I cannot wait to see the new Richard Pryor documentary, authorized by his estate. Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard’s widow, is listed as a producer on the upcoming documentary “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in mid-April. The fact that Pryor’s ex-wife is listed a producer on the project lends authenticity to the narrative of one of the most compelling figures in entertainment. When Richard Pryor died in 2005 at the young age of 65 of complications due to multiple sclerosis, he was regarded as probably the most influential American comedian of all time. As a monologist, he rivaled Mark Twain. It was the same self-destructive impluses that fueled his brilliant comedic imagination that led to his untimely demise.
Born on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois Richard Pryor’s career arc traversed the Civil Rights revolution and its aftermath. His influence in comedy – particularly during the 70s and 80s, where he was at the height of his powers — altered the DNA of comedy, at home and abroad. “It was essentially comedy without jokes – re-enactments of common human exchanges that not only mirrored the pretensions of the characters portrayed but also subtly revealed the minor triumphs that allowed them to endure and even prevail over the bleak realities of everyday living,” wrote Mel Watkins in his obituary in The New York Times. “He was brilliant at telling stories, and some people are brilliant at losing themselves,” comedian Paul Mooney, his collaborator for many years, told NPR. “That’s why Richard could play characters.”
Raised in a brothel and bars run by his grandmother, addicted for most of his adult life to cocaine, Pryor, who attained fabulous wealth in the United States during the post-Civil Rights era, lived both the American nightmare as well as the American Dream. His life served as rich soil in which he mined some of his most brilliant routines, dealing with everything from racism and inequality to drug addiction and fame. He excelled at creating hyper-realistic characters in the key of life — hustlers from black folklore to network bosses. Pryor was a pioneer of observational comedy, visiting clubs and bars with Mooney, capturing the body movements and influections as well as the stories that make up America. He began on the chitlin’ circuit — where the humor was blue — venturing afterwards to New York City, to pursue fame and fortune. In the 60s, Pryor modeled his career after Bill Cosby, who worked clean. Pryor’s comedic breakthrough came when he abandoned the clean sets of his idol and ventured into the dark side, expressing that zone of life with an organic, gritty humor. It was a side of life he intimately understood. By the 1970s Pryor had come into his comic persona — essentially himself — and ushered in a new era of American comedy, wholly without artifice and pretense.
As a dramatic actor Richard Pryor was immensely underrated. It is one of the great tragedies of American film that Pryor never did more dramas, never fully showed us his range as a performer. Comedically, Pryor was no stranger to Emmy’s, which he won for his collaboration with Lilly Tomlin, as well as the Grammy for Best Comedic Recording in 1974. His his supporting role in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, however, earned critical support of his dramatic ambitions. But it was his breakout dramatic performance in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar in 1978, which unfortunately never won an Oscar nod or box office appreciation, that proved that Richard Pryor could do anything. Playing Zeke, a frustrated Detroit autoworker surviving paycheck-to-paycheck, caught between a corporation and a corrupt union, Pryor stars alongside Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto in the logical dramatic extension of his realistic and gritty view of life. It is testament to the brilliance of Richard Pryor that he was able, almost alchemically, to transform so much pain into such timeless humor.
If this documentary captures even a fraction of the complexity of this man then it is more than worth the price of admission.