Richard Pryor Created Laughter From Pain

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

Jennifer Lee Pryor told The Root that her husband would probably like to be remembered as much for his comedy as for his social activism. Pryor was not a civil rights leader in the traditional sense, but he enunciated the spirit of the movement. He joked about police brutality, stop and frisk and other social issues long before they were mainstream.

Pryor also used the n-word religiously. His album That Nigger’s Crazy won the Grammy for best comedy album for 1974. Then, in 1979, he visited Africa for the first time and had an epiphany. Jennifer Lee Pryor, who was with him, says he looked around and did not see any “niggers,” so he stopped using the word. It’s a moment he shared in the 1982 comedy film and album Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.

Comedian Wyatt Cenac, who was also on the panel at the film festival, told The Root that it was an interesting dynamic that “there are comics who will say Pryor’s such a big influence but don’t remember that part of it and will say ‘nigger’ without context.” He added that Pryor was such a “nuanced comedian, which is rare.”

While Cenac said that Pryor influenced his comedy as a young man, Morgan also recalled being influenced as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., listening to Pryor’s routines. Now, he says, “I’m trying to bring back to the game what he took with him.” Morgan and Pryor share quite a bit — both had NBC shows, raunchy comedy routines and addiction problems — but, Morgan told the audience, the difference is that “he sacrificed for me to be here.”  

Panel member and author Walter Mosley said to the audience, “[Pryor] saw the world in a certain way, and he loved that world in a certain way, and he acted that out … he lived in effigy for all of us.”

Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks and Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney appear in the film, as do many other famous comedians who were influenced by Pryor. But the film is just as notable for who is left out. Zenovich said that Bill Cosby; Eddie Murphy, who starred with Pryor in 1989’s Harlem Nights; and Pam Grier, whom Pryor dated, did not want to be interviewed for the documentary. Zenovich would not elaborate on why.

Cosby and Murphy do appear in Goldberg’s documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, which also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Of Cosby and Pryor’s relationship, Jennifer Lee Pryor said, “It was a little awkward … but full of love,” and of Murphy, she was quite blunt: “He’s gotta f–kin’ hate him on some level, because he’s never gonna be Pryor.”

While the 90-minute documentary may leave many of Pryor’s devoted fans wanting more depth and insight into his life and comedy, Jennifer Lee Pryor saw the film as a way to keep his legacy alive while introducing him to a new generation. She also told The Root that she would like to produce another documentary.

She said that plans for a Pryor biopic, which Forest Whitaker has signed on to produce, are coming along. When the subject of who would play Richard Pryor came up during the panel discussion, Jennifer Lee Pryor nudged Morgan, who was sitting next to her onstage. But in the world that is Hollywood, that role remains a guessing game — the names of Murphy, Marlon Wayans and Mike Epps have been bandied about.

Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic will air on Showtime on May 31. Watch a promo for the film here.

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.