By Chaz Lipp
Originally broadcast on Showtime in 2013, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic is a game attempt by documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desire, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out) to tell the complex life story of the greatest comedy icon of all time. She succeeds inasmuch as the 83-minute film presents a ‘greatest hits’ parade of key film and TV clips. The uninitiated will learn a fair amount about Pryor; those well-versed in Pryor lore won’t find much new.
Pryor himself already told his story – more or less – in the self-written, self-directed 1986 biopic Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. While those results were mixed (but well worth seeing), his brave recreation of the incident in which he set himself on fire in 1980 (a suicide attempt, according to Pryor himself) is repurposed by Zenovich in Omit the Logic. She also makes liberal use of audio and video clips from Pryor’s classic albums and stand-up films. In other words, Pryor’s life was such an integral part of his life that he pretty much told his own life story as he lived it. The 1995 autobiography Pryor Convictions (written with Todd Gold) was almost an afterthought; a retelling of anecdotes and career highlights that we’d largely already heard.
Omit the Logic combines a multitude of clips (though Pryor’s standup routines are not well-served by such brief glimpses) with recent interviews with collaborators like Paul Mooney, Mel Brooks (with whom Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles), and Robin Williams (a cast member of the short-lived Richard Pryor Show), fellow comedians including Dave Chapelle and Whoopi Goldberg, and family members such as widow Jennifer Lee Pryor. Frequent co-star Gene Wilder is a conspicuous absentee (reportedly the two stars didn’t have an especially warm relationship). Sometimes the fawning gets a bit much. Pryor’s reputation as a trailblazing comedian isn’t in question. The superlatives are piled on thick, giving the film – which is structured more or less like an E! True Hollywood Story – an even more hackneyed feel.
While there are certainly choice bits, highlighted by footage from Pryor’s disastrous first night of filming onstage for what became Live on the Sunset Strip (his comeback project following the near-fatal burning), Zenovich really glosses over the later years. Increasingly hobbled by multiple sclerosis, Pryor continued working as long as he could. He returned to the road in the ‘90s, performing from a wheelchair (we do see a very brief example). He made TV appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show and Larry King Live, speaking candidly about the effects of MS. He received an Emmy nomination for a 1995 guest appearance on Chicago Hope. In other words, in the face of significant adversity, Pryor refused to give up until his illness progressed to the point where he had no choice. Even then, he and his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor continued to do charitable work for animal welfare with their organization Pryor’s Planet.
These elements just don’t come through in Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. Still, in an age of short attention spans, any honest attempt to keep Pryor’s comedic legacy alive is a good thing. Perhaps because Pryor was silenced long before the social media explosion, his body of work has turned into something of a time capsule piece – sadly overlooked by many younger comedy fans. Zenovich’s film barely skims the surface, but it offers just enough to hopefully intrigue Pryor neophytes and inspire them to look deeper.
Richard Pryor Omit the Logic is now available on Blu-ray from Magnolia Pictures. The special features includes 34 minutes of additional recent interview footage with several participants (including Mel Brooks, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, David Banks, David Steinberg). The audio is presented as DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and the image is framed at 1.78:1.