Unlike most biographies, clinically assembled from reams of letters, with forced neutrality and distance, Furious Cool is a product of two lifelong fans' clear passion. They give the book a perspective and an evaluation you don't often see, at least not competently. Furious Cool puts the whole package together tightly and swiftly.
Richard Pryor was a comedic trailblazer, but he did it almost by accident. He stumbled for years. His skills came along later, and he abused them like he abused his wives, his friends and himself. He did not recognize his own peak as it passed, thankfully, onto DVD instead of oblivion. He missed his rapid descent, because he didn't care any more. His later films were all useless trash; he freely admitted doing them for the money, which was freely tossed at him because of his fame.
He reminds me of Lenny Bruce, flailing in all directions at the end - about his own plight - while succumbing to drugs and alcohol. Pryor was at his sharpest when he portrayed an entire community of characters, at his weakest when he explained Richard Pryor. The authors compare him to Shakespeare's Falstaff, but that is too superficial. His tragedy was a slow motion violent train wreck over decades, preventable at every step of the way, but irrelevant to Pryor himself.
When he was on his game, he was in total control - of the whole world: "You perched on the edge of your seat, just in case Richard at any moment did something that would make it necessary for every black person to suddenly drop whatever he or she was doing and run like hell." He knocked over racial barriers and taboos like sandcastles, freely stepped on toes and raised race to a new high in public conscience and appreciation.
He lost that power because he couldn't handle the fame, the money, or the love of anyone. He kept guns and used them at the slightest whim, making him a danger not only to himself. His fits of anger could be controlled by his dysfunctional nuclear family who wouldn't stand for his spoiled brat fits. But as a star, he could beat his many wives and mistresses with total impunity and for no reason whatsoever. He could show up late, drunk and stoned, and no one could call him on it. He became the monster he parodied: exaggerated, larger than life, living absurdly.
His humor evolved from Cosby-imitation jokes, to outlandish character stories, to just plain horrific truth. No punchline required. But with a delivery that by then was so evolved, you laughed till you cried. He never worried about anyone stealing his jokes; they could only get laughs from Richard Pryor.
It's been a very long time since I laughed out loud reading a book. Couldn't help it.
Using different parameters on what stuff great comedians or entertainers are made of, Richard Pryor comes out as my best, most cryptic and most natural comedian of them all. The author did a good job of bringing out his best and his worst, his creative ingenuity and his self-destructive side, as well as so many of the inner contradictions that haunt variously gifted people. Identifying traits or characters of him in other people in real life or in fiction helped me to understand him better. Like in some of the characters in The Usurper: and Other Stories, in Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, he lived his life obeying his instincts, never reining in his impulses and being himself, whatever that is, at a given time.