A Furious Rant Fueled by a Furious Cool Book

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aPryorPreston

"Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him"
David Henry & Joe Henry
Algonquin Books

A Note From Your Humble Author:
This is the first installment in a series of six articles ostensibly about Richard Pryor and the new biography, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” by David & Joe Henry. Truth be told though the whole thing is a rant against the city of Peoria, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and all those who have actively sought to suppress any public recognition or commemoration of Pryor’s talent, his importance and his influence on generation after generation of writers, comedians, actors, directors and just normal people who found refuge from everyday life in the laughter his comedy continues to evoke.

But it’s more than just a rant. It concludes with a strategy to recognize Pryor’s memory, along with a plan of action and a call out to all those who want to right this wrong.

Part 1: A city with no love for its native son

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"I remember saying to Mitzi at the Comedy Store, let me go on after Richard every night because it's the best place to find out if your stuff is funny...I thought I had an hour. After following Richie every night I realized I had maybe 16 minutes."

Jay Leno to Jerry Seinfeld
“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”
January 2014

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Quite honestly writing about Richard Pryor for a Peoria publication is a painful thing. The city, which for the better part of the 20th century was a haven for vice, prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gang violence, seems to become all prim and proper when it comes to recognizing its most famous son, who became the hands-down, unquestioned, universally accepted master of his art.

At first glance, that last phrase might seem a bit hyperbolic but it really stands up under scrutiny. Consider all types of American pop culture and entertainment, from film and stage to TV and radio to sports and music.

Who is the greatest actor? Hard call.

What is the greatest film? Too many to choose from.

Who is the greatest football/basketball/baseball player? Depends on the era.

Who is the greatest singer? What genre are we talking?

It’s almost impossible to find a consensus in any of them, except for one:

Who is the greatest comedian? Easy. Everyone from Seinfeld and Leno to Rock and Chappelle to Brooks and Reiner agree. It’s Peoria’s “Richie” Pryor.

But alas Peoria has snubbed her son aside from an “honorary” street title. And why?

Because he – gasp and swoon! – was addicted to drugs and he – clutch the pearls! – was many times married and he – oh Mildred! The vapors! – used BAD words!!

Nowadays that would earn him a reality show, a series of New York Times bestsellers and the support of a wide range of TV commentators.

Peorians love to wax nostalgic about the murderous Shelton gang and Peoria’s old rough-and-tumble days filled with whores, drunks and drugs. But bring up Richard? Lips tighten, nostrils curl and nether-regions pucker.

Thankfully, there are a lot of young (and not-so-young) people in this city who are ready to show some love to Richie Pryor’s memory. And it seems to me – at least in anecdotal personal experiences – this anti-Pryor bias is dying out (literally and figuratively).

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We are all products of our culture and how we face the future as adults is rooted largely in what we experience as children.

Now take a few moments and consider your background. Think about your youth, the home(s) you lived in, the kids in your neighborhood, your friends at school, how you were raised and who influenced you during your formative years.

Now consider Richard Pryor’s:

Now, consider your own background once again. How does it compare to Richard’s? Anything close? And what have you achieved?

Better yet, ask yourself if you did have the same background, could you have reached your current station in life (as high or as humble as it may be) let alone become the most influential ANYTHING?

Richard Pryor won five Grammys, one Emmy, released 19 albums (including eight albums in three years), made over 50 movie appearances, co-hosted two Academy Awards and was the first person honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the Kennedy Center.

And he co-wrote “Blazing Saddles” (interestingly enough, according to Mel Brooks, Pryor wrote most of the “white jokes” while Brooks wrote most of the “black jokes”).

Now I like to think quite highly of myself, but even I can’t fathom achieving what Richard achieved if I had come from the same background. Reaching adulthood with no addictions would have been success enough.

And the best this city can muster is an honorary street title? 

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Part 2: Acknowledging the ugly side

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s no glossing over Richard’s ugly side. His violence towards the women he loved (and there were many) is inexcusable no matter what toxic mixtures he was under the influence of at the time.

While he was charming and lovable, he was also malevolent. His rage didn’t always arise in a passion; sometimes it seemed cool and calculated. He could be very cruel and then, naturally, very apologetic, which creates an ugly cycle where violence and love become intertwined. This ugly side should accompany any serious look into his life and times.

When Richard turned his tragic story of lighting himself on fire and nearly dying while free-basing cocaine into a great comedic bit, he (knowingly or unknowingly) ensured that many of those people watching and laughing to tears would never EVER think about freebasing cocaine. There’s a lyric from  Jay-Z’s song “Izzo (HOVA)” that sums it up nicely:
Like I told you sell drugs - No!
Hov' did that so hopefully you won't have to go through that

Perhaps his story of violence and abuse could very well have the same effect, albeit on a smaller scale.

