FURIOUS COOL: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, by David Henry and Joe Henry. Algonquin; 320 pages; $25.95.
Richard Pryor had two professional pursuits: comedy and cocaine. They were in neck and neck competition for awhile, but the crack won out. Pryor was less of a conventional show business drug user, more of a classic junkie.
David and Joe Henry’s excellent biography lays out his genius at comedy and his devotion to drugs, capturing all the indelible madness. Pryor liked to wander around his house holding a tray with lines of coke and a bottle of Courvoisier — the Richard Pryor diet!
He tried AA for precisely one meeting. After listening to a woman talk about how she stole her parents TV set for drug money, Pryor got up and left, saying to a friend, “We ain’t got no problems. Not compared to these people.” On the way home, he bought cocaine.
None of this would be particularly interesting let alone illuminating, if it wasn’t for the fact that Pryor was the father of modern standup comedy — more brutally self-aware than Lenny Bruce, and much, much funnier. Pryor was an extension of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis — great junkie artists who were every bit as rough on women as they were on themselves.
Pryor was one of those terribly damaged people with thin psychological skin; he could enter into someone else’s psyche with the same ease he could enter into his own. “He’s completely open and vulnerable,” said his friend Paul Mooney. “Sure, he’s selfish. But he’s selfish with the innocence of a four year old.”
Somewhere along the way, Pryor moved past jokes and into performance, into characters like Mudbone, a poor black man full of dubious but deeply felt wisdom, or a pompous preacher: “I was walking down the street eating a tuna fish sammich. That’s right, in 1929, you’d eat anything you could get. And I hear this voice call unto me, and the voice has power and majesty. And the voice said, ‘Psst …’ I walked up to the voice and I said, “What?” And the voice got holy and magnificent and the voice said to me, ‘Gimme some of that sammich.’ And every since that day I’ve been able to heal, because I didn’t give up none of my sammich.”
That’s pretty funny in and of itself, but when the words were filtered through Pryor’s gifts for dialect and humanity’s endless posturing, it becomes like something out of Mark Twain — folklore and truth mixed indivisibly together.
Even comedians of an earlier generation could see he was a giant, and they could also see he was a mess. “Do you ever see plays?” Groucho Marx asked him. “Do you ever read books? Do you want to end up a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis, or do you want a career you can be proud of?”
Neither Charlie Parker nor Miles Davis ever lost touch with their central identity, their art, but Pryor stopped doing stand-up and concentrated on making terrible movies — they paid better than stand-up, which meant he could buy more drugs. This may have been the biggest cultural catastrophe since Elvis hooked up with a fat fraud calling himself Col. Tom Parker.
What’s incontestable is that after Pryor blew himself up while freebasing — the Henry’s seem to think it was a suicide attempt — he was never the same, either comedically or physically. (Hilarious story: At the hospital after the fire, the waiting room was full of ex and current wives, children, relatives. When a doctor came out and called out, “Mrs. Pryor,” half the waiting room stood up.)
The Henry brothers’ book is, in some respects, strange. It’s not really a conventional A to Z biography, more of a subjective trip into the head of its subject. It’s roughly chronological — very roughly. Years just disappear, as do some wives, although keeping track of Pryor’s women is difficult — he had seven marriages to five different women.
You get clunky transitions: “Change was in the air. Everyone could feel it. The old ways were unraveling.” But they’ve talked to everybody who matters, and they’ve written their book with some of the same passion that their subject brought to his work — his comedy work, that is.
And they have some insights of their own: “In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time, there were no second acts in American life. Now, it seems, the second act is all that matters. The years of hard work and achievement that bring fame or stardom merely count as the qualifying round, a setup for the crash and burn. That’s the show everybody wants to see.
“In this, too, Richard Pryor was a pioneer.”