Comedy changed when Richard Pryor took over. Not many people will deny that. There had been comedians who did skits, there were comedians who cracked jokes, but Pryor’s take on comedy—where he embodied characters and made his audiences both feel and see their pain and pleasure and still wind up laughing—transformed the art.
Becoming the characters he wanted to display for his audience was something Pryor had started doing as a very young man. In their book “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him,” the brothers David and Joe Henry write that Pryor used to try to make his classmates laugh and would imitate people and the situations those people—who were often poor and mostly Black—might find themselves in, to show his audience what he was talking about.
The book starts out by trying to recreate the world that Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born into in a 1940s-era Peoria, Ill. The book is wonderful at creating the landscapes the young Pryor found himself in—the corrupt white world that ran Peoria and the on-the-hustle African-American community that used vaudeville, game houses, prostitution and more to make their daily income and survive.
They explain that Pryor veered briefly from his character-based comedy and won nationwide success on television, but the comedian thought of that success as a fraud because he was quite openly copying the comedic style of the more successful Bill Cosby. At the time, Pryor thought there could only be one major Black comedian, and because Cosby was winning accolades, he thought he had to do what Cosby was doing.
His Cosby schtick won him a few weeks of performances in Las Vegas, but that is where Pryor had a meltdown on stage. He realized that he wasn’t doing his own comedy and wasn’t being true to himself.
According to the Henry brothers, “Richard Pryor’s gift was Truth. He turned a gritty corner one day as a young man in Peoria, Illinois, and the Truth was on him like a feral alley cat. And he held on to this cat; made a coat out of it and wore it to New York; hid his secret heart underneath it and opened it like a curtain onstage. He tried to swear it off, but by then, Truth had gotten under his skin, was a part of him, even if he couldn’t live up to its message.”
Pryor’s “truth-telling” is what made his comedy. For those who can recall segments from Pryor’s stand-up comedy performances, the book gives interesting takes on where he cultivated his material. As the young Pryor looked at his world, he saw everyday experiences that can seriously show the misery Blacks have lived through. But Pryor showed how the misery could be farcical, and this perception is what brought him success with a nationwide audience. He was poking fun at the same traumas Black people laugh about by themselves. What made him different was that Pryor wasn’t pointing a finger at the trauma and displaying it for others to laugh at—he was embodying it and showing how painful it was and still showing that the person living through it was human—and that, that was what allowed it to be funny.
“‘He was just incredible,’” the authors quote the late Joan Rivers as saying. “‘Funny, funny, funny. And sad. It was acting, it was comedy, it was social comment, it was everything.’ Her awe only grew over time. Twenty years later (in the early ’80s), she spoke of his stand-up characters as though they were actual people. ‘They’re brilliant and they’re ugly, but he makes them funny, and by the humor he takes you through the ugliness and into the humor and makes you aware of everything. Nobody can touch him.’ Then, in a clear-eyed assessment almost unheard of in a field so fraught with rivalry, she concluded, ‘In my own way, I may do some comparable things, but on a much more shallow scale. I do what’s painful for the middle-class woman. That’s a whole different thing. He does what’s painful for somebody who has really lived through pain.’”
“Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” takes a stark look at the life of one of Black America’s most famous comedians. The Henry brothers are obvious fans of Pryor, and the book shows that they have studied Black culture, particularly the history of Black comedians, to get a grasp on why Pryor could make anyone laugh.