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Head down to the Peoria Riverfront Museum – of which I am a huge supporter and (for the sake of disclosure) a member of the Associate Board – and try to find an obvious presence of Richard Pryor. Maybe a small display, perhaps an exhibit?

Not a chance.

Richard is lodged in a quiet, tiny nook at the back of the Street exhibit, along with other historic Peoria luminaries – not exactly a “high-traffic” or “high-profile” area. You can only find it if earnestly looking. Search “Richard Pryor” on the Museum’s website and response is telling: “No results.”

Peoria, that’s been the problem all along.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum should be embarrassed and hopefully the new CEO, Sam Gappmayer, will help rectify the situation with an exhibition or, perhaps, something larger. In the museum biz, locally focused, locally created exhibitions/events tend to be more effective financially because a) there’s a built-in local audience/interest, and b) they cost less to create than outside exhibits which you have to pay to bring in and install. 

The Museum's mission is to connect "art, history, science and achievement through collections, exhibitions, and programs." It seems like Richard covers three of the  four former categories quite nicely. And 2014 might be the perfect year for that rectification to begin.
 
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Consider that the end to my rather long-winded rant against (largely) the city and (to a lesser degree) the Peoria Riverfront Museum. Truth be told, I believe a rant to be kind of pointless unless it is followed by a solution no matter how harebrained.

That comes in Monday’s installment. For now enjoy Richard singing "Nobody Wants You When You're Down and Out." Oh, and did I mention he was a great singer too?

Part 3: And now for a solution

Let just get to it. I think an appropriate solution and a great way to preserve Pryor’s life and legacy (as well as bring tourism to Peoria) would be to create an annual three-day Richard Pryor event.

The event could be hosted (primarily) by the Peoria Riverfront Museum, with movies, exhibits, panel discussions and a kick-off dinner with a well-known comedian at the helm, along with other downtown venues where ancillary events could be held. Because of Pryor's stature in the comedy community, I'm guessing it wouldn't be difficult to attract the attention of some well-known comedians who either worked with or were influenced by Richard.

We always hear about attempts to increase tourism in Peoria and this seems like a ready-made solution staring the city in the face. An annual event celebrating Richard Pryor (correctly promoted) would draw visitors from Chicago and cities throughout the Midwest. With a big-name comedian as host (and other comedians performing) you have an event with an even bigger draw.

Right now, there really is no National Comedy Hall of Fame. Why not start building that reputation in the city that was home to America’s greatest comedian (as well as Sam Kinison and “Fibber McGee & Molly”)?

Here’s a rudimentary outline of what a three-day event could entail:

When would be the ideal time to hold the event? Well, just glance at the dates of Richard’s birth and death to find the answer: Dec. 1 (‘40) and Dec. 10 (’05). Looking at the 2014 calendar, the weekend of Dec. 5-7 falls nicely between those two dates. That leaves less than seven months to plan. Not much time at all.

Obviously, there are a myriad of details to cover in order to create an event like this and it would require some downtown entities and people to “play nice.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And there is a group taking up the gauntlet on this event, as well as getting Preston Jackson’s Richard Pryor statue cast.

But more on those efforts later. For now, enjoy this clip from Comedy Central’s documentary on Richard, “I Ain’t Dead Yet, Mother@!%$!”:

Part 4: Why the outrage, Kizer?

I’ve often wondered why I have felt so passionately about Richard’s work and outraged by the lack of acknowledgement by the city that bore him (a city I love). A lot of it has to do with being a child of the ‘70s/‘80s and being exposed to movies in which he starred or appeared (“Bustin’ Lose”, “Silver Streak”, “Stir Crazy”, “Harlem Nights”, “Car Wash”, “The Wiz”, to name a few).

But I was also a kid who loved stand-up comedy and listened to every album (or cassette) of Pryor’s that I could get my hands on – not to mention those of a young Eddie Murphy who praised Richard in his own act (and did a spot-on impression).

But now that I cogitate on it more deeply, I realize what it was that attracted me so much to a guy who couldn’t have been more different than me. There was something inherently sympathetic and charismatic about him. Even though I didn’t have any of the experiences he had (thankfully) I could complete sympathize with him. In the words of President Clinton, I felt his pain. And no one could run the gamete of emotions on stage – or on Sesame Street – quite like Richard.

