Showtime's Richard Pryor biopic Omit the Logic remains compelling, amid criticisms from the comic's widow
It is obvious, after a few questions, that Jennifer Lee Pryor is not going to give the interview either of us expected.
As the fourth and seventh wife of famed comedy innovator Richard Pryor – and the woman who returned to care for the comic as he was struggling with multiple sclerosis in 1994 – Jennifer Pryor is now the guardian of his estate and a producer of Showtime’s crackling documentary about his life and career, Omit the Logic.
In that capacity, it might be considered her job to say nice things about the movie, which has already gotten admiring reviews and write ups everywhere from Variety to Rolling Stone magazine.
But Pryor also can’t hide her disappointment with many aspects of the film, which she says gives short shrift to important episodes in the legendary comedian’s life, blaming director Marina Zenovich for focusing on the wrong interview subjects at times and inaccurately condensing aspects of his sprawling story.
“I think that it failed in revealing what really was going on with Richard,” said Pryor, who added she hopes to insert additional material to any DVD release. “I’m a survivor and I earned the right to tell the truth. I loved Richard madly; I married him twice. And one of the things I leaned from Richard was that I had my own sense of truth and my own moral compass and I had to follow it no matter what.”
Zenovich, known as the director of the Emmy-winning documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, said she worked hard to squeeze the high points of Richard Pryor’s controversial life and career into a 90-minute film, well aware that legions of fans, friends and family members were watching closely.
“You’re not being literal; you’re condensing reality into 90 minutes. You’re making more of a poetic truth,” she said. “When we went to the (Tribeca film Festival) one of the first things Jennifer said was there was going to be a sequel. I wish she would have told me that (during production); I would have made the film differently.”
As it stands, Omit the Logic is a compelling-if-swift look at one of comedy’s most groundbreaking figures. Richard Pryor was the first comedian to find massive, mainstream success by bringing explicit, black-centered streetwise comedy to the masses, creating wildly popular standup comedy albums, concert films and movie roles. Check out a clip by clicking here.
Younger comedy nerds might not know his full story; how the Peoria, Ill. native first tried succeeding as a buttoned-down Bill Cosby clone in the 1960s, only to realize his authentic voice lay in channeling the profane, profound characters from his life.
Filled with interviews of stars such as Robin Williams (who worked on Pryor’s ill-fated NBC sketch comedy show), Lilly Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Mike Epps, the film hopscotches between personal tribulation and major career milestones. We learn how Pryor dropped his conventional standup routines after freaking out during a Las Vegas show; we hear Mel Brooks' story on how the comic was dropped as lead actor by a skittish movie studio after co-writing the landmark comedy Blazing Saddles; we watch his triumph in major movies roles in Lady Sings the Blues and Stir Crazy.
The son of a prostitute and pimp, Richard Pryor was raised in a brothel operated by his grandmother, father and uncle, giving him a unique view of life which led to standup routines humanizing pimps, winos and junkies. For black folks familiar with that world, Pryor was the first comic to talk about their reality, earning hero status as a truth-teller which sometimes felt constricting.
“I think he not only didn’t want the job but it was like, why do you f---ers want to give me the job?” said Jennifer Pryor of her husband’s reaction to being held up as symbol of black pride and empowerment. “Richard wanted to be an artist…So what is the answer? Are there any answers why Richard self-destructed or imploded?”
Watching clips of Richard Pryor’s ‘70s-era appearances, there’s the sense of a looser pop culture world than today. The film offers a clip of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson using the n-word while asking the comic about his explicit language onstage (in another clip, Dinah Shore refused to say it); his landmark 1974 comedy album, That N-----‘s Crazy even sat atop Billboard’s R&B charts for weeks in the 1970s.
Brilliant as he was, Richard Pryor also had a talent for self-destruction. He struggled mightily for years with alcohol and drug addictions, surrounding himself with people who sometimes enabled those activities. Occasionally, the problems would emerge publicly; when his impending marriage to actress Pam Grier was derailed after he unexpectedly proposed to someone else, or when he took the stage at a high-profile Hollywood benefit to curse out the crowd.
The film opens with one of the most infamous chapters from Richard Pryor’s life; the 1980 incident where he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, an event his representatives back then tried to pass off as an accident with liquor. Later, the comic admitted trying to kill himself; Zenovich noted an early cut of the film focused on the incident too much.
“Everyone said that was depressing; we need more of him,” she said, recalling the reaction from an early screening of a rough cut. “You need to show the pain to show the funny. It’s tricky.”
Jennifer Lee Pryor criticized the director for telling the story of the fire by quoting a confidant of the comic’s who she said bought drugs for him. She also criticized a streamlining of the story behind his comeback concert film Live on the Sunset Strip, which made it seem as if he filmed a flawless set one day after breaking down onstage; she says half that movie was recorded months later, when the second attempt faltered, too.
And Pryor said she fought over how the film told the story of his decision to stop using the n-word after a trip to Africa. “When we came back, there was this incredible tumult that went…that erupted from the black community,” she said. “He was doing this wonderful ascent. And then he had this epiphany and…all of a sudden there was this pressure on him. I saw him start to implode.”
Several key figures in his life don’t appear in the film, including Cosby, Grier, his most prominent comedic descendant Eddie Murphy (in his concert film Raw, Murphy described how his early, teenage standup routines were basically Pryor impressions), Stir Crazy co-star Gene Wilder and the comic’s actor daughter, Rain Pryor.
“I think Pam was too hurt by Richard to ever want to actually give him anything,” Jennifer Pryor said. “Others, I know there was some bitterness.”
Zenovich said few have asked about one irony: that the comic, who fought to articulate African American points of view and once founded a film company based on supporting back filmmakers, would now see his story told by two white women.
“I’m sure some people wondered why they hired me,” said Zenovich with a chuckle, noting that the film’s title comes from a moment when longtime Pryor collaborator and friend David Banks explains how to understand the comic’s unpredictable, often-irrational behavior. “He saw the look on my face; I couldn’t even begin to understand the insanity.”
Jennifer Lee Pryor, who became the comic’s manager and cared for him until his 2005 death from a heart attack, said she knows some people may resent her efforts, but she’s worked hard to win back intellectual property rights and control projects so his legacy is ensured.
“Richard Pryor stayed alive, lived in dignity and was loved until he passed,” she said. “So people who wanna talk s--- about me are lucky there’s a Richard Pryor legacy at all.”
“I’ve never worked on a film like this where someone has an estate,” Zenovich added. “On one level, you’re never going to make the happy. But I’m happy with what we did.”
Richard Pyor: Omit the Logic debuts at 9 p.m. Friday on Showtime.
See a clip from the documentary by clicking here. Given that concert clips of Pryor's standup are seriously NSFW -- I've embedded a clip from Pryor's NBC show where he plays Obama before Obama; the nation's first black president.