Feature

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

This book “makes a beyond-persuasive case for Pryor as the greatest American stand-up comic.”

(Algonquin, $26)

Someday, this “addictively readable” book may be the best defense against the world’s forgetting just how much Richard Pryor meant to his time, said Tom Chiarella in Esquire.com. An impassioned account of the late comedian’s rise, it “makes a turn from blazing entertainment history to authoritative meditation on culture” when it reaches the 1971 night when the 31-year-old star took a stage in Berkeley, Calif., and referred to himself, again and again, as a “nigger.” Years later, he would excise the word from his act, but pop culture would never be the same. Pryor had taken a vicious slur and turned it into an emblem of black power: the power to say something that a white performer couldn’t.

Ultimately, Furious Cool “makes a beyond-persuasive case for Pryor as the greatest American stand-up comic,” said Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune. He not only shared with all of America essentially “what black America talked about when it talked among itself.” He also pushed comedy into dark corners of the soul, managing against all odds to keep audiences on his side even when confessing to rampant drug use and violence against women. Several potential explanations for his bad behavior are offered, from the scars of childhood sexual abuse to Pryor’s widow’s suggestion that her husband was gay and shamed by it. But the brothers who co-wrote the book don’t dwell on psychoanalysis. Focusing on his art, they “allow Pryor to actually be funny,” which isn’t easy, given that his humor was less about punch lines than delivery.

The book’s “worshipful attitude” eventually begins to grate, said Roxane Gay in Bookforum. Though authors David and Joe Henry don’t shy from detailing how Pryor battered many of his six wives or how he famously lit himself on fire in 1980 while freebasing cocaine, “they use the same tone describing an appearance at a comedy club as they do detailing how Pryor beat a girlfriend to a pulp.” The inference is, whatever pain a few bystanders pay so that the rest of us can have a genius among us, the price is worth it. “I beg to differ.”

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