Richard Pryor on his day was one of the greatest standups to ever walk the stage. There were black standups before him, and black standups after him, but what’s noticeable is how many of those that came after him were so heavily influenced by him. When he broke through in the early 70s, no other standups were really talking about race at all, certainly not any mainstream comics, black or otherwise. Without Richard Pryor, there almost certainly wouldn’t be a Chris Rock, a Dave Chappelle, or an Eddie Murphy – how many African-American comedians in the mainstream of standup comedy have not taken at least something from Pryor’s style?
Some of his jokes may look tired now: who hasn’t seen a whole routine based around the premise of “white people do this, black people do this” at this point? Yet it’s easy to forget that Pryor pretty much invented that whole angle. There is footage in Omit the Logic, taken from the 1971 film Wattstax, where Pryor riffs on the likelihood of getting shot by police as an African-American. What’s staggering is A) how true it still is today, and B) how fucking funny Pryor’s observations are. The way he builds the material has not dated a day in some respects; it has simply been copied ad infinitum.
To hammer my point home about Pryor’s influence, arguably the only other African-American comedian in the American mainstream at the time he broke through was Bill Cosby: one is a cuddly public persona with tame jokes covering up what appears to be a nasty man in private, the other was a hugely troubled person who always let that trouble out on stage, in a way that was honest and never less than captivating. This honesty means Pryor’s influence extends far and beyond just other black comedians. It’s as important to be honest as it is to be funny; often the two go hand in hand, like a conversation at the pub with your friends, and there are plenty of autobiographical comedians out there who have since followed this path.
Shame then, that Omit the Logic is such a lightweight documentary that barely even touches upon what made Richard Pryor such a great comedian, outside of a few platitudes from other comics. Here we get the usual array of archival footage and talking heads, combined with a whistle-stop tour of most of the important incidents in Pryor’s life, many of them revolving around his drug addictions and ill health; the infamous fire incident whilst freebasing cocaine, his ridiculous number of marriages, his tough upbringing in a brothel, and his battle with multiple sclerosis. Yet, only a handful of these incidents are meaningfully covered in an in-depth way; mostly the talking heads recount these incidents and move onto the next one, which is a shame, because his personal life was so closely tied to his work that it’s impossible to separate the two.
Speaking purely on the basis of this film, director Marina Zenovich’s abilities to uncover interesting stories and testimonies from her subjects are limited to say the least, her questions never really probing the interviewees for a more than cursory recollection. Perhaps worryingly, her two other notable credits as a documentarian are a pair of film of films about Roman Polanski and his run-ins with the law over that pesky little rape he committed so long ago. I’ve not seen them, but most of the reviews I’ve read seem to suggest that the films generally defend Polanski’s corner. I won’t judge a film until I’ve seen it so I can’t say for sure, but it’s not exactly a resoundingly positive thing to have your films do.
Omit the Logic is not an awful documentary, and unsurprisingly it generates plenty of laughs from the archival footage of Richard Pryor doing what he was best at, but ultimately its far too lightweight to be worth anything more than an cursory look for his fans.