It’s difficult to convey what a shock Richard Pryor was to the system — i.e. white America circa 1960-70.
There were other comics working raunchy bits into their live shows that wouldn’t have made it past the censors on TV. But even risque comic legends like Don Rickles and Redd Foxx stopped short of explicit, racially charged humor.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, a documentary, premiered on Friday on Showtime and will air several times this weekend including at 6:30 and 10 tonight on the premium channel, uses concert footage, interviews and TV talk-show clips to explore what made Pryor different.
Bob Newhart, David Steinberg, George Lopez, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and others marvel at Pryor’s stream-of-consciousness style and explain how radical his act was for Las Vegas, how unprecedented his words were on vinyl.
The best illustration of the collision of Pryor and the times may be a 1974 clip of Dinah Shore explaining to her audience, with Pryor seated beside her, that she simply cannot utter the title of his new album, That Nigger’s Crazy.
She ventures to ask how he’d like it if she said the offensive word?
“I’d punch you,” he replies.
That album, his third, won the Grammy Award for comedy that year and spent four weeks at No. 1 on the R&B/soul charts.
The postscript, of course, is that nearly 40 years later the culture continues to debate the propriety of what we now call ”the N-word.”
Director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) uses the big-name comics sparingly in this film, focusing more on the managers, studio executives and many wives and girlfriends who were closer to the action of Pryor’s rocky life.
The tragic childhood, the meteoric rise, the stage, TV and movie successes that made Pryor a wealthy man, the drug abuse, heart attack and accidental self-immolation that almost killed him, the decline into insipid film projects, the illness and final descent … it’s all chronicled by sometimes tearful eyewitnesses.
Often, when he’s doing bits that reflect his own desperation or addiction, the sound of the audience laughing is just painful.
Pryor was a sensitive soul able to call out the culture’s bigotry in ways that inspired laughter. The sight of him trading racial epithets with Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live is ingrained in memory.
His interracial buddy comedies with Gene Wilder introduced a new movie genre. His Lady Sings the Blues appearance as Piano Man was so good it was expanded to give him co-star status during the production. But overall it’s a tragic tale.
And in the end, the viewer is likely to agree with Steinberg’s assessment of Pryor: ”He defeated himself.”
The talented kid from Peoria, raised by his grandmother in a home where his uncle and father were pimps, died in 2005 at age 65.