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Deadbeat dad who became a comedy genius

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Richard Pryor in 1981

Richard Pryor in 1981

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Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 'Stir Crazy'

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 'Stir Crazy'

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Richard Pryor in 1981

'Genius is the most overused word when writing about comedy," is, ironically, perhaps the most overused phrase when writing about comedy. Because the word 'genius' is attached too freely to every comic who isn't a hack, people have become wary of falling for the hype.

When it comes to levels of mass adoration, only stand-up comedians come close to the kind of devotion routinely sucked up by the world's largest rock bands. And even U2's biggest fans will admit that Bono can be a bit of a knob.

But when it comes to the truly great comedians, the ones who have managed to spread their demon seed through popular consciousness and actually made us change the way we think, when we don't know that we're changing, then even rock stars fall short of ever truly enjoying that degree of influence.

Steve Martin, Billy Connolly and Bob Newhart, for example, were good comedians. Really, really good, stadium-level comedians. But Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks and a young Chris Rock were great. And, as such, they have a following that is religious in its fervour.

Comedy is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and with something as subjective as comedy, we can only talk about our favourite, not calculate who was the best. But if you were to play that game, Richard Pryor would come out on top – because it's impossible to place anybody ahead of him.

Lenny Bruce, in the decades since his death, retains his relevance because of the harassment he suffered and the way he fought back. His humour? Not so much. But someone exposed to Pryor for the first time will receive the same thrilling jolt as those who listened in amazement when it was first released.

Some still claim that Bruce is the father of modern comedy, but it has many, and none as influential as this deadbeat dad whose riffs on race were universal but who never escaped the crippling self-loathing that came from, as he saw it, selling out.

For a life less ordinary, only an extraordinary book would do him justice. And while there are some quibbles to be had with Furious Cool, the Henry brothers have a smoky, languid style, infused with a love that borders on awe for their subject, as they deliver a seemingly free-wheeling but artfully structured book that is a more honest tribute than conventional biography.

The main bullet points of Pryor's life are well known and even more rehashed – raised in a brothel by his grandmother, he became the second most popular black comedian after Bill Cosby before having an epiphany and reinventing himself as the most electrifyingly fearless comic of his age. All this before burning out in a technicolour car crash of bad movies, drug abuse and the infamous episode in 1980 which saw him soak himself in rum before running, on fire, down a Hollywood sidewalk.

As the prelude to Furious Cool points out, a concerned cop sees Pryor in flames and "jogs alongside him, calmly pleading with the burning man to stop. 'If I stop, I'll die,' he answers, making odd sense of a moment that refuses any other kind." It's as brittle a metaphor for a troubled life as you could ask for.

In his pomp, with the likes of That Nigger's Crazy (reacting to the controversy of the title, a subsequent album was called That Nigger's Still Crazy) and the still smouldering – as it were – brilliance of Live on Sunset Strip, there was quite simply nobody like him. And while plenty have come close (Chris Rock much more so than Eddie Murphy), none have quite scaled the heights.

For all his brilliance, he could be an abusive, baleful presence to the women around him and the Henrys never allow their open adoration cloud their judgment. In fact, there are times he's unflinchingly portrayed as a truly repellent character who, when not beating his girlfriends, was ignoring them. As one ex-girlfriend recalls: "There was no laughter. There were no jokes . . . He was a dead personality." She then adds, tellingly: "The only thing that kept you there with Richard was the fact that he was a genius."

That word genius, again.

But in this case, 'genius' is the only truly accurate description and Furious Cool is an essential read for fan and curious alike. With one caveat – given Pryor's complicated relationships with older, black comedians, his appearance alongside Bill Cosby in Neil Simon's California Suite is inexplicably ignored.

Irish Independent