Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

by David Henry  and Joe Henry

(Algonquin Books, $25.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

You might not expect that the latest biographers of the amazing, frustrating, hilarious and tragic Richard Pryor would be a screenwriter and a songwriter, singer, guitarist and Grammy-winning music producer, but that is what David Henry and his brother Joe, respectively, are. “Furious Cool,” their debut as authors, began as a screenplay and took more than 10 years to complete, and now they are back to working on that screenplay based on Pryor’s life and career.

What is this book about?

If you have never seen Richard Pryor on screen, on TV or live, then it may be hard to imagine the power this hugely talented, demon-ridden genius of a performer had.  The son of a prostitute and grandson of a madam, he was one tough cookie: violent toward women, married seven times, a serious junkie who nearly burned himself to death and a sufferer of multiple sclerosis who also was, in the opinion of Comedy Central and quite a few others, the No. 1 stand-up comedian, ever. Pryor was not only funny, he created – often ad-libbing – characters onstage that made audiences howl with laughter and sometimes cry. There was no one else quite like him, for good or bad, and the Henry brothers tell his story well.

Why you’ll like it:

This is a book about a tragic comic, and unlike many books about funny men, it doesn’t kill the humor by analyzing it. The Henrys give you the whole Pryor experience, complete with unrelenting profanity, from his violent, abuse-laden childhood to professional success (and some failures) to the hell of drug addiction and the pain of illness. The book is loaded with trenchant detail and riveting anecdotes. It’s a must read for any Pryor fan and may create plenty of new ones who will watch any Pryor DVDs or movies they can find.

What others are saying:

Amazon.com Review says in a Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review: “Richard Pryor was nobody’s hero. The man sired accidental children, lived most of his life as a junkie, and even set himself on fire, but he was also one of the twentieth century’s most notable American geniuses. With the release of Furious Cool, brothers David and Joe Henry have written the definitive tribute to Pryor’s momentous cultural legacy. But this is no straightforward biography: structured as a long series of roughly chronological vignettes, the resulting impressionistic portrait mirrors the flights of fancy that marked Pryor’s most memorable stand-up comedy performances. Like Lenny Bruce before him and Bill Hicks later, Pryor’s fearlessness as a performer not only yielded incomparable recorded performances but also changed audience expectations and widened the art form forever after. Sensitive to this transformative import, Henry and Henry nevertheless portray Pryor the man with all of his failings in the full glare of the spotlight. In the 25 years between his self-immolation and his eventual passing, Pryor’s creative output went from bad (The Toy, Brewster’s Millions) to sad (“Richard Pryor at the Helm of Comedy”), but nothing in his long, slow fall from an admittedly twisted grace diminishes his accomplishments, and Furious Cool resists the fan’s impetus toward hagiography in favor of an artistic performance of the written word that does lovely justice to a brilliant, tortured man. “

“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 . . . 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 give thanks to the Henry brothers,” says The Huffington Post.

“It would be enough if Furious Cool was a profile of Pryor’s uncanny talents, psychic turmoil, and ungovernable behavior, but it’s also a fascinating history of black comedy . . . Furious Cool captures Pryor’s frenetic routines and stage presence on the page . . . The inextricable legacy of Richard Pryor—his boldness, inventiveness, candor, and empathy—lives on,” says Los Angeles Magazine.

Says Biographile.com: “Say what you will about Richard Pryor’s failings as a father, husband, co-star, or business partner (offstage, he couldn’t balance a checkbook), he lived his life totally immersed in the moment. Had he cared one whit about his legacy or posterity, we would still be buying up box sets of lost nightclub performances and concert films, just as we do Miles Davis’ “Complete Sessions” and Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg” packages. It maddens us to imagine all the unrecorded, never repeated performances Richard delivered during the flowering of his genius, lost now but for a few firsthand recollections.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ Furious Cool…is not an intimate, determinedly probing account that sets out to unearth previously concealed biographical detail or attempts to reassess a life or provide continuity. It’s more an admiring primer, an impressionistic riff that trips selectively through the…triumphs and tragedies that marked Pryor’s career, offering piquant snippets and fleeting snapshots as it prospects for the source of his genius…Pryor…was much more than just a comic to David and Joe Henry. And it is their passionate belief in his transcendent status that energizes the book…The authors, who are white, acknowledge some initial wariness about diving headlong into an examination of the social impact of a larger-than-life African-American cultural hero. But finally it is their affirmation of the influence Pryor had outside the black community and beyond comedy that perhaps most commends this book. It is a testament to his stature not only as an African-American entertainment idol but also as an American icon.”

When is it available?

You can find it now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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