In what is clearly (and beautifully) a labor of love, brothers David Henry and Joe Henry have brought Richard Pryor back to pulsating life, affirming both his humanity and his immortality as a comic – and tragic – genius. Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him is billed as a biography/memoir but it is more than that (and that already is a lot).
Furious Cool is a fabulous history, alive with fascinating characters both reacting to and creating world-changing events; it is a study of the seismic cultural shifts of the second half of the twentieth century, when everything we knew about music, literature, television, theater, and yes, comedy, was turned upside down and sideways, blowing our minds and resetting all expectations; it is a documentary of epic proportions, based as it is upon mountains of research (all of it refined, sifted, and clarified); it is a love song and a dirge and silly ditty and a symphony of every emotion. Because Richard Pryor pummeled and shimmied and danced his way through all those emotions, and then brought everything he’d experienced to the stage and he gave it all back to us. He gave us the truth, funny and sad, familiar and strange, obvious and hidden.
Pryor felt it all, experienced it all, and expressed it all. That he managed to make us laugh so hard and for so long at truths that, in a stark light, were anything but funny, is proof of his genius. That we needed to be shown the truth, again and again, is the tragic part of the story; just as tragic as his hardscrabble childhood, his lifelong struggle with self-destruction, his abusive relationships with women, and his failure, again and again, to believe he’d accomplished anything worthwhile. As the Henry brothers prove in this well-researched and comprehensively presented book, Pryor accomplished so much that was worthwhile, timeless, and precious. That he also came out with movies, TV shows, and albums that were less than memorable only underscores how very hard he worked and played.
David Henry and Joe Henry capture a time I remember so well, being young and open and hungry. Like the Henry brothers, I was a white kid in a Midwestern suburb but when Richard Pryor opened his mouth, I (like the Henry brothers) understood exactly what he was getting at. The truth. Every person on the planet has to find his or her way to the truth of life’s unfairness, beauty, sadness, opportunities and limits. That I could get myself part way there riding on waves of laughter was a wonderful gift, and it was Pryor’s gift. Furious Cool reminds me of his present, and his presence, and for this, I am grateful, this Thanksgiving, to the Henry brothers.