Thanks to a tipster who let me know that both me and No Applause are cited in this book, I ran out and got a copy of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him (2013), by David and Joe Henry. This came as great news, on the heels of my more recent mention in Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century. If this keeps up, I may start believing the widespread misconception that I know anything about vaudeville!
Boy, did I enjoy this book, on every conceivable front. I really don’t even know where to start. Yes, it’s highly factual, and yes, the Henry brothers got up close and personal interviews with many of the key players in Richard Pryor’s dramatic life story. Much MORE than this they demonstrate a deep and thorough knowledge of Pryor’s cultural significance and an intimate knowledge of the sources from which he sprang.
As is well known, Pryor was a poor, urban black from Peoria, Illinois. He grew up in a brothel, and got his start performing on the chitlin’ circuit with people like Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page, often opening for jazz and blues acts. While black music had been crossing over to white audiences for decades by the mid twentieth century, honest-to-goodness genuine black COMEDY had not. Pryor took this underground stream of American culture and shared it with everybody else. He was able to do this because he was an improvisational comic genius, the likes of which rarely come along. He was able to conjure voices and characters and personalities on the spot and weave tragicomic narratives that shone a light on a corner of America that had never been represented in the mainstream before, and he made them universal to boot. Bob Newhart compared him to Mark Twain.
A digression: this is strictly anecdotal, but it is my solid belief that more than any other single person, it is Pryor who was responsible for the modern acceptance of previously forbidden words in polite society. This is based on nothing but personal observation over the course of a lifetime. I’m from the working class; my parents both swore like sailors at home when I was growing up, but never in mixed company. Naturally, the F word existed but it was used so rarely in public that the few incidents of its occurrence were famous: Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce, Abby Hoffman, The Fugs, and the MC5. It had such power to shock that you could count where and when it had been publicly used. Somewhere down the line it became socially acceptable for everyone: black or white, male or female, old or young to use words like “fuck”, “dick”, “cock” and “pussy” in business settings, college classrooms, social gatherings. This may well still NOT be the case in, say, rural Alabama. All I know is that it has been the case in my experience during my entire adult life in cities like New York, Boston, and Providence. Young ladies now use language in business meetings that would have caused gruff male CEOs to blush with embarrassment a few decades ago. Naturally, Pryor wasn’t the only source for this change, but when I think of his concert records and films, and how popular they were and how influential, and how young people quoted them — he seems a very pivotal figure on this major social shift. And if you think about it, that is a seismic shift…from a culture more Puritan in orientation, to one that is freer, franker and more open. (The battle continues to rage, of course. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that some women were expelled from some state legislature for using the word “vagina”? And not as profanity, but as a technical anatomical description on a point directly related to the law they were discussing? As Lenny Bruce said, if you’re not allowed to say “fuck”, you’re not allowed to say “Fuck the government.” )
The Brothers Henry don’t gloss over any of the ugly stuff, and there is a lot of it. While affectionate, Pryor was often mean and nasty to everyone he loved, a major abuser of drugs, he neglected his children, and he fired guns at people. And worse than all that, he made all those terrible movies in the 80s and 90s! He earned millions doing it, but in the long run it tarnished the purity of his reputation (The Henrys very astutely compare it to Elvis’s god-awful bubble gum movies. Pryor’s place in cultural history is so VERY much like Elvis’s. The man changed everything).
One last thing before I go ahead and give this tome five stars on Goodreads. This book is damn well written — one of the best written show biz books I have ever read. I’m talking about the style of it, how these boys put words together. Frequently beautiful, poetic, boldly and unashamedly going for metaphors and similes and analogies to describe their quicksilver subject, and with a frame of reference ranging from classical literature, to movies, to American popular music. The Henry Brothers not only conjure Pryor’s art, but like the title says, his world: from the pool rooms and bars of his native Peoria to the coke-fueled sink-swamps of Hollywood. David Henry and Joe Henry are formidable fellows and, as far as I’m concerned, brothers in arms.
Do I recommend that you read this book? I COMMAND you to read this book! Buy it here.