In trying to pinpoint what made Richard Pryor so compelling, writers and documentarians often steamroll over the man’s visceral gifts. At a gut level, Pryor’s ideas, word choice, delivery and body language were (and many would argue, remain) unmatched in stand-up comedy, not just revolutionary in their power but untouchable in their effortlessness and honesty. As a result, we often get eggheaded treatises on race relations, the poisoned chalice of fame or whatever trend in comedy Pryor’s legacy is currently hitched to.
It’s all relevant, of course. The tragic arc of the late standup’s life from poverty and abuse to superstardom and finally addiction and illness isn’t so much clichéd as leaden in its finitude, a bleak, defeating take on the handful of ways in which we can escape our fates and the myriad in which we can’t. Like Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman and other sad, indisputably titanic comedians, we seem incapable of doing anything but poring over the whats and hows of their lives at the risk of ignoring the whys.
Two new, high-profile projects mostly sidestep these pitfalls, however, reminding us in an accessible way why Pryor still looms so large. The first is Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, a Showtime documentary from Emmy Award-winning director Marina Zenovich. Its interview pedigree is rock solid, gathering insight from people who knew Pryor at his youngest, lowest and most vulnerable, as well as celebrities like Quincy Jones, Bob Newhart, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Mel Brooks. Often the subjects fulfill both roles, painting a multihued portrait of the man while reinforcing his legacy as the greatest standup of all time. (Not that we’re hurting for that.) It’s light on clips of Pryor, probably to its detriment, but balanced and clean, like a mass-market eulogy delivered by well-meaning corporate executives.
The second is No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert. Available June 11, it’s an exhaustive compilation of his recorded work from Shout! Factory. From the first few seconds of 1968’s self-titled album, or first few frames of 1979’s Live in Concert, it’s clear these are documents for the ages. They aren’t painstakingly remastered for HD clarity, but they don’t always need to be. Just putting 12 hours of Pryor’s audio and visual stand up into one handsome package with smart liner notes and appropriately spare design (on seven CDs and two DVDs, spanning 1966 to 1992) is a feat in itself.
The belly laughs, winces, and poignant, brutal moments are just as you remember them, with two hours of previously unreleased material that shed some light on Pryor’s early and thrillingly loose years. Some of the usual reissue bells and whistles are absent, such as subtitles and promotional materials, but this is overall a lovingly crafted release. Even the title, Life in Concert, is a multi-layered comment on Pryor’s ability to both escape and elucidate his problems on stage while also only living for such experiences.
It’s difficult to offer anything truly essential to Pryor’s legacy these days, but both of these documents benefit from hindsight and quality source material in a way that makes them at the very least worth renting and borrowing, if not memorizing.