The funniest, saddest man in the world

A study of the life and work of comedian Richard Pryor is intelligent, beautifully written and full of heart

Richard Pryor: parlayed his devastating life into his act. Photograph: Getty

Richard Pryor: parlayed his devastating life into his act. Photograph: Getty

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:00

Richard Pryor: parlayed his devastating life into his act. Photograph: Getty  

Book Title:
Furious Cool – Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him.


David Henry and Joe Henry

Algonquin Books

Guideline Price:

No one ever stole a joke from Richard Pryor. In an era when even the best comedians filched lines from journeymen on the club circuit, his riffs on alcoholism, racism, homosexuality, spousal abuse, prostitution, police brutality and drug addiction were so brilliantly unique as to be off limits to everyone else. The humour in Pryor’s comedy came largely in the telling, which, for all its profanity, was childlike and devoid of calculation. But what also rendered his stories theftproof was the tragic truth in them, torn as they were from the autobiography of his horribly broken life.

Early in Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World T hat Made Him , David and Joe Henry set out, in cold, bullet-point form, some of the childhood experiences that shaped him, as the man responsible for the most seminal and influential stand-up performance of all time, as well as the tragic figure who couldn’t face five minutes of reality without a hit from a crack pipe.

By the time he was 10 he had been forced to fellate a local bully and was mocked about it at the family dinner table. He had watched his prostitute mother service a client and his father empty six bullets into a man who dared to cross him. He had found a dead baby in a shoebox. He had ministered to a man whose intestines spilled out of his stomach after a knife fight and watched his father run bleeding down the street, having had his scrotum torn open by his wife in a domestic dispute.

What WC Fields said of Bert Williams, the black Vaudeville entertainer – “He was the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew” – could equally be applied to Pryor, who parlayed the devastating biographical details of his life into his act. Yet there was no catharsis for him in doing so. There remained a great emptiness at his core, which he attempted to fill with cognac, which he drank a bottle at a time, and with pure, uncut cocaine, which numbed his pain, though never for long.

Part memoir, part social history
The book’s authors, who are brothers and lifelong fans, met the comedian in 2005 to propose writing a screenplay about his life and times. It was shortly before his death after a two and a half decade struggle with multiple sclerosis. It was never their intention, they make clear, to produce the definitive biography of the man who, along with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, is credited with changing the face of modern comedy.