Richard Pryor Set the Comedy World on Fire With N-Word

Right this minute, no doubt, somebody is working on a 700-page doorstop that will chronicle every wound Richard Pryor ever inflicted on the people who loved him.

David Henry and Joe Henry (they’re brothers) have a different aim. “We didn’t set out to write the definitive cradle-to-grave biography,” they explain in their introduction to “Furious Cool,” a sleek, highly literate biography that places the comic in the pop-cultural context of his times.

Pryor was the Liszt of profanity in the highly ephemeral art of stand-up. He did his greatest work, according to those who saw it, on the stage. His TV appearances were mostly watered down, and the movies he starred in the authors dismiss as “crappy, inconsequential or demeaning.”

The exceptions are the astonishing 1979 “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” and, to a lesser extent, the 1982 “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” made two years after the “accident” that was originally attributed to the explosion of ether he was using for freebasing.

The Henrys tell a different story: “After weeks of nonstop freebasing, Richard doused himself with 150-proof rum and flicked his Bic lighter.” It was a half-cocked suicide attempt.

He had monumental demons, and the rage he inflicted on those around him -- especially the women -- was the flip side of the freedom he gave those demons to roam and attack onstage.

Cosby Period

After his bland but lucrative Cosby-copying period, he developed a character-based approach to comedy that no one could steal jokes from because, devoid of his voice and his gestures, it wasn’t funny (as excerpts from several routines transcribed by the authors attest).

In September 1967 he walked onto the Las Vegas stage where he was being paid $2,400 a week, gazed out at the white crowd, said “What the f--- am I doing here?” and walked off. He never played Vegas again.

A long retreat followed. In 1971 he went to Berkeley, where he hung out with black novelists (Ishmael Reed, Claude Brown) and black militants (Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton).

It was there that he began startling his audiences by using, over and over, one famously powerful word. Today, the Henrys write, in “commentaries penned by scolds and advocates alike, the N-word’s prevalence in contemporary popular culture is traced back to Richard Pryor.”

Brilliant Decade

During the decade that followed, his brilliance soared. Meanwhile, the huge amounts of cocaine he was ingesting, even supposing that they freed his art (arguable), were ruining his life. One problem any fuller biography of Pryor will face is the long and tedious catalog of bad things he did on drugs:

“Richard fired in the air, shattering a $10,000 Tiffany chandelier ... The three women took shelter in Clayborn’s Buick. Richard rammed the Buick repeatedly with his Mercedes.”

And so on. He continued freebasing even after he set himself on fire.

But the drugs didn’t kill him: Multiple sclerosis and a bad heart did, in 2005. His influence remains huge. Hard evidence -- apart from his recordings, a handful of videos worthy of his genius and those two concert movies -- is scarce.

“Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” is published by Algonquin Books (297 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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