Richard Pryor died in 2005 at the age of 65 from a heart attack related to multiple sclerosis. The unexpected thing, given his life and habits and health, was not that he died so young but that he lived so long.
Marina Zenovich's enlightening biographical documentary, "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic," which premieres Friday on Showtime, opens in the aftermath of Pryor's famous 1980 self-immolation — a suicide attempt, the film argues, and not an accident related to freebasing cocaine, as was speculated. Not that Pryor didn't freebase cocaine, which was certainly, if not directly, related to the suicide attempt. "I don't like cocaine," he tells an interviewer here. "I love it."
It is an 83-minute reduction of a dark and complicated life whose course must have, at any moment, seemed all but inexplicable, not merely to the observers but to the observed himself. Indeed, says David Banks, who worked with him in various capacities, from writer to record producer, "To understand Richard you first had to omit logic. And then you might come close, because what you thought it ought to be, it ain't going to be nothing' like that."
"How is it up here?" Merv Griffin asks Pryor, indicating his head, after the young comedian's first year of quick success. "How does it come out?"
"Hostile," he replies. Before long, he had taken a Las Vegas debut and turned it on its head, looking at himself through the eyes of his audience (which included Dean Martin) and not liking what he saw. So he got honest, which is to say, he vocalized his self-disgust, and, not for the first time, seemed to end his career.
Zenovich hits all the major stations of his cross. It is a story of triumph fashioned from tragedy, of tragedy whittled out of triumph, of a man and artist in the thrall of sometimes conflicting needs and standards; it set him against Hollywood, against history and against himself. But the more he embraced the struggle, the deeper the comedy cut.
"I could laugh at anything," Pryor said. "Nothing was too sad some humor couldn't be found in it." He was raised in a brothel run by his grandmother; his mother was a prostitute. ("That's where I first met white people. They come down to our neighborhood to help the economy.")
It was a struggle neatly, or messily, summarized in 1977's "The Richard Pryor Show," in which Pryor's own unwillingness to do the series — he tried to quit over censorship, while NBC held him to his contract — became a running joke: "Well, good night, see you next week," he says, as bars close in front of his face.
Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, Bob Newhart and Mel Brooks, who wanted Pryor to star in "Blazing Saddles" but could not sell him to Warner Bros., all attest to his greatness, as do Walter Mosley and Jesse Jackson. (Strangely, we hear from no black comics of his own generation.)
Pryor meant wildly different things to white audiences and black, and he sometimes alienated one by speaking to, or pandering to, the other. "He desired to be the biggest star in entertainment," says director Paul Schrader. "He also wanted to be the blackest star, as black as Malcolm X."
To comedian Mike Epps, he was "the messenger, the messiah." Presenting Pryor with the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Damon Wayans said, "I wanted to be just like him except for the drug habit and the failed marriages and the temper and the guns."
As it will, mainstream success created mainstream work. (Pryor: "I'm doing a film called 'Moving' for Warner Bros." Interviewer: "What's it about?" Pryor: "It's about two hours too long.")
And yet the dross will fall away, while the gold remains. (Shout Factory is about to release "No Pryor Restraint," a boxed set of live performances on DVD and CD.) That's what films like this are for — not to put the seal on the short life but to drive you back to the long-lived art.
"Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic"
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)