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Eddie Murphy Is “Never Gonna Be Richard Pryor”: The Comedian’s Widow on Pryor’s Rivalries (And a Threesome)

If you invite Tracy Morgan to your panel discussion, you’ve gotta know what you’re getting into. The comic, actor, and general crazy person was one of five interesting folks who assembled after the Tribeca Film Festival’s Wednesday screening of the wonderful new documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic; he was joined by The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac, author Walter Mosley, Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee Pryor (or “J,” as Morgan affectionately called her), and the film’s director, Marina Zenovich. But Morgan dominated the talk, with jokes and peculiar sidebars — until Jennifer Pryor got going, and proved as raw, candid, and devil-may-care as her late husband.

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(left to right) Wyatt Cenac, director Marina Zenovich, Tracy Morgan, Jennifer Lee Pryor, and Walter Mosley.

Moderator Jacob Bernstein began with easy questions, asking Morgan and Cenac about Pryor’s influence on their comedy. “The first time I ever saw him, I immediately identified with him and related to him,” Morgan said. Cenac recalled that cursing wasn’t allowed in his house when he was a child — but Morgan noted that it certainly was heard in school (“I didn’t learn in school how to say maricon,” Morgan said. “I learned that from a Spanish kid in public school!”). Cenac only knew Pryor from his movies: “It wasn’t until I got to college, when I was 18,” he said, “where it was like, ‘Fuck y’all, I can buy all the dirty things I like and listen to them.’ So I bought like that [Pryor albums] and a Cypress Hill album.”

But Morgan not only learned about comic timing and baring oneself onstage from watching Pryor — he also learned, from reading the comic’s autobiography Pryor Convictions, that he didn’t have to take the route of “self-medication” that proved so self-destructive for his hero. “He realized he didn’t have to do that, at the end,” Morgan explained. “I’ve been clean seven years now. And I realized, I’m funnier. And I get to see the whole day!”

Several other comedians (including Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams) appear in the film, but two key figures in Pryor’s life are noticeably absent. Neither Bill Cosby nor Eddie Murphy agreed to be interviewed, though director Zenovich tried (their absence seemed particularly strange in the context of TFF, where both appear in Whoopi Goldberg’s documentary on “Moms” Mabley — a figure with a far more indirect connection to both). But Jennifer Lee Pryor, identified in the film as “Wife Number 4 & 7,” is not one to mince words — not a surprising trait to have acquired over the course of two marriages to Richard Pryor.

(left to right) Wyatt Cenac, director Marina Zenovich, and Tracy Morgan.

(left to right) Wyatt Cenac, Marina Zenovich, and Tracy Morgan.

“It was a little awkward,” Jennifer said, of Pryor and Cosby’s relationship. “It was one of love, of course, and mutual respect.” She recalled an evening where Cosby and his wife came out to the Pryor home for dinner, “and I had bought a Tiffany lamp for Richard, that he wanted. Gorgeous, original, ten-thousand-dollar Tiffany lamp. And Richard had taken a chair to it, we’d had this fight — we actually had a threesome, to tell you the truth, and he got jealous and destroyed the house.”

The point of the story was that the “perfect, put-together” Cosbys awkwardly enjoyed their dinner while ignoring the big broken lamp. But Morgan’s wide-eyed reaction to the ménage à trois footnote prompted an audience reaction that nearly drowned out Jennifer’s story — and her clarification that the threesome in question was not with Dr. Cosby. (“Camille, go wait in the car…” piped up Cenac from a few chairs away, in a flawless Cosby imitation.) It was with another woman, Jennifer insisted, “and he thought I was doing better than he was doing, I guess.”

You are the best wife in the world!” Morgan announced.

Of Murphy, Jennifer Pryor was more to the point. “Eddie was right behind Richard, right?” she noted. “And Eddie, of course, stole a lot of Richard’s stuff. Let’s be honest, he did. Including the red leather fucking suit, by the way.” After another shocked reaction from Morgan, Jennifer continued: “He admired Richard, this was the cat he was chasing, this was the guy, the man, the Mack. But, y’know, at the end of the day, he’s gotta fuckin’ hate him on some level, because he’s never gonna be Pryor, is he? He’s never gonna be Pryor. We love Eddie! Props to Eddie, Eddie’s good at what he does.” But she couldn’t resist one more jab: “I’m not sure what that is anymore, but…”

Tracy Morgan and Jennifer Lee Pryor.

Tracy Morgan and Jennifer Lee Pryor.

The audience ate it up. Morgan was clearly left speechless by Mrs. Pryor’s candor, finally offering up this bit of information: “My asshole just got tight!”

It was the most sensational moment of the panel — but an appropriate one, considering the subject at hand. As Zenovich’s film carefully makes clear, Richard Pryor occasionally went too far, and didn’t always conform to good taste. But he was staking out new territory in comedy and social commentary, and finding out which rules he could bend, and which he could break. And like those who came to talk about him last night, he was always honest, often brutally so, and he was always, always funny.

Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic’s final Tribeca screening is this Saturday night. The film premieres on Showtime in May.

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