It's no surprise Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. The comic is revered by comedians for his profane and searingly honest take on everything -- life, love, his pain, race, gender. My father once told me he saw Pryor live and folks were laughing so hard they were begging him to stop; the audience was choking and gasping for air. To paraphrase one of his album titles, that Negro was crazy!
That aspect of Pryor is evident in "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic" (9 tonight, Showtime), a documentary on his life, his humor and his career. It's an engaging piece that offers those less familiar with him a good sense of his importance. But it's a mostly surface work that leaves questions for fans.
The film is told through footage -- some never before seen -- plus stories and observations from people who knew and observed him. Among the well-known names are comics George Lopez, Bob Newhart, Richard Belzer, Dave Chappelle, co-writer Paul Mooney; family includes his 4th and 7th wife Jennifer Lee Pryor (who is also an executive producer as Pryor's widow) and Richard Pryor Jr.; and colleagues/friends like Durham native Thom Mount, the former president of Universal Pictures where Pryor made most of his hit films like "Stir Crazy."
What unfolds is the tale of a sensitive boy who grew up in a rough environment, raised by a steel-tough but loving grandmother who was a madam, mother and aunts who were prostitutes, father and uncles who were pimps. When he found his comic identity, that upbringing gave him a lot of good stories and characters to bring to life, a lot of pain to explore and unleash, a lot of damage to overcome and inflict. And apparently, it made him lovable. It's interesting to see how many people, men and women, who loved Pryor and wanted him to win.
But we also get to see how he battled or didn't battle his demons. The film raises the question of whether fame fueled the dark side or just enhanced it. Pryor could be incredibly attractive and madly callous. One anecdote tells of his relationship with actress/goddess Pam Grier, a relationship so serious all his friends thought it was heading toward marriage. Pryor ended that talk, and the relationship, by abruptly marrying someone else, a person unknown to nearly everyone he knew. It makes for a very funny story, but man, is that a cruel thing to do. (Pam Grier isn't in the film to give her thoughts.)
While the film does touch on Pryor's Indigo Film company, a multimillion dollar deal that made him the only African American with a production company at the time, it doesn't get into what exactly went wrong or give a good sense of Pryor's ambitions for the effort. Football star/actor Jim Brown, the company's president, doesn't appear in the film.
It would have been great too, to hear from the exes (only Jennifer Pryor and another early ex appear) on why he was lovable. Six women married him. What was it like?
I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Pryor was a tough man to know. He was clearly complicated; vulnerable on stage, but maybe vulnerable in a different way, off stage. The thing is a film about his life doesn't have to have clear answers about who Pryor was. But it should give it a good try.