Ask most comedians today who they love and loved watching perform, and Richard Pryor’s name is more likely than not to make the cut as one of the top two influencers for a generation of stand-ups.
That’s the sense you’ll get at the start of watching the new documentary about him — Richard Pryor, “Omit the Logic” — which premieres tonight on Showtime. It previously screened on the big screen this spring for the Tribeca Film Festival.
Directed by Marina Zenovich (who also helmed a documentary on Roman Polanski), it opens with plaudits from Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, among others — as well as the highs and lows from Pryor’s own life and career, which happened over the span of a year from his 1979 stand-up concert film to his 1980 accident in which he set himself on fire while drunk and high.
The film tracks Pryor from his 1963 TV debut, to Las Vegas in 1966, up to Berkeley in 1969 as he immersed himself in the hippie counterculture, and back down to Los Angeles in 1972. By then, Pryor was telling a manager he was unemployed, unrepresented and writing jokes for Redd Foxx to make money.
That changed in the mid-1970s. Pryor recorded “That Nigger’s Crazy” in 1974, and won the Grammy for it, and also helped Mel Brooks write the screenplay to that year’s Blazing Saddles.
For all of the talk about Pryor as a comedic icon and a genius, the film spends much of its time and focus offstage or away from the jokes. Two incidents from September 1977 — when Pryor battled NBC executives and censors over his own sketch/variety show in primetime (which featured a young Robin Williams, was up against ABC’s smash sitcoms at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, and which Pryor left after only four episodes), and when he also angered the Hollywood Bowl audience at a gay-rights benefit by telling them to “kiss my rich black ass” — get extended treatments and interviews.
Pryor went on a life-changing trip to Africa, but it wasn’t for the same reasons Dave Chappelle trekked there a generation later, nor did it apparently have a lasting impact.
You’ll see plenty of opinions on how Pryor’s childhood growing up in a bordello might have impacted his adult views on marriage, as well as his perceived need to self-medicate. There, too, are extended interviews with doctors, friends and industry executives about Pryor’s self-immolation in 1980.
“I tried to commit suicide,” Pryor said in an interview afterward. “Next question.”
The old Richard Pryor had died then. His career almost left him, too. You’ll glimpse unseen footage from “Live on the Sunset Strip” of him bombing onstage; he’d return the following night with much better results. But even that box-office triumph had unintended consequences. A $40-million, multi-picture deal put Pryor in the movies, though not films that would do much for his career or his legacy.
Jennifer Lee Pryor, his fourth wife and also his seventh and final wife, executive produced this documentary.
She came back into the comedian’s life during his final years with MS.
We’re left with a first take of final words from Pryor’s 1982 concert film, imagining himself as an old man facing death, and then two decades later, in a TV interview actually contemplating his legacy.
Here are the words from the filmmakers about Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic.
This isn’t the biopic we’ve been promised, although Mike Epps (one of several younger comedians attached to such a project) is present and ready to offer his tributes.
Nor is this Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, the 1986 semi-autobiographical movie Pryor himself starred and directed himself in.
This is his life through the eyes of his last wife.
This is the life of the man Richard Pryor, and not so much the comedian Richard Pryor.
For that, we’ll have to wait for the rest of his history.