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  • Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry
  • Amy Nathan Wright (bio)
Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. By David Henry and Joe Henry. Algonquin Books, 2014. 297 pp.

It is a mighty challenge to take on the complex, contradictory, and compelling life of the comedic genius Richard Pryor. Brothers Joe Henry (singer and songwriter) and David Henry (screenwriter) not only provide highlights from Pryor’s life and career, but also attempt to map the cultural and historical milieu out of which he emerged. As fans of Pryor’s early 1970s career, the Henrys have two goals: to celebrate Pryor’s ability to translate and humanize the inner-lives of poor blacks for white audiences and to argue for his significance in American culture and history: “Richard gave voice to a raucous and jubilant side of life as authentically American as Mark Twain’s but one kept hidden away from the majority of white America” (xix). Joe and David Henry effectively argue [End Page 113] for Pryor’s genius and are capable of recognizing Pryor’s unique ability to illustrate both the joys of life and the complicated and painful truths about race relations, but as white men, they are less adept at understanding Pryor from a black perspective or of humanizing the highly contradictory person Richard Pryor was. The book’s greatest contribution is the authors’ attempt to elevate comedy to the level of other arts, such as music and literature, where it rightfully belongs, and to recognize Pryor as a genius.

The richest parts of the book—the explorations of Pryor’s roots in Peoria, Illinois, his early career working the clubs in Greenwich Village, his transition away from Cosby-style entertainment in the late 1960s, and his retreat to the Bay Area in the early 1970s—provide the personal, historical, and cultural contexts out of which Pryor emerged and demonstrate how he redefined comedy by taking controversial subjects such as racism and sexuality head-on regardless of his audience. The Henry brothers capture Pryor’s family life and early experiences in Peoria, a crossroads for a bevy of entertainers who frequented Pryor’s grandmother’s popular brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute and his father and uncles as pimps. Despite the illicit and sometimes violent trade being at the center of the family business, the Henrys recognize the cultural inspirations surrounding Pryor, his grandmother’s incredible influence, as well as the early guidance from his theater teacher, Miss Juliette Whittaker, who helped Pryor break out of his shell at his small, mostly white, Catholic private school. The portrayal of the cultural landscape in New York’s Village in the early 1960s is another key moment. Pryor worked alongside other comedic giants like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, and interacted with a multitude of artists who became fans and friends, such as Miles Davis and Nina Simone. The Henrys’ discussions of the interconnectedness of black entertainers and activists and of Pryor’s growing political consciousness are also key moments in the book. They recount how witnessing the adoration Redd Foxx received in Harlem in the mid-1960s pushed Pryor to abandon his Cosby-esque style; they also describe a moment of catharsis on stage in Las Vegas in 1967 when he realized that his beloved grandmother would not be welcome in the theater and walked off stage. The brothers’ exploration of Pryor’s relationships with intellectuals like Cecil Brown and activists like Huey P. Newton and the impact of reading Malcolm X’s speeches during Pryor’s retreat to the Bay Area in the early 1970s is another significant moment, as is the discussion of Pryor’s inclusion in Stax Records’ documentary film Wattstax (Stuart, 1973), which recognized the anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots. Pryor’s appearance [End Page 114] at a 1977 Hollywood Bowl benefit for gay rights is also included and might have provided a window into the complex relationship between people of color and the largely white LGBT movement as well as Pryor’s own mixed feelings about his sexuality, had the Henrys addressed it more...


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pp. 113-116
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