November 10, 2013
In truth, there has been just one big new Richard Pryor pop-culture artifact of recent vintage, this year's Showtime documentary “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.” But even that feels like a cavalcade, because Pryor lived such a vivid life, blazed such a clear trail through America, American comedy and American movies that attempted to be comic. When you learn about him, or are reminded of him, he sticks with you. And now comes a new biography that, with fits of lyricism and surprising patches of original research, seconds and builds on the work done by the film and will implant Pryor in our consciousness for years to come — as, the book makes clear, he deserves to be.
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"Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him" fills in details and fleshes out years of Pryor's wildly successful failure of a life, from his upbringing in a Peoria brothel to his sad decline as a diseased, diminished icon.
This was a man, remember, who broke all onstage boundaries of his 1970s heyday, admitting even to rampant drug use and beating women in his life. He somehow kept audiences on his side, not just in comedy venues but on the big screen, becoming the top comic star of his era.
The truth, "Furious Cool" makes clear, was deeper and darker than even Pryor would admit to onstage.
The authors are the Henry brothers: David, a screenwriter, and Joe, the singer-songwriter and music producer. The jacket blurbs and introduction suggest this will interweave their memories of Pryor as kids with the comic's own story.
That would have been almost impossible to pull off, and thankfully, the personal reflections remain outside the main body of the book. Only at the end do we learn the Henrys actually met Pryor, gaining an (largely uneventful) audience with him a few years before the comic's 2005 death for a screenplay about him they were working on and are, apparently, still working on.
Instead, the Henrys guide us through the life, talking to many of the same ex-lovers and fellow comics the documentary makers did, but getting more. The book makes a beyond-persuasive case for Pryor as the greatest American stand-up comic, earning the lasting reverence of his peers by going where none had gone before. Pryor not only delved into the personal, but he exposed racial truths as well, showing all of America, the authors carefully point out, some of what black America talked about when it talked among itself.
Even though Pryor spent much of the 1960s doing a not-overtly-acknowledged Bill Cosby imitation, he was canny enough to recognize that Lenny Bruce had changed the game. "He showed that a comedian standing in front of an audience could ... plumb the same depths of humanity as a novelist, poet, or playwright could sitting over a typewriter," the Henrys write.
The authors allow Pryor to actually be funny, too, which isn't always the case in books about comedy. But they repeatedly point out that his very best material — delivered in the 1970s, after he detoured into Berkeley counterculture and kicked off the Cosby-mainstream-America yoke — didn't contain punch lines, didn't read funny on the page. It was funny because Pryor got so deeply into his broken characters, took his audience into their souls.
And although the book's detailed recitation of his film career might be trimmed by half, it makes a compelling case for Pryor as an extraordinary, and extraordinarily underused, actor — even as he proved to be a terrible judge of what roles he should take.
Their technique is to intersperse highly stylized writing microbursts describing key moments in Pryor's life — some sparkling, some overwritten, but all of them earnest — with a more straightforward narrative. There are times when the story lurches ahead a bit, and then backward, but it never derails. Some episodes are left unresolved: Did Mel Brooks try to cheat Pryor out of screenwriting credit on "Blazing Saddles" or not? Other anecdotes, presented as fact, have less the ring of truth than of a comic mind's latter-day exaggeration of the truth.
The subtitle doesn't lie. Readers won't learn about just Pryor but about the American culture from which he emerged. Peoria's wild riverfront heritage lives in these pages, as does America's awkward, often ugly grappling with race. Most of the great comics of the era are here, of course, but so are Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Sammy Davis Jr., Shelley Winters and so many more.
It never strays too far from Pryor, though. The constant threads in his life, besides the honing of his craft and the pushing away of any woman who might love him, are his alcohol and drug — mostly cocaine — use. The Henrys' portrait suggests many reasons for this: a desire to keep it real, not to be selling out for the sake of popularity; hints of mental illness even as a teenager; sexual abuse in his childhood by a bigger neighborhood boy; and the possibility, shared by his longest female companion, Jennifer Lee Pryor, that maybe he was gay. In a notebook outlining Pryor's abandoned attempt at a memoir, the authors write that they found a "confession that he'd had sex with men maybe ten or twelve times and they had been among the most profound experiences of his life."
The authors don't make too much of it — it is in a footnote, even — but it's an extraordinary thing to contemplate, and another possible key to the man's profound unrest. In his culture, at his time, it would surely have brought him another level of self-loathing.
But he had so many, culminating in the 1980 attempt to, almost literally, erase himself. The notorious incident of self-immolation following a freebase cocaine bender opens the book, as a vignette, and is later told in full, horrific detail. After it, Pryor's comic genius was pretty much gone, the authors write, and then multiple sclerosis finished him off.
Through it all, Pryor remained a puzzle to even those who knew him well and idolized his talent. His friend and fellow comic Paul Mooney is a primary source here, and one of his quotes, about Pryor's talents, successes and opportunities, nails the spirit of this book. "It kills us that Richard has it and it can't make him happy," Mooney wrote.
Read "Furious Cool," and it'll kill you a little, too.
Steve Johnson is a Tribune arts writer.
By David Henry and Joe Henry, Algonquin, 400 pages, $25.95
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