought I knew who had killed Sabine, the woman whose murder is at the center of the book. In earlier drafts, I remember trying to imagine my way into what had happened to her—I had a theory, but this was long before the truth actually came out. I wrote maybe a dozen different versions of this culminating murder. With each one, I wrote the way I thought it had happened, but each attempt ultimately seemed to me too gruesome, so in the next draft I stepped it back a notch. By the end, I’d written it so that the murder almost seemed to be an accident. And yet, later, when the murderer finally confessed and described to me exactly what had occurred that night, it was as terrible as I’d first imagined. That challenged me. How could I ever manage to empathize with someone who had killed so ruthlessly? How could I go on believing that the person who did this is fully a human being like the rest of us?

But as I continued writing, I spent more and more time with the murderer I write about in the book. Over time, I started to realize: We are all capable of inordinate cruelty. There is terrible stuff in our thoughts. You could say that, in some cases, the difference between a convicted killer and a “normal” person comes down to a kind of impulse control. All it takes is to hear yourself say something needlessly cruel to realize you’ve got all the meanness ready and waiting in there. You might have had an upbringing that allowed you to distract yourself from it, or you might not have been forced to experience an event that would bring it out. But it’s there. You can be polite and still do so much damage.

As hard as it was to write about this murderer with humanity, it was even harder to write about Sabine, the victim. I felt like if I got it wrong with the murderer, nobody would care that much—but if you get it wrong with the victim, that’s not okay. It was challenging to try to bring this murdered woman to life on the page, and harder, still, to try to inhabit her perspective at times. At the same time, I felt I had to try. I didn’t want to try to tell the kind of story a district attorney would tell, that a newspaper would tell. I felt that approach would miss something crucial: the lived experience, the way it feels to be inside a relationship that’s just tearing itself apart.

To capture that, I needed to try to imagine my way into Sabine’s experience as fully as I could. To me, that’s a huge part of what writing is: trying to imagine your way into what you are not. The moves in the book that felt most freeing were not taking on the perspective of the victim or the murderer, but these brief dips into other points of view—a minor character, a bird sitting on a branch. Those moments where, in the space of a single adjective, the lens just shifts slightly. As a writer, that’s where I feel happiest, I guess.

All of this is a way of trying to move past our fundamental loneliness. Isn’t it funny that we have these amazing computational organs in our heads, and seemingly the only thing they can’t do is connect to another one? All we have to get this crazy electron shit from one brain to another is our fucking lips, is words on a page. Our abilities are profoundly limited here, and we’ll never be able to fully get through. But what matters is trying. And our effort pays off. Anyone can recognize the difference between a cave painting of an antelope on a wall, and an elegant Richard Pryor depiction of one.

The amazing thing is, you can get through. Literature is very theft-based, and it’s not a bad thing. If you’re Jackson Pollock, you go study Picasso to learn his technique, and if you’re Picasso, you study those archaic cave paintings. When I fell in love with Joan Didion’s work, I tried to read all of her heroes. As you trace back this way, you start to see how much is repeated. The same ideas, the same technical flourishes, the same cadences. Certain things flow down from author to author, book to book, just percolating over time. It’s through that gradual motion that literature enlarges us. Each borrowed gesture—whether it’s an intentional homage or just something a writer adored and internalized‚ is a sign someone or something broke through. A sign that a new way of thinking, one you could never have come up with on your own, occurred to you vividly through something you read. That’s what it means to be a writer, to me: to be a vehicle for a way of thinking, even a single thought, that’s been winding its way through the ages, that I have the good fortune to inherit and pass along.