Saying Goodbye to Richard Pryor When He Was Still Around to Hear It

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

It feels appropriate to be wrapping up nearly a year’s worth of comedy documentaries with a look at one of the greatest comedians ever, and one of the first comedy documentaries I ever saw. When Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead Yet Mother@!#%$!! first aired on Comedy Central way back in 2003, it’s title was still accurate. Though two years before his death, Richard Pryor was well into his battle with multiple sclerosis, and the special serves as a sort of eulogy, put together while he could still enjoy it.

“The two most beautiful words in the world of comedy: Richard Pryor,” a voiceover announces towards the beginning of the film. The special is loosely broken into sections that are based on his act but relate to his real life — the time he shot at his own car as one of his several wives left him, or the censorship he faced during his short-lived NBC variety series, The Richard Pryor Show.

Though Pryor isn’t interviewed, his fourth/seventh/final wife Jennifer Lee Pryor is clearly one of the masterminds behind the special, and it’s a very loving affair. A fantastic collection of talent, including Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, and Chris Rock, have gathered to discuss Pryor’s genius and influence. As they re-tell one of Pryor’s jokes, the original footage plays behind them. All of the comics get his material exactly right, sometimes word for word and beat for beat, and that type of accuracy quietly demonstrates his enormous influence.

If someone, somehow, was completely unaware of Pryor’s comedy, this special might not help, as it assumes that the audience already has an understanding and adoration of his material. The clips shown are hilarious, but chopped up and only sometimes given any real context. And because it’s all squeezed into a 42-minute television special, the editing sometimes feels too quick.

The short running time also means that it doesn’t delve too much into the story behind the man. The documentary focuses almost entirely on his career, with some detours into his drug use and womanizing. But it skips any exploration of his childhood and personal life, his ascent to stardom, and his diagnosis of MS at age 48.

Tributes can be schmaltzy affairs, a last chance to heap praise on a recently deceased loved one. Because Pryor was still alive when this special was filmed, there’s a more relaxed and upbeat sentiment to I Ain’t Dead Yet that gives it a more joyous feel than most tributes. For someone who will loom large over comedy for generations to come, it’s a gratifying to know that his genius was recognized before it was too late.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yeah, although the special is sometimes so amused by its own contributors that it veers away from discussions of Pryor. Given the short running time, and the intended tribute, the tangents can feel like wasted time.

What does it have to say about comedy? Aside from the obvious influence that his comedy had and continues to have, it serves as a reminder that Pryor’s unabashed addressing of racial issues was genuinely revolutionary in its time. “He would be black around everybody,” as Jamie Foxx put it.

Is it funny? Yes. All the interviewees are having fun and trying to be funny, and Pryor’s bits are still as brilliant as ever.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No, but it is on DVD.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’ll never be recognized in her own lifetime.

Saying Goodbye to Richard Pryor When He Was Still […]