1. Life & Culture

At odds over compelling Pryor documentary 'Omit the Logic'

Omit the Logic is a swift look at Richard Pryor, the first comedian to find massive, mainstream success.
Omit the Logic is a swift look at Richard Pryor, the first comedian to find massive, mainstream success.
Published May 26, 2013

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 — who brought order to the comic's life as he was struggling with multiple sclerosis in 1994 — Jennifer Lee Pryor now guides his estate and is one of the producers behind a crackling documentary about his life and career airing Friday on Showtime, Omit the Logic.

In that capacity, it might be considered her job to say nice things about the movie, already written up everywhere from the Hollywood Reporter and Variety to Rolling Stone.

But Jennifer Lee Pryor also can't hide her disappointment with aspects of the film, which she says gives short shrift to important episodes in the legendary comedian's life, blaming director Marina Zenovich.

"I think that it failed in revealing what really was going on with Richard," said Pryor, who added she hopes to insert additional material in a DVD release. "I loved Richard madly; I married him twice. And one of the things I learned 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 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, bringing explicit, black-centered comedy to the masses in wildly popular standup comedy albums, concert films and movie roles.

Younger comedy nerds might not realize that the Peoria, Ill., native first tried succeeding as a buttoned-down Bill Cosby clone in the 1960s, only to discover his authentic voice lay in channeling the profane, profound characters from his life. His success would inspire comics ranging from Eddie Murphy (in his concert film Raw, Murphy described how his early, teenage standup routines were basically Pryor impressions) to Wanda Sykes and Tracy Morgan.

Filled with interviews of stars such as Robin Williams (who worked on Pryor's ill-fated NBC sketch comedy show), Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Mike Epps, the film hopscotches between personal tribulations and career milestones. It recounts how he dropped his Cosby-esque style after freaking out during a Las Vegas show; was dropped as lead actor by a skittish movie studio after co-writing Mel Brooks' landmark comedy Blazing Saddles; and struggled with alcohol and drug addictions.

The son of a prostitute and pimp, Richard Pryor was raised in a brothel operated by his grandmother, which led to standup routines humanizing pimps, winos and junkies. For poor black folks, Pryor was the first superstar comic to talk about their reality in their language.

In some ways, the '70s-era pop culture world was looser than today. A clip shows Tonight Show host Johnny Carson using the n-word while asking the comic about his explicit language onstage. Pryor's landmark 1974 comedy album, That N-----'s Crazy, even sat atop Billboard's R&B charts for weeks.

The film opens with one of the most infamous chapters from Richard Pryor's life, a 1980 incident where he set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine. But Jennifer Lee Pryor criticized how that story was told, along with a streamlining of details behind filming his comeback 1982 concert film Live on the Sunset Strip (it actually took three shoots to produce one, flawless concert) and an epiphany in Africa that led him to stop using the n-word onstage.

Several key figures don't appear in the film, including Cosby, Murphy, former fiancee Pam Grier and the comic's six children. "I think Pam was too hurt by Richard," Jennifer Pryor said. "Others, I know there was some bitterness."

Zenovich said few reviewers have asked about one irony: that Pryor, who once founded a production company to support black filmmakers, would see his story told by two white women.

"I'm sure some people wondered why they hired me," the director said with a chuckle, noting that Omit the Logic's title comes from a moment onscreen when longtime collaborator and friend David Banks explains how to understand the comic's unpredictable, self-destructive behavior. "He saw the look on my face; I couldn't even begin to understand the insanity. But I'm happy with what we did."

Jennifer Lee Pryor said she knows some people also may resent her efforts. "Richard Pryor stayed alive, lived in dignity and was loved until he passed (in 2005 of a heart attack)," she added. "So people who wanna talk s--- about me are lucky there's a Richard Pryor legacy at all."