When he died in 2005—his body weakened by years of freebasing cocaine, as well as heart disease, multiple sclerosis and a freak accident with a cigarette lighter that had set him ablaze in 1990—Richard Pryor had already won one Emmy and five Grammys. Yet his position at number one on Comedy Central’s list of the all-time greatest comedians defines his enduring legacy more than any other award.
In this set of fans’ notes to Pryor, David Henry and Joe Henry—who talked with Pryor several times before his death—draw on conversations with his inner circle as well as their own and others’ memories of Pryor’s stand-up routines, his film roles and his television parts. The result is Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, an intimate and riveting tribute.
One Friday night in 1973, the Henry brothers learned that Pryor would be hosting ABC’s “The Midnight Special,” so they taped his performance on a reel-to-reel player. Looking back, they wonder why two white teenagers raised in the South were so intent on listening to a black comedian who would have been making fun of them and their race. That night they discovered that Pryor was a “beacon that said, Take heart. Stay human. You are not alone.”
Following Pryor’s death, the Henrys set out to make sense of his contributions to comedy and our culture. With energetic storytelling, they chronicle Pryor’s life from his early childhood, when he was abandoned at 10 by his mother and raised by his grandmother, to his discovery of his talent after he dropped out of high school, to his difficult stint in the Army, the development of his gift on the Chitlin’ Circuit and his meteoric rise and tragic fall.
Because of his upbringing, Pryor remained emotionally distant and insecure all his life, often pushing away those who loved him most, even his children. While the Henrys celebrate Pryor’s comic genius in their page-turning tribute, they also reveal a sad and lonely clown always looking for his next routine and never happy with his success or his place in the world.