In the summer of 1980, Richard Pryor and his friend Rashan Khan were drinking 151 and watching old footage of Buddhists monks self-immolating as a protest to the actions in Vietnam. Khan said to Pryor, “Look at that commitment.” Pryor said, “Fuck commitment. He didn’t even flinch.” Khan got up and went to the kitchen. The next thing he saw was a ball of fire flying past him down the hall. The bottle of 151 was nearly empty. Richard Pryor was burning alive.
The new documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, which premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, picks up right there. Expertly edited news footage reveals the aftermath of Pryor’s infamous alcohol-fueled suicide attempt when the funny man suffered horrific third degree burns over much of his body and many didn’t think he would live.
From there Marina Zenovich’s work takes us back to the early 1960s when Pryor first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and to his disastrous foray into the Vegas scene, where he believed he made a fool of himself in front of none other than Dean Martin. Thrown out of the Aladdin due to questionable behavior, he lost his Vegas gig and with it the dream of his name appearing with Vegas royalty.
Although Pryor was embarrassed, he was undeterred. Omit the Logic tracks his reemergence in San Francisco amidst the cacophony of racial and Vietnam-induced tension of the late ‘60s. It was there that Pryor became the Pryor of legend, crafting a routine that mixed no-hold-barred racial commentary with profanity.
“This is my favorite part of the show: after intermission, when white folks come back to find niggas done stole their seats,” he told his audience once.
Yes, there’s that word.
His use of profanity and, in particular, the word “nigger,” was at one time indispensable to his routine. And Zenovich hilariously documents how contentious those six letters can be. In 1975 Pryor released his third comedy album That Nigger’s Crazy, which caused one white interviewer to balk at saying the word. Pryor replied that he knew a lot of white people had a problem with the word “crazy.” Notably the word did leave his comedic vocabulary four years later.
Told from interviews with dozens business associates, collaborators, fellow comics, friends, wives (he had more than a few), Omit the Logic presents the darkest sides of the comedian as well. The irony is that for all its laughs, his act was forged in the fires of Greek tragedy: growing up in his family-run brothel, becoming a father at fifteen with a woman who was also sleeping with his own dad, and the obscene drug use.
While the documentary doesn’t shy from these topics, it finds itself more comfortable focusing on Pryor’s professional struggles and drug use rather than the man as a man. Was he nice? A jerk? What about his personal relationships? Clues abound, but there’s very little analysis or reflection away from show business. The camera turns only briefly to one of his six children, Richard Pryor Jr. Yet the viewer learns next to nothing of the man as a father. The one personal relationship that gets the most attention in the documentary is that of his grandmother, who the viewers soon learn, through her attitude and actions, was anything but grandmotherly.
The candid photographs are at times haunting, and scenes from his act provide enough material on their own to fill this 84-minute documentary. Their masterful use by Zanovich drives the plot: the rise, the fall, the rise again, and the ultimate fade at the hands of debilitating disease of one of the country’s best stand-up comedians.
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