Richard Pryor's widow explains why his comedy still matters: 'Now more than ever we need Richard's voice'

During his lifetime, Richard Pryor never shied away from finding belly laughs in hard truths. The stand-up legend used the comedy stage as a pulpit to comment not only his own troubles, but the larger fault lines he saw in American society, including racism and police brutality. Those issues persisted long past his death in 2005, flaring into public view again last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Those recent events make Pryor's comedy relevant all over again. "Now more than ever we need Richard's voice," agrees his widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor. "If he had been here during this period and had the ability to rage against it, he certainly would have."

Fortunately, Pryor fans and newcomers can hear his voice again courtesy of Time Life's new box set, The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection. (Watch the exclusive trailer above.) Available exclusively on the Time Life website, the 13-disc collection includes his four classic concert films from 1971's Live and Smokin' to 1983's Here and Now plus unearthed footage from his long-lost debut feature, Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales, in which Black people put white people on trial; his hilarious forays into television, including his famously censored 1977 special; two documentary films including featuring interviews with his colleagues and contemporaries; and a wealth of deleted scenes, talk-show interviews and footage of his final stand-up performances when he was publicly struggling with multiple sclerosis.

Legendary comedian Richard Pryor tells it like it is in his classic 1982 concert film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Legendary comedian Richard Pryor tells it like it is in his classic 1982 concert film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Jennifer Lee Pryor — who was married to Pryor from 1981 to 1982, and remarried him in 2001 — was closely involved in curating Time Life's box set, and remembers being struck by how his vintage material still felt contemporary. "Martin Luther King inspired people and Malcolm X enraged people. Richard was basically giving the same message, but he was doing it with humor. In Live in Concert, he's talking about choke holds and police brutality, and people are laughing. But he's still delivering the same painful truth about where race is in America is."

"I'm so happy that we can talk about the outcome [of the George Floyd case] being what it was," Pryor continues. "But again, Richard's truth is necessary right now at this time in America as we get this horrible pushback on voting rights, teaching race in school and all this other white supremacist BS that is proliferating. He loved his films and the money that came with them, but the ability to be on stage and be no-holds-barred was where Richard really came alive. That was his medium, and his favorite place to be."

Not all of Pryor's comedy was topical, of course. The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection also features some of his zanier material that didn't necessarily make the final cut. Case in point: check out this exclusive deleted scene from 1977's The Richard Pryor Show — which only lasted four episodes on NBC — where the comedian wakes up in bed and shares sweet pillow talk with... a camel.

If the scenario feels a little familiar, that's because Pryor's friend and frequent co-star Gene Wilder shot a similar scene in Woody Allen's 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). And his widow acknowledges the homage. "Richard grabbed from everything and everybody," she says, laughing. "He was a sponge. There's his Star Wars skit, too. He didn't get the license from [George Lucas], but he never fought Richard because he probably loved it so much. It was an honor, right?"

In a wide-ranging conversation, Pryor discussed her husband's love/hate relationship with Eddie Murphy, why it was courageous for him to return to the stage in the midst of his battle with MS and how he'd respond to biggest subject in the comedy world now: "cancel culture."

Jennifer Lee Pryor and Richard Pryor at a Laugh Factory event in 2000 (Photo by David Keeler/Liaison/Getty Images)
Jennifer Lee Pryor and Richard Pryor at a Laugh Factory event in 2000 (Photo by David Keeler/Liaison/Getty Images)

How difficult was it to assemble the material for this collection? Are his archives pretty organized or did you have to chase any material down?

I did have to chase some of it down, but the funny thing is that I've also discovered that I'm a bit of an archivist. For instance, I did have the footage I filmed for a party at the Comedy Store, and I also shot the footage of him back onstage in 1994, which is kind of heroic and tragic when you look at it. I call it stand-up sitting down! [Laughs] People have said to me: "Why did you let him do that?" The answer is I didn't let Richard do anything! He wanted very much to be back on stage, and enjoy the camaraderie with the comics at the Store. As long as he had breath in him, he was still going to do comedy. So putting this collection together was exciting, challenging and emotional, too.

Was there a piece of footage that made you particularly emotional?

Well, I love Live in Concert, of course, because that was the throes of us falling in love, so when I see it, I'm transported right back there. And when I looked at his NBC variety show, I discovered more about Richard than I knew. And some of the interviews we did are very moving: people not only respected and admired him, but truly loved him. Richard was a very complicated character, but he was so lovable. It was his vulnerability: that's what I fell in love with the moment I laid eyes on him. He was just so open, and he paid a price for that, too. He took from his personal life so much. Sometimes I'd be having an argument with him and I'd say, "Oh, I get it. You need material!"

19th May 1979:  American comedian and actor Richard Pryor and his future wife, Jennifer Lee, wearing cowboy hats and bolo ties, smile while at the annual SHARE party, held at the Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Bob V. Noble/Fotos International/Getty Images)
Richard Pryor and Jennifer Lee Pryor in 1979 (Photo by Bob V. Noble/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Did Eddie Murphy sit down for you? Richard was very important to his life and career.

No, Eddie did not do an interview. He's been a bit stubborn, but I understand why. This is pure conjecture, but sometimes when people are right next door to their mentor, to the person whom they're going to be compared to, they need some distance from them. I think that Eddie felt that with Richard. It was love/hate — not quite hate, but it was, "Let me distance myself a little." He was always compared to Richard and, let's be honest, he grabbed some of Richard's stuff. But I think it was that sort of situation where he didn't want to be too close to him, you know?

