Richard Pryor Created Laughter From Pain

In a new documentary, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg and others discuss the comedian's legacy.

(The Root) — Before there was Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle or Eddie Murphy, there was Richard Pryor, one of the greatest comedians to ever live. Now a new documentary about Pryor explores just how much he influenced those who came after him and how much of a toll his groundbreaking comedy took on his life.

“When Richard left us, I think he was a shell of a man, because he gave us everything he had. He never held back,” Morgan told an audience during a panel discussion following a screening of Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

The documentary, which will air on Showtime in May, is a no-holds-barred look at Pryor’s life and starts with the infamous incident in which he set himself on fire and ran down the street after supposedly freebasing cocaine. (He later admitted in an interview that it was a suicide attempt.) In typical Pryor fashion, he later joked about it by waving a lit match and saying, “What’s that? Richard Pryor running down the street.”

Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard’s widow, who married the comedian twice (he was married seven times to five different women), was a producer on the documentary and shared some of her late husband’s personal-diary entries in the film. “I wanted to reveal warts and all, but I wanted to reveal more of the man as a whole picture,” she told The Root.

Director Marina Zenovich said she made the film because she wanted people to know his place in entertainment history. “His legacy lives when you are exposed to him,” Zenovich told The Root after the screening.

The documentary highlights key moments in Pryor’s life: his early years growing up in his grandmother’s brothel in Illinois, his stand-up routines, his rampant drug use and self-immolation suicide attempt, his multiple sclerosis diagnosis and his death at age 65 of a heart attack.

In his 40-plus-year career, Pryor released more than 20 comedy records, appeared in more than 40 films and was featured in a brief but groundbreaking TV show. He won five Grammys and one Emmy and hosted the Academy Awards twice, but he never received an Oscar nomination, which many consider a snub.

Pryor’s breakthrough film role came in 1972 as the funny but tragic Piano Man in Lady Sings the Blues, a part that was expanded just for him. A series of movies followed, including Uptown Saturday Night, Silver Streak, Which Way Is Up? Car Wash and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, to name just a few. In 1983 Pryor took home an unprecedented $4 million for his role in Superman III.

He also became the first African American to helm his own studio-backed production company in a five-year deal with Columbia Pictures for $40 million. Then came Pryor’s turn as the producer, writer, director and star of his autobiographical movie, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.

His concert movies drew critical acclaim and made big bucks. In 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert was the first instance in which a live comedy performance was recorded and released as a feature film. His comedy albums from the 1970s — including Craps, That Nigger’s Crazy, Is It Something I Said? and Bicentennial Nigger — would have been enough to make him a legend.