Who could forget the leather suits he wore? For Delirious, it was a red leather jumpsuit. For Raw, it was purple. And nothing and nobody were off limits. Murphy poked fun at other people in the biz – Michael Jackson, Mr. T and Bill Cosby. He made fun of his mother and father; he ribbed his fellow Americans and he devoted segments to joking about the stereotypical behaviours of other cultures. He talked about sex, women and his relationships, and everything, everything, was described with frankness and punctuated with the word “fuck.” His stand-up was raunchy, raucous, crude, controversial and full of foul language; it was even grotesque, often politically incorrect and off-putting, yet people loved it. It wasn’t his jokes that made the shows because some of them were really bad. It was his delivery and charisma that grabbed you, and even when he riffed about homosexuality and AIDS in the most ignorant and appalling of ways, his performance held your attention like a horrific car crash that you couldn’t turn away from. Murphy was only 22 when he did Delirious and so the immature, irresponsible and offensive comedy might be explained by his youth and the times; times which were less progressive. As such, his stand-up comedy specials have aged poorly and might not play so well to audiences today. Anything that makes references to pop culture or provides social commentary specific to a particular time risks becoming outdated, and such is the case with Murphy’s early stand-up.
What do continue to play well, however, are Murphy’s early sketch comedy stints and films. Anyone in the 80s who liked comedy or watching movies knows Eddie Murphy. He was one of the biggest, funniest, edgiest and most bankable movie stars of that era. At just 19 years of age, he was cast as a regular member on Saturday Night Live. Remember Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood? He created so many memorable characters during his SNL tenure with laughter behind his eyes and a genuine sense of happiness that showed that he was having the best time. He had so many successes, like the aforementioned stand-up comedy specials, Delirious and Raw, and a series of popular comedies that are still so much fun to watch today. Among my favourites are 48 Hours, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop 1 and 2, The Golden Child and Coming to America. These films starred Murphy at his most confident and at his best, and then he kind of hit a skid and so did the films he made.
Do you remember the last time that Eddie Murphy made a good comedy? I had to think long and hard about this one and the earliest comedy I could recall that actually made me laugh and did well commercially was Bowfinger in 1999. Before that, it was his amazing multi-character juggernaut The Nutty Professor in 1996. He also starred in a series of successful family-friendly films in the last decade like Dr. Dolittle, Daddy Day Care, and the Shrek series.
He was slated to host the Academy Awards tonight. Though I’m delighted to see Billy Crystal return, I have to wonder what Murphy’s approach would have been to hosting since it would have, essentially, been like his return to stand-up – holding a mike and performing before a live audience – for the first time in ages. And let’s face it; Murphy isn’t the same Murphy of yesteryear with a cool looseness and natural confidence in his work. He’s gotten tighter; more guarded, and now has a reputation for being difficult and unlikeable. Still, the announcement that he’d been tapped to host the Oscars was an exciting thought. What would he have done? It’s anyone’s guess now. I, for one, hope that he’s asked to host again and goes through with it if only to see if a glimmer of the Eddie Murphy from the 80s will show himself again.