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.

And Furious Cool is more than merely an account of Pryor’s life. It is part memoir, part paean and part social history, a beautifully rendered portrait that celebrates Pryor’s extraordinary genius, even as it exposes his terrible failings: his abandonment of his children, his brutality towards women, his marriages that were measured in weeks and, in 1980, his self-immolation while freebasing cocaine.

The book traces the origin of Pryor’s narrative style and the cadences of his delivery to the “boasts, toasts and signifying” of street-corner raconteurs in his native Peoria, Illinois, as well as the colourful johns who visited his street to have sex with his mother.

As a boy he was drawn to the stage by a drama teacher who saw in him the makings of a great entertainer. But no part he played on the stage could match the drama of his life. Expelled from school early for throwing a punch at a teacher, he took various jobs, first shining shoes, then shaking carcasses in a slaughterhouse. At night, in an old garage, he made love to a girl whom he described as the first real love of his life. She became pregnant, though it emerged she was also sleeping with Richard’s father. “Later in life,” the book relates, “he came to accept Renee” – the daughter who resulted – “reasoning that, even if she were not his daughter, she was likely his half-sister. Either way, she was family.”

He tried to escape the dysfunction of his life by enlisting in the army, but he was court-martialled for stabbing a fellow enlistee, an early manifestation of the rage that burned within him and would later, at the height of his stardom, find expression in his habit of shooting his .357 Magnum at objects both inanimate and animate.

Smartly and insightfully, the authors follow the metamorphoses in Pryor’s act, from his first steps into character-based comedy in the black clubs of his hometown. As soon as he could scrape together the means to leave Peoria, he did, catching a bus to New York, where he made his name as a stand-up in the coffee shops of early-1960s Greenwich Village, sharing billings with Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.

Along with Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, Pryor was part of the new vanguard of African-American comedians, who eschewed the reverential buffoonery of traditional black entertainers, such as Amos ’n’ Andy, and dared to address white audiences as their racial equals. Pryor’s upward-only trajectory took him to The Ed Sullivan Show and to national attention as a stand-up and a film actor. But Pryor secretly loathed the Cosby manqué that he turned into in the Hollywood and Las Vegas of the Rat Pack years. In achieving mainstream success he was sublimating something of himself: his “black ass”, as he called it.

Just like Robert Johnson to the crossroads, and Malcolm X to Mecca, Pryor headed to Berkeley, in northern California, to try to soak up some of the revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His friendship with the Black Panthers and the leading lights of the west-coast literary scene persuaded him that great comedy was about subversion. It prepared the ground for the most triumphant phase of his career, the decade of the 1970s, when he tested the boundaries of comfort and good taste and made punchlines out of his life’s pain.

It was during this period, too, we’re reminded, that Pryor helped appropriate the word “nigger” for the hip-hop generation to come, turning the mother ship of all racial slurs into a term of empowerment with just a twist of his mouth.

Bad feeling
It’s often said that Bill Cosby made folks feel good about being American while Pryor, at his truth-telling best, did the opposite. Yet audiences adored him no less for that, just as they loved him for all his terrible flaws and the sadness that lingered as an aftertaste to his comedy. As Joan Rivers is quoted as saying, “I do what’s painful for middle-class women . . . Richard does what’s painful for somebody who has really lived through pain.”

It would be an understatement to describe this book as a warts-and-all biography. There are passages of Pryor’s life that are all wart. David and Joe Henry make plain their love for their subject without ever drifting into hagiography. The result is an intelligent and beautifully written book, which is full of heart and which rescues Pryor’s legend from the unfortunate, fat Elvis period of his later movie career. It sent this reviewer scouring the house for an old DVD copy of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert to enjoy again the man in all his heartbreaking, broken brilliance.