Great stage performers make you feel every emotion they are exuding. Richard could make you cry as quickly as he could make you laugh. And it was because he wasn’t telling someone else’s story; he was acting out his life on stage – the good, the bad and ugly – and it was hilarious, painful, profane, educational and, of course, mesmerizing.

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Richard didn’t ask to be born in a brothel, the son of a prostitute and a drunken father. He didn’t ask to be sexually molested throughout his childhood. But he played the hand that was dealt to him, made it out alive (which was more than many of his friends did) and achieved a level of greatness in the comedic arts unlike any other American since Mark Twain.

Richard Pryor entertained and influenced multiple generations and will undoubtedly be an influence on countless generations to come. That’s why now, fellow Peorians, is the time to put our collective shoulders to the wheel and pay proper recognition to Richard Pryor.

We are so proud of our history in this town (another note of disclosure: I’m on the Board of Trustees at the Peoria Historical Society) and yet we can’t find a way to celebrate our most well known historic figure. It’s tragic, embarrassing and one of this city’s great shames. At its best, considering this town’s history as a proud bastion of vice, it’s hypocritical. At its worst, considering this town’s history as well, it has a stiff stench of racism.

Incidentally, there will be a historical exhibition on the murderous Shelton gang this year sponsored by the Peoria Historical Society.

People are always trying to figure out ways to make Peoria a bigger, better city. Well, give Richard Pryor the recognition he deserves and Peoria will become a bigger city over night.

And don’t get me started on Betty Friedan.

Part 5: And about the book that instigated this

And regarding the book, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” by David Henry & Joe Henry? Well, since it’s what fueled the preceding 2,000+ words, it should be no surprise that it comes highly recommend. The book isn’t a straight narrative of Richard’s life but an attempt to define Richard’s rightful place beside other pivotal pop-culture icons of the time, such as Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan (Pryor performed alongside the latter in his early days).

The Henry brother’s book reads more like an essay than a biography, which I think is key as Pryor was about as complex, conflicted and contradictory of a genius as they come. While he was outrageous and larger than life, he was also very sensitive and very perceptive about the world in general. A straight, chronological, just-the-facts-please bio would probably raise more questions than it would answer.

The Henry’s are rightfully harsh about Pryor’s work in film in the ‘80s, which might have caused some people to overlook his groundbreaking stand-up work. While those movies aren’t great, for many kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s they served as gateways to Pryor brilliant stand-up.

In the book, the Henry’s don’t really spend too much time on Richard’s movies in the ‘80s (for good reason). But let’s take a look at a few of the post “Stir Crazy” films:

“Bustin’ Loose” (’81) – A really sweet movie where Richard plays an ex-con hired to drive a busload of special needs kids to a new home. Co-stars Cicely Tyson.

“Some Kind Hero” (’82) – Pryor plays a Vietnam vet returning home after being in a prisoner of war camp. A bad one, indeed.

“The Toy” (’82) – This movie is wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels. Curse all those who were involved in this (except for Richard and Jackie Gleason)!

“Superman III” (’83) – Not a good movie by any means but a blockbuster. Pryor was paid more than Superman Christopher Reeve to appear.

“Brewster’s Millions” (’85) – I think this one is a bit underrated with endearing performances from Pryor and John Candy. Pryor plays a man who has to spend $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit $300 million. A bit trite, but watchable.

“Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” (’86) – All Pryor fans should watch this film.

“Critical Condition” (’87) – Yikes, was this a bad one. A must-avoid movie.

“Moving (’88)” – Pryor plays a mass transit engineer named Arlo Pear moving to Idaho. Not much else needs to be said. Moving on.

“See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (’89) – A failed attempt to revive the Pryor-Wilder comedic franchise that proved successful in “Silver Streak” (’76) and “Stir Crazy” (’80).

However, I will take issue with the Henry’s on one particular film from this era: “Harlem Nights” from 1990, which I think was a helluva movie. Pryor, Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy (plus a pretty stellar supporting cast) more than make up for a mediocre plot at least in my book. And Richard was as cool (or sweet, if you will) as ever.

“Furious Cool” is a furiously fantastic book about a Peoria legend. I would recommend reading this book in tandem with Pryor’s autobiography, “Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences.”

Furious Cool
Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
David Henry & Joe Henry
Algonquin Books

Think you don’t have time to read “Pryor Convictions”? Well, you can listen to it here:

 

Part 6: It starts with the statue

The idea of creating a statue to commemorate Richard Pryor in Peoria is certainly nothing new. In fact, the African American Hall of Fame started the project in 2005, when Pryor’s health began to deteriorate (he died on December 1 of that year). The group reached out to Richard and Jennifer Lee Pryor who supported the project – Richard even selected Peoria’s beloved artist Preston Jackson to create the statue.