Dave Chappelle was also compared to Richard a lot, and Richard loved Dave. But Dave was never afraid to talk about Richard. The comparison wasn't identical to what Eddie's was. Dave always had a little of his own swagger going on and, of course, his own show. I think Chappelle's Show is in people's consciousness enough so that he didn't feel slammed up against Richard.

Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in 1989's Harlem Nights (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in 1989's Harlem Nights (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The acted together in Harlem Nights — was there a falling out during that movie?

I don't think there was necessarily a falling out, but I think that there wasn't the respect perhaps. Richard felt at times that respect was kind of lacking. I don't think you can pinpoint any one situation or episode, but I think it was his general feeling. If you think actors have egos, comedians have the heaviest egos! [Laughs] Of course, you had Redd Foxx in that era as well, and he was like the O.G., right? Richard adored Redd and played his club when it existed. So there was great history there. But sometimes Richard felt as if the honoring of comedy history was lacking in the younger guys coming up.

He ran into network restrictions and even censorship when he started making television. Was he frustrated by that?

It was painful for him, because it hearkens back to being a Black man in America and being prevented from speaking the truth. It goes to a very deep wound. I used to see him rail against the studio heads sometimes, because he felt a certain kind of commodification. Richard always was happy to be in show business, and was thrilled to have the opportunities he had. But to be censored or to be told, "Black films don't work overseas" was painful. The fact that he was able to break box-office records was really satisfying to him. But I could also see him get very angry and very hurt.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12:  Jennifer Lee Pryor speaks onstage at
Jennifer Lee Pryor at the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Nicola Gell/Getty Images for SXSW)

One of the things that some comedians complain about now is "cancel culture" and not being able to speak your truth because of social media. Would he be part of those voice or would he roll his eyes at the whole idea of "cancel culture"?

I think he would roll his eyes, give one of his famous expletives and say: "Here it is, take it or leave it." [Laughs]. He would not succumb to cancel culture, and he would not start to be polite. I think he might be a little more careful about calling women bitches, although he'd always tell the truth about his relationships to many of our chagrin I'd say! But he'd probably appreciate the fact that there needed to be some sense of change there.

I mean, he stopped using the N-word! We were in Africa in 1979 when he had that epiphany. We were in the lobby of our hotel, and he said: "Jennifer there are no 'N's' here. Just look." If you want to call that cancel culture, fine, but that was Richard adjusting his assessment of certain vocabulary. Of course, people still use the N-word; that's not going away just because Richard thought he would stop using it. But he felt the pain of that word. So he might make adjustments, but I don't think in the larger sense he would ever allow himself to be censored. Nobody kept him from doing anything.

Scott Schwartz and Pryor in the 1982 comedy The Toy (Photo: Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)
Scott Schwartz and Pryor in the 1982 comedy The Toy (Photo: Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

The Toy is an example of a movie that probably wouldn't be made today.

That was a remake of a French movie, and I think he felt that he phoned that in. But he'd also be talking about some of the scenes being inappropriate, and I don't think there was an awareness about that inappropriateness at the time. Now we look back on it and think, 'Oh my god.' Cancel culture can be annoying and a little over the top at times, but generally I think we have had the growth in our culture that we needed.

Do you think he would be on Twitter if he were alive now?

No, but maybe he'd ask me: "Jenner, post this." [Laughs] He'd be directing me to send out a message here and there. But I don't think he'd be maintaining a [Twitter] account, no. That's not Richard. He's too much of an iconoclast, and would probably rail against that.

Jo Jo Dancer is also included in the collection, and it recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. It's aged very nicely, but it wasn't well-received initially — did that hurt him?

He wrote, directed, and starred in it, and he probably shouldn't have directed it, because it was a lot of work. He made it in 1986, and the fire was in June 1980. [Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, a scene that's replicated in the autobiographical film.] At first, he didn't tell the truth about the fire — that it was a suicide attempt. So Jo Jo Dancer was an attempt to tell the truth about what happened, that he poured 180-proof rum over himself and lit himself on fire. That's a pretty heavy truth, and I don't think people wanted to necessarily hear it. It was not well-received and, in fact, we had divorced by then and I wrote a piece for People magazine called "Richard Pryor, Now Your Ex-Wife Is Calling," where I called him out on trying to tell the truth after the lie. But I think your point is well-taken that it's aging better. It weathers well with the years.

Pryor directed and starred in the autobiographical 1986 film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Pryor directed and starred in the autobiographical 1986 film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Is is it hard for you to watch movies like Critical Condition and Another You where he's clearly not engaged?

Yeah, those were really bad ideas that should not have been realized. But Richard wanted to work, and I think he got bad guidance from his handlers. Another You is, like, 'Oh my god!' And he knew it, that's the sad thing. Richard always had an ability to know what was not working. He was his own worst critic. That's why he was anxious to go back on stage in 1995.

Did showing his illness publicly change him as a comic?

Oh yeah. You'll see in the footage how his frailty then informed his humor. He spoke right to how MS affected him. It made him more vulnerable than ever, but there he is talking about it honestly. It's not pretty to see. I remember running into Damon Wayans back then, and he said: "I can't see him on stage." And I told him: "You know, Damon, it's heroic and tragic at the same time." He's not the panther stalking to stage in that wonderful way that we remember Richard. But my god how heroic that he's still willing to get back on stage and do what he does best instead of hiding. I was full of admiration for him for doing it. That's real courage. Richard wasn't going anywhere because of any damn MS.

The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection is on sale now exclusively at Time Life..