Book Review: Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David & Joe Henry

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Sadly, unconscionably, Richard Pryor has been largely erased from the pop culture landscape in the eight years since his passing. His ardent fans remain, but it’s hard not to wonder what will become of Pryor’s legacy once that ever-shrinking demographic eventually slips away. Ask a random teenager, or even a 20something, if they know who Richard Pryor was and (save for those true students of comedy) you’re just as likely to get a blank stare as any note of recognition. Hell, based on my own anecdotal evidence, even many older comedy fans who readily remember Pryor’s heyday are all too eager to share that the commercially popular (but otherwise reprehensible) The Toy is a nostalgic favorite of theirs.

That’s why Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him is such a vital book. Authors David and Joe Henry offers a bracingly vivid portrait of one of the 20th century’s great artists, a man who redefined stand-up comedy by making it equal parts humor and tragedy. The Henry brothers (David is a screenwriter, Joe is a singer-songwriter) are obviously unabashed fans, but they were also in the unique position of having had access to Mr. Pryor during his final years. In other words, this isn’t a mere compendium of facts, dates, and readily available quotes. The Henrys sought to craft a screenplay based on the late comedian’s life. With the cooperation of Pryor’s wife Jennifer Lee, the authors personally met and spent time with the multiple sclerosis-ravaged Pryor. Their research and interviews eventually morphed from the proposed screenplay into Furious Cool.

There have been other Pryor biographies, not the least of which being his own memoir, Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences (written with Todd Gold and published in 1995). As with his self-written, self-directed, unofficial “biopic” Jo Jo Dancer,Your Life is Calling (1986), Pryor largely failed to accurately capture his own voice (though the book, and film for that matter, are certainly worth seeking out). John A. Williams’ 1991 bio If I Stop, I’ll Die was a bracing account of Pryor’s life and times. But none of these works were written from the perspective of looking back on a complete life. Furious Cool arrives years after MS silenced Pryor and eventually claimed his life. It arrives at a time when Richard Pryor is continuously referred to as a “legend” and a “trailblazing pioneer,” even as so much of the general public has forgotten what made him great.

In less than 300 pages, the Henry brothers remind us. They tell Pryor’s story with a decisive emphasis on his work, his artistry. Yes, this is the story of a man haunted and tortured by psychological problems, a man who relentlessly self-medicated with destructive drugs. But as we’re reminded during the chronicling of his early career, no one in his chosen field shone as brightly. The fall that follows his infamous, near-fatal 1980 self-immolation, triggered by a weeks-long freebasing binge and God only knows what other personal demons, is perhaps steeper and more sudden than anyone in all of popular entertainment.

To the Henrys’ credit, it is all told with page-turning intensity. Pryor’s many marriages, questionable parenting skills, and scrapes with the law are all examined—never excusing the man from personal responsibility, but never really passing judgment against him, either. The sections dealing with the ‘60s and early ‘70s, detailing the emergence of Pryor’s mature comedic style after years of basing his act on that of Bill Cosby, make for the easiest reading. Even those readily familiar with Pryor’s string of classic, groundbreaking comedy albums are likely to pause once again in wonder, reflecting on the drive and invention that Pryor exhibited. The Henrys effectively communicate that Pryor simply had creativity almost literally seeping from every pore, but—aside from when he was onstage with a microphone—he didn’t always know the best way to harness it.

Luckily Richard Pryor spent a good deal of time in what was apparently his natural habitat: onstage at comedy clubs and performance halls. And we have the recordings as evidence. The authors quote heavily from classic routines, sure to send even those who have heard this material hundreds of times right back to their collections. And if you haven’t experienced Pryor’s comedic genius, Furious Cool will certainly inspire many readers to seek out this material.

The “take the money and run” mentality that dominated Pryor’s Hollywood career resulted in a great deal of wasted (or at least unrealized) talent. I do take issue with the Henrys’ rather casual admittance that they have never even seen most of Pryor’s post-Jo Jo Dancer filmography. They try to play it off like it’s out of respect, but honestly if you’re going to write a major biographical work you should know as much about your subject as possible. Sitting down to watch the handful of 90 minute comedies they write off as the work of a “Richard Pryor impersonator” isn’t asking much. I understand the point they are making, that movies like Critical Condition and Moving don’t make use of Pryor’s gifts or add to his legacy in any meaningful way. On the other hand, I still feel that a film uniting Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy for the only time is worth more than a passing mention of the title (Harlem Nights), no matter how maligned.

But Furious Cool doesn’t purport to be an all-encompassing biography. David and Joe Henry chose to focus on the years that mattered most, before the drugs and debilitating disease finally robbed Pryor of his ability to create. For those who choose to read it, Furious Cool will go a long way towards re-establishing Richard Pryor’s rightful place in the pantheon of popular artists.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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