Furious, Genius or Legend?
Authors examine Richard Pryor's life and work in compelling new biography
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief
“Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him,” by David Henry and Joe Henry, published November 5, is a page-turning take on the life and comedy of Richard Pryor. The Henry brothers, a screenwriter and singer/songwriter respectively, are big fans of Pryor who set out to write a biopic and instead, at least so far, have produced this book.
The result, “Furious Cool,” benefits from the outside perspective its authors have about Pryor, giving the reader insight and objectively surveying the comedy pioneer’s work in a way that Pryor himself could not really do in his own autobiography or the autobiographical movie, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.”
The brothers identify and chronicle the way Pryor broke out of just performing as a Bill Cosby clone early in his career – through a soul-searching time Pryor spent in San Francisco with fellow comic and writer Paul Mooney. This is where Pryor found his true voice as a stand-up and planted the seeds that grew into the multiple characters he used to populate scenes and stories onstage. Pryor didn’t play one character at a time, as some do, but rather put many all into the same piece.
“Furious Cool” correctly and fairly assesses Pryor’s hits and misses. The hits, to the Henrys and to most, are Pryor’s 1970s stand-up work and the first one or two concert documentaries he made, as well as dramatic turns in serious dramatic movies during those same years. The misses are Pryor’s later stand-up work, after hard living began taking its toll on him and his energy and inventiveness waned – also the later 1980s movies that he did mostly for the paychecks, such as “The Toy,” “Brewster’s Millions,” and even in some respects, “Superman III,” although that one did find Pryor being more entertaining and less of a self-parody.
The authors also unearth accounts of some very telling TV appearances Pryor did, like one where he sabotaged Chevy Chase on The Tonight Show and another where he revealed raunchy details about Milton Berle right to his face on the Mike Douglas Show, as Berle got red-faced and aggravated. The Henrys show that Pryor was also ahead of his time when it came to generating interesting and controversial media events – well before Howard Stern would take the same tack on David Letterman’s show.
But one of the most surprising insights, that make the Henrys’ effort so compelling, is one gained from Kathy McKee, a girlfriend of Pryor’s. “His personal skills, his relationship skills just for living his life as a human being, they weren’t there,” McKee tells the authors. “He was a strange person and he had a very dark side. When you were alone in the room with Richard in bed at night, there was no laughing, there were no jokes. He was a completely different person. A very dead personality. If you asked him a question, he would answer yes or no.”
It’s often thrown around that the level of genius exhibited by any comedian is often equal to the level of darkness in that person. Pryor was off the charts in both ways, as this assessment by McKee and the authors illustrates. With “Furious Cool,” as a survey of Pryor’s life and career, the authors show how his personality, influences, ideas and desires all collided with the imperatives of show business and the limitations that drug abuse imposed. That turns out to be the most illuminating way to appreciate Richard Pryor objectively, or for fans of his work to learn more about him.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua