“The funniest man in America”—those were the words Columbia Pictures used in TV spots promoting Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, its 1982 concert film. The claim wasn’t far off. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a comic making the kind of cultural impact today that Pryor did back then. Pryor’s stand-up fit with the tumult of the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. His guest spots on Saturday Night Live made the NBC series a brand name. His records—That Nigger’s Crazy, … Is It Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album three years in a row. By the end of the 1970s, after the box office success of such pictures as Silver Streak and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, he was becoming a force in the motion-picture industry, too.
People born after 1980 might only remember Pryor as a comedian who starred in The Toy, Superman III, Harlem Nights, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But those pictures feature only a remnant of the comic he once was. When he was at his best on stage, he exposed the truths that rarely went mentioned in America.
David and Joe Henry chronicle those days and the force that was Pryor in their new book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. They’re brothers who set out to write a film about Pryor, who died in 2005. Joe is a songwriter and music producer (and Madonna’s brother-in-law). David is a screenwriter. For now, they’ve ended up with a book that’s garnering critical acclaim and working its way up bestseller lists. We spoke with them at the Palihouse in West Hollywood, within a few blocks of the Troubadour, the Comedy Store, and other clubs where Pryor performed.