For a certain generation of Americans, the late Richard Pryor is remembered as the Michael Jordan of comedy. Yet for a lot of younger folks he’s more an idea than a memory.
Today, Pryor is probably most widely known for his uneven film career instead of his brilliant stand-up performances and albums, an oversight that authors David and Joe Henry (brothers who happen to be white) hope to rectify with their new book Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him.
Their subject is anything but conventional, which is probably why a big-screen biopic of the late comic has languished in development hell for years, and the Henrys wisely don’t provide a safe or sanitized portrait of this undeniably tortured genius.
“We didn’t go looking for skeletons or scandals. There was no need,” the authors say. “It’s true that a great many people who were part of Richard’s life at some point or another felt hurt or disappointed or brutalized or betrayed by him.”
Besides Pryor’s well-documented rampant drug use and his infamous act of self-immolation, Furious Cool explores, among other things, incidents of molestation he endured as a child, his life growing up in a brothel, his dabbling in gay sex, his multiple marriages and his unforgivable physical abuse of women.
And yet, the book’s intention to put Pryor’s impact on pop culture in perspective is never overshadowed by his personal failings.
From page one it is evident that the Henry brothers are fans first and biographers second, and while that should be a detriment to the finished product it is actually refreshing. In fact, Pryor is often referred to as the less formal Richard throughout the text, giving the whole enterprise a less stuffy and detached air than most books of this kind.
“When we were 12 and 14 years old, there was no cooler, more exciting or inspiring person, than Richard Pryor,” the Henrys say.
But Furious Cool is not just a book about Pryor, it’s a thorough examination of the unique atmosphere that fomented his meteoric rise. In the same way that the advent of MTV perfectly coincided with Michael Jackson’s creative peak, the malaise and inherent cynicism of the 1970s provided the ideal outlet for Pryor’s soul-baring comedy.
Through vivid characterizations and routines that didn’t contain traditional jokes, Pryor kept audiences enraptured and in stitches. Even if behind the scenes he could be “boring” or quite possibly manic depressive, on stage he was an unparalleled performer, the kind of comedian other comics would watch in awe.
His later, safer work and debilitating struggle with multiple sclerosis (which sidelined him for over a decade before his death), has left younger generations largely unaware of what a revolutionary figure he was.
Today, he falls into an awkward place generationally. He gets name-checked as an idol of Eddie Murphy’s and gets sampled in the occasional hip-hop song but parents may balk at recommending him because of the salacious nature of his material. Like too many great artists, he is also far too often dismissed as a drug addict. His addictions were destructive and sad but the legacy he left behind has and will provide laughs for generations.
Furious Cool puts his contribution to comedy in context. While every other rising black star (including initially himself) was trying to cross over to white audiences by trying to emulate Bill Cosby, he broke through by simply speaking his own ugly truth. His career truly took off after his aptly named LP That Ni**er’s Crazy became a smash hit in 1974 and Hollywood beckoned.
Although his film career frustrated him, he did essay stellar dramatic performances in films like Lady Sings the Blues and Blue Collar, became the most bankable black star of his era through his partnership with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, and gave what is still considered the best stand-up performance of all time in 1979’s Richard Pryor: Live In Concert.
Still, Pryor’s story is a riveting but sad one. He rarely enjoyed his triumphs and they often came at a physical or emotional price. He desperately wanted to be a movie star but felt like a sellout when he became one. According to his close friend and collaborator Paul Mooney, he constantly struggled with a desire to be accepted by white audiences and a fear of alienating the black fanbase that first embraced him.
Furious Cool should go a long way toward making sure that this incomparable comic voice does not become a footnote in black history. Even if you think you know Richard Pryor’s work, you don’t know the half of it, and this book delves deep enough to make you look at him and his legacy in a whole new light.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard