Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic

Richard Pryor. Omit the Logic

I was caught up in this documentary from start to finish. It seems unusually well done, though it’s possible that it’s really just a competent job of filmmaking but that that was sufficient to win me over because the subject matter itself was highly interesting to me. But in any case I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.

The style of the film is fairly conventional for a documentary. Pryor’s story is told in a chronological, straightforward manner through talking heads interviews with the people in his life who were willing to sit for interviews, interspersed with narration and clips from his career, including some audio clips from records and stand-up appearances that weren’t filmed.

It’s not one of those artsy, hard-to-follow documentaries with a lot of bells and whistles and such that emphasizes atmospherics over substance. To me, that’s good. All else being equal, I typically enjoy the more conventional style documentaries.

So the style largely works. If I were to change anything, I’d maybe want the clips from his career to be a little longer. So much of his material was autobiographical that you could use his performance clips to tell a lot of his story. Plus, less truncated clips could better show just how talented and genuinely funny he was.

As I watched, I thought about whether this film would be a good introduction to Pryor for, say, a young person who had no idea who he was. The answer is mostly no. The clips are better as a memory trigger for Pryor fans who can say “Oh yeah, I remember that bit. That was hysterical.” But for someone without a frame of reference like that, the clips don’t seem long and complete enough to give a sense of what he’s talking about and why it’s funny. I’m skeptical that newcomers would get what all the fuss is about.

So that’s what I would have liked to have seen more of—more Richard Pryor in the documentary about Richard Pryor.

This is a sad story really. There’s an inkling of a happy ending—concerning his finally succeeding in getting off drugs very late in his life when he had multiple sclerosis—but for the most part this is the story of a tragic life, a person who battled major personal demons from childhood on, and almost always came out on the short end against them.

I knew something of his life before viewing this film, but a lot of it was new to me. It sounds as though he had a terrible childhood, worse than I’d realized. His father and uncle were pimps, and his mother and most of the women in his family were prostitutes.

He was largely raised by his grandmother, and she was a piece of work. She was something of the matriarch of the crime family, ruthless in ordering violence when she felt the situation warranted it. In some ways she comes across as a really ominous, evil, soulless person. Yet toward Pryor, she evidently could be very loving and supportive. A loving bond existed between the two of them into Pryor’s adulthood, and one interviewee says that her death was a big factor in Pryor’s life subsequently falling apart.

But think about the complex psychological effects of having the most powerfully influential person in your life, and in some ways the person with whom you have the most positive human connection, also be such a vicious human being.

Certainly one thing you learn from the film is that he was a total junkie for much of his life. Yes he quit temporarily here and there, and he struggled to quit many other times, but he frightfully abused his body and mind for decades with drugs. His self-destructiveness through drug use is a constant theme of the movie.

One thing I learned is that he was supposed to play the lead in Blazing Saddles instead of Cleavon Little, but the studio heads nixed that. It wasn’t so much that he was controversial or that they didn’t agree with his politics, as that they felt he was so erratic and undisciplined that they couldn’t rely on him.

In watching Mel Brooks and others interviewed about this, lamenting the studio decision and insisting how much they wanted Pryor for the film, I wonder if they could have made more of a stand. As the director, could Brooks, especially if backed up by the bulk of the other creative people involved in the project, have refused to proceed if Pryor wasn’t reinstated, or would that have been a breach of contract or something that couldn’t have worked?

Ultimately of course he had a significant career as a film actor. I don’t assess that career as favorably as this documentary does, though.

Here he’s praised as a terrific comic actor whose movies were groundbreaking for their time and opened Hollywood up for Black actors who followed, though the film acknowledges that toward the end he was regrettably in some sellout, very conventional, bland comedies aimed at white audiences. I frankly never thought he was special as a comic actor.

I saw a few of his movies (I’m leaving aside his concert films—more on those shortly), some from the period the documentary praises (e.g., Stir Crazy) and some from the period it trashes (e.g., Brewster’s Millions, The Toy), and I didn’t see all that much difference. They all had a few decent scenes, a few decent lines, but they were all average or below average comedies. He didn’t stand out as uproariously funny in any of them, and none of them struck me as particularly edgy. I didn’t love or hate any of them.

Indeed, for me the best Richard Pryor movie by a significant margin was Blue Collar, with Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel, which was 95% drama and 5% comedy. Very good film and very good performances.

I didn’t recall that he had a TV show briefly in the ’70s; I’m pretty sure I never saw it. Evidently it was marked by constant fighting with the network people and such, as he wanted to do it his own way and include controversial material, and the powers that be wanted to water everything down. One interviewee says that 90% of what they filmed for the show was cut out, and yet the remaining 10% still pushed the boundaries of television more than just about anything else then on the air.

Based on the clips of him with Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, etc., I got the maybe surprising impression that television then was if anything bolder than now in terms of being willing to offend and be controversial. (Network television that is; I’m not talking about cable.) Hearing a term like “nigger” used in jest on a mainstream talk show is a little jarring.

Just as a theory off the top of my head, maybe it’s not so much that things were looser then as that the boundaries hadn’t been as fully worked out yet. So perhaps back then 90%-95% of what was on network television was even more sanitized and phony than today, but 5%-10% slipped through the cracks and was allowed to be great or awful or brilliant, whereas today after decades of both liberalization and political correctness, the boundaries have been pushed outward considerably but there’s no longer as much wiggle room to occasionally go beyond them. If that makes sense. Like there used to be a speed limit of 50 MPH that was somewhat haphazard in its interpretation and enforcement, whereas now there’s a speed limit of 60 MPH that’s tightly enforced with cameras on every street corner.

I didn’t realize—or maybe I had heard it and forgotten—that the horrible, almost fatal burns he got were not from accidentally setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, but came from a (spontaneous, frivolous, heavily drug-influenced) suicide attempt. Reportedly, he and a friend had been watching some kind of news program or documentary on the Vietnam War that included footage of one of the Buddhist monks who committed suicide by setting himself on fire as a political protest, and when his friend left the room Pryor poured rum all over himself and lit it on fire on purpose.

To me, Pryor’s peak was his concert movies. There certainly had been audio records of comedy concerts before that, but I believe these were the first—or at least the first highly successful—full length, theatrical release, comedy concert movies.

I loved Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Some of those bits—the pet monkeys and the talking dog from next door, that whole boxing sequence—are among the most hilarious and perfectly crafted that I’ve ever seen in a stand-up act. Plus, the self-deprecating autobiographical bits are impressive and add considerable emotional depth to the performance.

Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip I liked nearly as much. I don’t think there was anything in it quite as funny as the high points in the first film, but it actually surpassed the first film in the emotional power of its autobiographical stories. This was after he nearly burned himself to death, and it includes his recounting of his intense exchange with Jim Brown.

Richard Pryor Here and Now I thought was a clear step down. There were some laughs here and there, but it just wasn’t anything great, anything all that memorable.

Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic mentions the first film in passing, and I think doesn’t mention the third film at all. It goes into a little more detail about Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. That was his big comeback concert after the fire incident. They filmed his first night’s performance, and apparently it was awful. He was nervous, unsure of himself, forgot a lot of his act, got lost in some of his bits, and ended up apologizing to the audience halfway through and leaving the stage.

No way they could have turned that into a movie, so he came back the next night to the same venue for another try with the cameras running, and nailed it.

Though obviously his stand-up material was mostly prepared and rehearsed and polished in advance, a lot of people thought he was at his best when he ad libbed, when he went off on some tangent during his act, or during some other public appearance. It wasn’t just that he could be very funny during those times, but that there was the attention-grabbing frankness, the vulnerability of revealing his pain and flaws, the willingness to risk offending people or getting himself in trouble by speaking the truth as he saw it on social and political issues.

In my opinion, though, that was a mixed bag. It’s great that he was willing to go out on a limb like that, to commence a rift when he himself didn’t know where it was headed, to speak his mind and damn the consequences, but he didn’t hit a home run every time he did that. Sometimes his rants were brilliant, and sometimes his rants had little or no humor or insight to them.

One of the more interesting sections of the film concerns a time he went off like that at some kind of benefit for gay rights. He got it into his head that there was something objectionable or hypocritical about the affair, and he decided to tell off the attendees.

The interviewees in the film treat it as if it’s an example of Pryor’s admirable willingness to get in people’s faces and speak unpopular truths to them, and as some kind of test of whether liberals can see the greatness of Pryor even when he’s skewering one of their pet causes.

Baloney. At least from the clip they show of the incident, what I see is some drunk ranting semi-coherently, spewing superficial random garbage about gay people. Insofar as I could discern any point at all, I think he was saying that gay people haven’t supported the struggle of Blacks for civil rights sufficiently to obligate Black people to support their struggle for civil rights.

I admire his sincerity to say what’s on his mind, and his bravery in doing so when it’s unpopular, but that doesn’t mean everything he said on such occasions was socially or politically accurate. Like I say, he didn’t always hit a home run with his improvisations and political rants. I’m willing to tolerate the strikeouts in order to get to the home runs, but I’m not going to pretend his strikeouts are home runs.

So what is my overall impression of Richard Pryor from this movie?

I think that his brutal honesty and sensitivity and vulnerability, mixed with extraordinary conventional talents for things like timing and storytelling and such, made him a very, very rare, wonderful and fascinating performer at his peak, one of the best, if not the best, stand-up performers of his generation.

But he was a failure at just about everything else. Given how in his act he seems so willing to confess his weaknesses and so willing to work on improving himself, I think it’s natural to be sympathetic toward him and root for him, but in reality his personal life was nearly always a mess, and he often treated people abominably. As I mentioned, contrary to what’s claimed in this documentary I never thought his comic movie acting was anything great. Much as he may have tried to be and much as people might have wanted him to be, he really wasn’t a political or economic “leader” of Black people. He was too erratic and immature, not to mention generally stoned out of his mind, for that. His efforts to support Black filmmaking, for instance, largely bombed.

He excelled at one thing and one thing only: his autobiographical and politically and socially frank and insightful stand-up performances. That success never carried over to other areas of his professional or personal life. He was inept, irresponsible, and an asshole in a lot of ways. I understand that the harshness of one’s judgment of him should be tempered by his horrific childhood and his addiction issues, but that’s what he was.

But he was still one of the greatest ever at that one thing. Even if that was the only respect in which he was a winner, that’s saying a lot.

I felt charged up after seeing Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. It gave me a lot to reflect on during and after. It’s not an unusually short movie, but it went by very quickly and I found myself wishing there could have been more. It’s a fascinating story of an extraordinary and tragic life, well told.

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