In Furious Cool, brothers David and Joe Henry present Richard Pryor in a more nuanced way than the comedian has ever been presented before—in short, as an unmitigated genius who treated a lot of people like shit, but who those same people couldn’t help but love and admire. The Henrys love him, too, having interacted with Pryor toward the end of his life. They don’t exactly pull punches about Pryor’s emotionally and physically abusive ways, but they certainly seek to present him as the multi-faceted figure he was—not to mention one of the most fascinating pop-culture personalities the world has ever seen.
Furious Cool is breezy and conversational but also detailed in the right places. Pryor’s upbringing in his grandmother’s brothel in Peoria, Illinois, isn’t treated as salacious, and it’s balanced with Pryor’s coping strategies, which primarily involve making people laugh. (His first taste of that, supposedly, was when he slipped in dog shit as a kid, cracking up his family so hard that he intentionally did it again, just to get the laugh.)
Pryor moves up and out, finding tastes of fame first by imitating Bill Cosby, but eventually by finding himself and growing into the greatest stand-up of all time, creating onstage worlds around his own experiences. His rise—which was really more of an undulating wave of reinventions—came in tandem with an incredible amount of talent: One minute he’s playing the same club with Bob Dylan, the next he’s opening for (and then headlining above) Miles Davis, who introduces Pryor to his cocaine dealer.
And yes, Pryor’s life was absolutely plagued and at least partially defined by his massive, long-term drug use. It fueled his creative fire and wrecked most of his personal and business relationships, from his aborted film project with a then-unknown Penelope Spheeris (the lost film Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales) to his five wives and seven marriages. Pryor’s drug-fueled suicide attempt—he lit himself on fire in 1980 while on a freebasing binge—comes damn near the end of this narrative (though 25 years before the end of his life), and it’s treated as a time of redemption, though really it was the beginning of a long creative slump and eventually a heartbreaking bout with multiple sclerosis. (The Henrys, though obviously diehard fans, proudly admit to never having seen any of his last seven movies all the way through.)
But they’re right to lean so heavily on his earlier life, especially given the fact that the authors make no bones about its importance to both them and to the culture at large. Pryor lived a hundred lives before 1985, and Furious Cool keeps its focus there, on some of the most accomplished stand-up ever presented, and one of the most fearless truth-tellers in the history of any medium, pop or political. Who else but Richard Pryor would give more than five minutes of a comedy sketch to a monologue from Maya Angelou, playing the beleaguered, complicated wife of a drunk—then turn around and star in artless Hollywood junk like The Toy and Moving? No one else, the Henrys argue, and they’re not wrong.