Preston began work on the sculpture for the statue immediately, first fashioning a seven-and-a-half-foot tall clay model before having molds made for a final bronze casting.

Just like any piece Preston creates, this sculpture itself is striking – it’s as if he captured Richard in mid-sentence, in mid-performance.

With mike slung low in his right hand, Richard reaches out to his audience with his left. He’s telling a story about growing up in Peoria. He’s telling a story about seeing lions in Africa. He’s telling a story about meeting the President. He’s telling a story about having his heart broke. He’s telling a story about having his heart attack. He’s telling a story about how he almost killed himself. He’s telling a story about the pains of recovering from almost killing himself. He’s telling a story about Mudbone (or rather, he’s performing Mudbone). He’s telling whatever story (or joke, if you must) your mind conjures up when you think of Richard Pryor, Stand-up Comedian.

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Right now, in the Contemporary Art Center on Peoria’s riverfront – and right next door to the Peoria Riverfront Museum (hint, hint) – deep in Preston Jackson’s studio on the 3rd floor, sits that seven-and-a-half-foot clay model, deteriorating from the process of creating the molds (stored in Chicago) and surrounded by all the accouterments one would expect to find in a studio like Preston’s – lots of metal and things with which to cut and shape metal.

So we have the model. We have the molds. Why don’t we have the statue? Well, gather ‘round folks because that’s the very reason I’m writing these very words you are reading. At this point, all that’s needed to cast the seven-and-a-half foot bronze sculpture, develop an appropriate base structure, and add informational plaques is $100,000.

And there is a group (of which I am a part) dedicated to raising that money and not just through local channels. Very soon a “Recognize Richard” campaign will be launched online through social channels informing people about the lack of recognition of Richard Pryor in his hometown, as well as the goal for funding the statue (there’s a bigger outreach to comedians and those influenced by Pryor but I won’t go into those gory details).

This won’t be just any campaign, but a campaign that’s engaging, true to his memory, unique and something people will want to a) donate to, and b) share with like-minded friends no matter whether they can donate or not.

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One big question is: where will the statue be located? The answer is: we are not sure at this point – but not for a lack of options.

The artist, the Pryor family and our group want the statue to be in a prominent location downtown, accessible to the public day and night (i.e. outdoors) and in a place where there is significant foot traffic.

Because we are in the middle of making a decision, I’m not going to disclose where those potential locations are but every one of them would be an excellent choice. And it’s heartening to have so many people interested. The choice will certainly be a difficult one.

Now we just need to get the funding to cast the statue. And that’s where (hopefully) you will come into the picture.

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As I mentioned, a Recognize Richard campaign will launch soon, probably around the start of April, but locally we will be kicking off fundraising with a major event at the Contemporary Art Center on May 24.

There’s so much going on that I will have to resort to dreaded bullet points to make it easier to digest. On that date, there will be an event that includes (lineup subject change, etc., etc.):

Lots more details to come on the event but obviously May 24 will be a big night at the Contemporary Art Center. Right now there are plans to have a VIP event before the show for larger donors however I don’t want to get into the specifics as the specifics are quite fluid at this point. But one thing’s for sure: the event will be the start of something very big.

Even though we have not officially launched the Recognize Richard campaign, you can donate right now. And the best thing about it – your donation is tax deductible. How awesome is that? Pryor had some nasty run-ins with the IRS (since he kinda didn’t pay taxes for a few years) and I think it would please him to know the IRS considers our efforts to be an honorable, charitable cause.

You can donate online at communityfoundationci.org by clicking on the “Donate Now Through the Network for Good” icon in the left menu bar and specifying your donation is going to the Richard Pryor sculpture (we’ll have a snappier way to sign up soon).

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I was going to try to sum up the previous 4,000+ words (since that’s what one is supposed to do with a piece like this) but have decided otherwise. Richard deserves more than summation. Richard is one of those artists whose story deserves to be told in full.

He was a vast and complicated man, obviously a comedic genius whose work, which might appear polarizing on the surface, in truth was genuinely unifying at its essence. He broke barriers and he connected people from different backgrounds. He did it by not only making us laugh but confronting us with larger questions of race and poverty as well as that one thing we all have in common – the everyday tragedy and comedy that goes along with being human.

So that’s about as much of a summation I’m going to give. Richard story needs to be writ large (as it has been in the Henry brother’s new book). Now, it’s time to get work and properly Recognize Richard. And, as you can see, there are many people already at work making this happen. We hope you will help too. 

 

 

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.