Richard Pryor has always been one of my comic heroes, because to me he was much more than a comedian. As an aspiring writer, listening to Pryor’s classic material was like a class in storytelling, as the Peoria, Illinois native spun wild stories about street life, sex life and whatever wild life tales he extracted from the madness of his own life.
Revisiting the culture-defining legacy of his brilliant works and words, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD. Directed by Emmy-winner Marina Zenovich, the sharp-witted documentary features unprecedented access to archival footage and interviews with Damon Wayans, Dave Chappelle, Don Cornelius, George Lopez, Jesse Jackson, Mel Brooks, Mike Epps (who’s set to play Pryor in a Lee Daniels directed biopic), Paul Mooney, Quincy Jones, the late Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg.
EBONY recently spoke with Richard Pryor’s widow and Omit the Logic producer Jennifer Lee Pryor about this wonderful documentary.
EBONY: There have been a few documentaries done about your late husband, Richard Pryor. What makes Omit the Logic different?
Jennifer Lee Pryor: There is footage in there, pieced together with the interviews that allow people to see more of Richard’s vulnerability. Our choice of interviews shows a level of love and revelation that hasn’t been seen before.
EBONY: What was it about Richard Pryor that made you fall in love with him?
JLP: His vulnerability. People are surprised when I say that, but I worked for him first. We didn’t start dating until later. I had heard a lot about him, that he was this rough and tumble kind of guy, but I was touched by his tenderness. I was just smitten.
EBONY: Richard’s albums weren’t just funny, but he was also a great storyteller. There were people making comedy albums when his breakthrough That Nigger’s Crazy was released in 1974, but Pryor’s records changed the game.
JLP: I think he really busted down the doors with his comedy albums. From his storytelling style to the subjects themselves, he was ripping the covers off. Richard had no problem talking about the human condition. When we first started dating, he had me sit down and listen to “The Green Album.” That’s what they called Lenny Bruce’s big album. Richard told me, “If you and I are going to date, you have to listen to this album.”
Comedy albums were played by adults at parties, but Richard’s records crossed over to a larger art form. He took them out of the basement and made them something more accessible. Out of those records came his films Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip, which were both big movies.
EBONY: For me, one of the interesting periods of Pryor’s early life was in 1969 when he went to Berkeley and became buddies with writers Cecil Brown and Ishmael Reed, as well as Gil Scott-Heron and Huey Newton. How did those friendships help him?
JLP: Prior to that, Richard was playing in Vegas. Opening for Bobby Derin, hanging out with Dean Martin and was kind of a little rookie with the Rat Pack. Still, he hated it and just said, “Fu*k it. I got to find out who I am as an artist.” He went to San Francisco, hung out with Huey Newton and the novelists you mentioned. The Bay Area was where he found his own voice as a comedian while also figuring out who he really was. He was in search of his own truths and he found it there. When he came back to Los Angeles, his art had taken a different shape.
EBONY: Can you talk a little about Pryor’s love for children? Besides having six children, I remember seeing him on Sesame Street in the ’70s, and later he had his own children’s show Pryor’s Place, that was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft.
JLP: Oh my gosh! [laughter] Nobody ever talks about Pryor’s Place. A lot of people didn’t know how to take that show, but the truth is Richard was a kid himself. Richard wasn’t the best father to his own children, but that didn’t mean he didn’t identify with children in a very meaningful way. He had such an unfilled childhood himself, but Richard still had a tremendous innocence about him that drove him to do things like Pryor’s Place.
EBONY: One of Pryor’s 1980s projects was the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which was the only narrative feature released through his production company, Indigo Films. He starred, co-wrote, directed and produced that film and the critics just hated it.
JLP: You’re quite right, he did get destroyed by the critics for that film. Perhaps he shouldn’t have directed it. He tried to tell the truth about his life and about the fire. But he might’ve gotten a little lost. It’s not easy to make a movie, especially about your own life and you’re starring in it.
Richard got picked apart for that, but I do think it was a noble effort. He had written a lot of diaries before that, stuff about the fire and his childhood. He wanted to dissect it and get to the marrow of his pain. How did this all happen?
EBONY: One of Pryor’s last big film projects was the Eddie Murphy movie Harlem Nights. What was it like for him to be working with Murphy and Redd Foxx?
JLP: He loved that experience. I think he and Eddie kind of butt heads a bit. It was hard with Eddie, because Eddie was right behind him, you know. Comics are very egotistical, so when you have one nipping at your heels, it’s hard. He adored Redd Foxx and Della Reese.
EBONY: What is the biggest misconception about Richard Pryor? What have people gotten wrong?
JLP: I think people latch on to the sensational. They latch on to, “Oh, he did a lot of cocaine and beat women.” But you cannot put a person like Richard into any kind of slot. He was a complicated, profoundly deep person. He had a depth and well of kindness and generosity that few people have. He had that as an artist and as a human being. Yes, he was very flawed, but when people latch onto that, they miss the man.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.