In the new biography of Richard Pryor, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him,” authors David and Joe Henry trace the career of one of the most influential and successful performers of the last 50 years.
The book “fills in details and fleshes out years of Pryor’s wildly successful failure of a life, from his upbringing in a Peoria brothel to his sad decline as a diseased, diminished icon,” writes Chicago Tribune reviewer Steve Johnson.
“This was a man, remember, who broke all onstage boundaries of his 1970s heyday, admitting even to rampant drug use and beating women in his life. He somehow kept audiences on his side, not just in comedy venues but on the big screen, becoming the top comic star of his era.”
Pryor is beloved for standup routines that pushed the envelope, “combining anger and pathos, outrage and humor, into an art form, laying the groundwork for the generations of comedians who followed, including such outstanding performers as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K.” (Workman.) The authors ask the question: “Is standup comedy literature?” and make a good case for a Yes answer. Troy Patterson, reviewing for Slate, goes further, calling certain self destructive incidents in Pryor’s life “existential protest art.”
Before challenging social boundaries, Pryor achieved mainstream success with wholesome comic routines similar to those of Bill Cosby. In the LA Review of Books, Lary Wallace describes the pivotal moment of change: “It was hard for him to receive much personal satisfaction from doing an act that would compel Don Rickles to approach him after a show and say, in well-meant sincerity, ‘It’s uncanny. You sound just like Bill Cosby.’
“It was shortly after this, in 1967, that Pryor took the stage for his opening performance at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, and, as he would later tell his close friend and collaborator Paul Mooney, ‘it hit me that all those motherfuckers out there [in the audience] wouldn’t make room for [my] Mama if you put a gun to their heads.’ Pryor leaned into the mic and asked the audience, or perhaps himself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’”
This pivotal event was part of his transformation from comedian to cultural icon. Johnson states: “The book makes a beyond-persuasive case for Pryor as the greatest American stand-up comic, earning the lasting reverence of his peers by going where none had gone before.” The Henrys write “He showed that a comedian standing in front of an audience could … plumb the same depths of humanity as a novelist, poet, or playwright could sitting over a typewriter.”
That humanity was on display in the under-appreciated film HARLEM NIGHTS, written and directed by Eddie Murphy. Here is a clip showcasing Pryor’s nuanced performance.