Pryor Expectations

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him BY David Henry, Joe Henry. Algonquin Books. Hardcover, 400 pages. $25.
Cover of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

Though the term genius is used rather promiscuously, few comics merit the label as much as Richard Pryor did. He was masterful—a truth teller, an incisive social critic, a man who opened up a great deal of the black experience to a general audience. He also plumbed his own personal experience with a flair for self-deprecation that could be as discomfiting as it was funny. Onstage, he hid little of himself: While performing at a gay-rights benefit in San Francisco, Pryor startled the crowd by declaring, “I’ve sucked dick … and it was beautiful.” Then, after inviting them to “kiss my rich happy black ass,” he walked off the stage. It’s a shame that Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry neither lives up to its slick title nor the complicated life of the man himself.

Pryor certainly led a life worthy of biographical treatment. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1940, a city that was a “famously average embodiment of Middle American values” and also “awash in gambling havens, speakeasies, whorehouses, and corruption.” He was raised mostly by his grandmother, who ran a brothel, though his mother and father were part of his life. Growing up around prostitution and violence (in his autobiography he describes watching his mother service a client and seeing his father shoot a man), Pryor took to comedy. By elementary school, he was performing stand-up routines for classmates on a weekly basis. After dropping out of high school, taking a series of odd jobs, and serving a brief stint in the military, Pryor became a full-time comic in the early ’60s, touring clubs across the Midwest before moving to New York in 1963 and joining Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Woody Allen in the West Village comedy scene. During these early years, Pryor modeled much of his act on Bill Cosby; it wasn’t until the end of the decade that he found his truest comic voice—or voices—in a cast of junkies, thugs, winos, hillbillies, and prostitutes he channeled onstage.

Pryor didn’t try to hide his rage, nor did he temper his honesty about what it meant to be a black man in America. Unlike the black comics who preceded him, Pryor forefronted his sense of vulnerability, exposing his struggles with self-confidence, and his trouble finding a place in the world. Audiences were bowled over by Pryor’s neurotic material, and by the ’70s, the comic was a bona fide star. He appeared in the most coveted comedy clubs, worked with Mel Brooks on the Blazing Saddles script, co-starred in Lady Sings the Blues, and went on to star in more than twenty films. He wrote for Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show. He appeared regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1983, Pryor received a forty million dollar, five-year contract with Warner Brothers. Meanwhile, he was plagued by addiction, and his personal life was a mess. In 1980, while freebasing cocaine, Pryor doused himself in alcohol and lit himself on fire. He suffered burns over more than half his body, and many agree that he never really recovered from the incident. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983, and seven years later suffered his second heart attack. At the time of his death in 2005, Pryor had been married seven times to five women—most of those marriages marred by domestic violence—and had fathered six children.

Furious Cool is the first book by the Henry brothers—David is a screenwriter and Joe a musician—and though it wavers between being a biography, a historical survey of black comedy, and a creative retelling of moments from Pryor’s life, it is primarily an account of Pryor’s coming of age as a young man and a comedian. While the book doesn’t hold up to Pryor’s autobiography, Pryor Convictions, or Hilton Als’s exceptional New Yorker essay “A Pryor Love,” the authors do know their material, and offer the occasional elegant insight. Remarking on the comedy tradition that Pryor joined and then reshaped in his own image, they write: “Richard found genius in this cosmology of language and humor that, up until that time, had kept sanctuary in barbershops, pool halls, street corners, front porches, and back rooms. Then, to nearly everyone’s dismay, he went and paraded it out in front of company.” Furious Cool is also deeply researched: references to Pryor’s unpublished work run alongside interviews with people in his inner circle, including comics Lily Tomlin and Paul Mooney and his widow Jennifer Lee Pryor.

Even so, the book doesn’t provide many new details about Pryor’s life, and the ones it does offer up are often bizarrely rendered. For instance, in a particularly baffling observation about the eighteen-year-old Pryor’s status as a “cunnilingual virgin,” the authors write, “If it seems improbable … consider the African American male’s well-documented aversion to going down on a woman.” This statement is unfortunate. In my nearly thirty-nine years on this planet, I’ve never been informed of this aversion. I consulted Twitter and received confirmation from several black men that this bias does not exist. The line is meant as a joke, but it’s representative of what strangely passes for humor in a book about one of history’s best comics.

In the introduction, the authors describe how, as two white boys growing up in Ohio, Pryor awakened them to the fact that “African American culture had shaped everything we knew and loved.” This kind of unchecked reverence runs throughout Furious Cool, and it underscores the trouble the authors have in separating the myth of Richard Pryor from the man himself. Yes, Pryor was a genius, a beloved and brilliant comic, but his more troubling characteristics go largely unquestioned. As Furious Cool reaches deeper into Pryor’s life, the authors’ worshipful attitude becomes uncomfortable: They use the same tone describing an appearance at a comedy club as they do detailing how Pryor beat a girlfriend to a pulp. The Henrys don’t shy away from recounting drug abuse or violence, but there is a sense that they excuse his misdeeds and revel in his flaws. Furious Cool suggests that there is a price to pay for having genius among us, and that that price is well worth paying for a man like Richard Pryor. I beg to differ.

Roxane Gay’s novel, An Untamed State, and essay collection, Bad Feminist, are forthcoming in 2014.