A Furious Rant Fueled by a Furious Cool Book: “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” David Henry & Joe Henry

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A Note From the Author:
What was intended to be a review of “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him”, a book written by David Henry & Joe Henry, became a rant against the city of Peoria for its lack of recognition of its most famous son. But it’s more than just a rant. It also presents at least the beginnings of a strategy to change that starting with an annual Richard Pryor weekend. Now, onto my rant.

“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

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 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 Mel Brooks and Carl 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 and nostrils curl.

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).

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.

Oh, 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?

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 a 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.

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 a presence of Richard Pryor. Maybe a permanent display, perhaps a window exhibit?

Not a chance.

Richard is lodged in a quiet nook off the Street exhibit, along with other Peoria luminaries, that one can only find if adamantly searching. Search “Richard Pryor” on the Museum’s website and response is telling: “No results.” That’s been the problem too long.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum should be embarrassed and perhaps the new CEO, Sam Gappmayer, will help rectify the situation. And 2014 seems like the perfect year for that rectification to begin.

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 hare-brained. In this case, I think an appropriate solution and a great way to preserve Pryor’s memory (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.

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) perhaps 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 perfect 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 gives us about seven months to plan. Who is ready to take up the gauntlet?

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 ‘80s and being exposed to his later movies (“Brewster’s Millions”, “Silver Streak”, “Stir Crazy”, “Harlem Nights”).

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.

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. It was a sympathy he was able to evoke or conjure when he was on stage. Even though I didn’t have any of the experiences he had (thankfully) I sympathized with him. In the words of President Clinton, I felt his pain. And no one could run the gamut of emotions on stage 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.

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 many generations and will undoubtedly influence 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.

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.

Don’t get me started on Betty Friedan.

Oh, and regarding the book, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” by David Henry and Joe Henry? Well, that’s what fueled the preceding rant. The book isn’t a straight narrative of Richard’s life but an attempt (it seems to me) to define his rightful place beside other pop-culture icons of the time, including Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, with whom Pryor performed alongside in their 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. A straight, chronological, just-the-facts-please bio would probably raise more questions than it answered. While they are rightfully harsh about Pryor’s work in film in the ‘80s, I do have one disagreement with them: “Harlem Nights” was a helluva movie!

I highly recommend this book in tandem with, if you haven’t already read it, 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

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.