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Colum McCann Interviews Authors of Richard Pryor Bio, "Furious Cool"

As kids growing up in Michigan, Joe and David Henry became obsessed with Richard Pryor's raunchy and hillarious LPs. A few years after Pryor died, in 2005, the brothers decided to collaborate on an exploration of Pryor's life and his lasting influence. The result, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month. (Our reviewer, Jason Kirk, called it "an artistic performance of the written word that does lovely justice to a brilliant, tortured man.")Furious Cool attracted some early support from National Book Award–winner Colum McCann (TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin), who called it "a book worth savoring.” Here, McCann speaks with the Henrys about their fascination with Pryor.

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David-joe-henryColum McCann: How did two white kids from the rust belt fall under the sway of an angry black comedian like Richard Pryor?

Joe Henry and David Henry: When we were twelve and fourteen years old, there was no one cooler, more exciting or inspiring, than Richard Pryor--he and Bob Dylan. We wouldn’t have been able to tell you why at the time, but intuitively, we sensed they were doing very similar work, bringing us news from a world that was operating and thriving somewhere down below the surface. Those were exciting times. Artists let you know you are not alone, that there are others out there who know the world is chaotic, poetic, dangerous, and heartbreaking and don’t flinch from embracing it full on. Dylan made our heads spin, Richard hit us over the head. We’d never encountered anyone like him. But we recognized him instantly as a kindred spirit. Not to say that we understood where Richard was coming from but that he, inexplicably, understood who we were.

McCann: In Furious Cool, you place Richard Pryor in the pantheon with Mark Twain, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali--a couple of times you walk right up to the edge of comparing him to Homer and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Libraries have whole shelves devoted to those guys. Why do suppose so few books have been written about Richard Pryor? 

The Henrys: It’s too soon. The enormity of what he accomplished as an artist is still clouded over by his later celebrity and his long slog through all of those mediocre Hollywood movies. Remember, he was pushing forty when he became the box-office sensation of the eighties. It was during the previous twenty years of his career that he did his most brilliant work. Most everything he did in the seventies was monumental. And unequaled. In time the baser matter will erode revealing the block of granite underneath.

Colum-McCann-Credit-Dustin-AkslandMcCann: The book is beautifully written. There’s such a fantastic rhythm and style. Did your family’s musical background help you?

The Henrys: Our family didn’t have much of a musical background. We suspect our writing style--and Joe’s music--were greatly influenced more by the storytellers we sprang from. Our paternal grandfather, especially, would tell the same parcel of stories over and over again in a rhythmic style we took delight in imitating. He employed many of the same tricks and devices that troubadours and balladeers have used for ages--inserting decorative figures of speech or stretching out syllables on the fly in order to maintain his rhythm. Several of Richard’s standup characters do the same thing; Big Bertha and Mudbone especially. And as result, we remember them like we remember songs . . . can imitate them with the tonal and rhythmic observances that carry the narrative within them.

McCann: What was it like, working in tandem?

The Henrys: In some ways it was second nature, since for decades--most of our lives--we have shared a love for an array of writers, filmmakers, musicians, and comedians. Our sensibilities were shaped in tandem, and as such, we seldom doubted that what one of us had written would authentically resonate with the other. But in more practical terms, it was much fun and a great relief to approach our subject like tag-team wrestlers: when one got tired of hammering away at a particular chapter, he’d pass it off to the other, who, hopefully, was waiting ringside, refreshed and ready.

McCann: Richard Pryor left his mark on every comedian that followed him. In what ways has his influence extended beyond the realm of comedy? And, aside from writing this book, in what ways has he influenced you and your work?

FuriousThe Henrys: Well, in broad terms, Richard’s influence has held sway beyond the world of comedians in much the same way that Mark Twain’s has beyond literature: the work of each issues a challenge to every American artist in every medium to be brazen and singular, to speak the individual truths that nonetheless reveal our inescapable unity. Both of us--and well before this book was a thought--have been inspired by Richard’s bravery, and his insistence that we each need to own our history and retell it in our own voice.

McCann: It’s almost universally accepted as an empirical fact--just as Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written--that Richard Pryor is the greatest stand-up comic ever. Yet you suggest that he treated stand-up comedy as a stepping-stone toward a career as a movie star, the thing he wanted most of all. So, why, given his undeniable genius as a performer, were his movies such a letdown?

The Henrys: Quite simply, Richard’s film work was not truly his own. He was desperate for affirmation, and desirous of money and the autonomy it offered, and to that end he signed on to movie after movie where the writing and direction were not equal to his gifts. He squandered much of his prime, and he is responsible for that.

McCann: Throughout the book, you speak of him on a first-name basis. Do you think Richard would be okay with that?

The Henrys: We decided he would be. His best work invites an incredible intimacy.

McCann: Delving into the life of someone you admire is a risky business. How has your opinion--your conception--of Richard Pryor as a person changed over the course of writing this book?

The Henrys: We didn’t go looking for skeletons or scandals. There was no need. All artists and performers to some degree know their life is going to be scrutinized in public, and Richard went onstage with his closet door wide open.

It’s true that a great many people who were part of Richard’s life at some time or another felt hurt or disappointed or brutalized or betrayed by him; yet everyone we spoke to loved him. Perhaps they loved him against their better judgment or now find him easier to love from a distance, beyond arm’s length, but we have not yet met anyone who didn’t get more from him than he took.

McCann: Emerson once suggested that the history of a time can be resolved in the biographies of a few stout and earnest people. Is this the case with Richard? Does he capture the zeitgeist of his time? And if so, are you conscious of the notion that you are engaging with history?

The Henrys: We find it wildly interesting that Richard was extending the range of his craft in much the same way--and in the same moment--that Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Ali, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol were all expanding on the assumptions and rewriting the terms of their respective stations. So, yes . . . Richard seems to perfectly reflect the wickedness of his times, and as well, the immense liberation on offer.

McCann: And if there’s one Richard Pryor line you’d like to have with you when you go “into the yonder”--a line that you’d be able to use again and again--what would it be?  

The Henrys: Shortly after Richard’s stepmother passed, he was on the Tonight Show demonstrating to Johnny Carson how his father, shivering in the bitter cold during her funeral, had gestured to the minister by raking the flat palm of his hand through the air like the blade of a bulldozer and saying, “The dirt! Get to the part with the dirt! I mean, I love you, baby, but, damn, it’s cold out here!” That absolutely destroyed us. So, if we were to pick just one line, that would be it: “The dirt!” But you need the hand gesture to go with it.

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About the authors: Joe Henry is aGrammy Award–winning music producer, composer, and performer, and David Henry is a screenwriter. Furious Cool is their first book.

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