In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, subversive art wasn’t merely the stuff of avant-garde visuals and protest rock ‘n’ roll. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor were on the cutting edge of a new, irreverent and often “offensive” (to some) kind of standup comedy that redefined what we thought of the art form.
The late Richard Pryor, the subject of the documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, was one of these alternative comedians who was constantly urged to tone his act down for wider acceptance. The tactic didn’t work for those who did the urging, or for Pryor himself. Omit the Logic details the hilarious comedian’s rise to the top of his genre, as well as his becoming a superstar actor from his earliest big breaks that. It may surprise many viewers to learn this breakthrough didn’t come during the “Flower Power” years, but rather from around the same time the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan.
However, Omit the Logic is not a comedy documentary. Instead, it is a documentary about a comedian who was extremely funny as well as influential, but did not always have a happy life behind the scenes. In fact, if anything, Omit the Logic is more likely to omit laughter, as it focuses on Pryor’s complicated upbringing, false career starts, drug use, depression, multiple marriages and divorces (sometimes to the same women more than once), his struggles with and submission to multiple sclerosis (MS), and, of course, the infamous incident in which the comedian set himself on fire, nearly killing himself and destroying his body.
Director Marina Zenovich does bring forth many of Pryor’s own sound bites in which he openly jokes about many of these incidents and, like all of Pryor’s comedy, these bits are hilarious, but in context they form a bittersweet relief.
To tell the story of Pryor’s adult life, Zenovich employs a series of in-depth interviews (old and new) with both those who knew him well (including some of his ex-wives) and those who were heavily influenced by him. Mel Brooks, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Jesse Jackson, Paul Mooney and more all tell stories about Pryor and these tales are cut into a sequence that gives a mostly comprehensive look at the life of Pryor, both in front of and away from his audience.
While the documentary is an emotional ride, sensitively handling so many of Pryor’s largest events, the focus on the sadder side of things does make the film into something of an epitaph more than a celebration of this very funny man. True, the tragic parts of his life are necessary to be told and impact the rest greatly; however this film does leave out certain major events.
The Richard Pryor Show (1977) is given some funny coverage, but Zenovich focuses only on his refusal to tone himself down for NBC censors, his discomfort with the show, and its cancelation. On the flip side, Pryor’s 1984 children’s television show for CBS, called Pryor’s Place, is given no mention whatsoever. Yes, Pryor’s Place was not among his bigger hits, but it does give a deeper knowledge of the man. While still succeeding as comedy’s arguably most profane standup, he hosted a children’s show with puppets that dealt with social issues, which also featured a younger actor portraying the young Richard years before Everybody Hates Chris (2005—2009) debuted.
Omit the Logic does go back farther than most people might expect and covers his early comedy years in respectable detail. However, once his film career is explored, not only are the sadder points given more attention, but also much of this part of his journey is skipped over. Logically, Blazing Saddles (1974) is given deep exposure, as it was both Richard Pryor’s big break as a movie writer and his biggest casting disappointment, as he was removed from the film as an actor. Yet the well-known and very successful Silver Streak (1976) is given scant mention, and Pryor’s follow-up films with co-star Gene Wilder are given virtually no coverage at all.
Similarly, while Pryor’s last few years and the tragedy of his fall to MS are covered in a sobering and even beautiful fashion, his Comedy Central special I Ain’t Dead Yet from 2003 is omitted completely, as is much of his activist work.
That said, these omissions are only evident when one knows a great deal about Richard Pryor. The actual viewing experience is both educational and enjoyable and at once tear-jerking and knee-slapping. In light of this, these lacking areas may be something of a strange nit to pick; however, with such a diverse and amazing life both professionally and personally, Pryor does deserve to have as many facets of his personality covered as possible in a documentary this otherwise touching and informative.
(J.C. Macek III )
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