Sunday, February 26, 2012

When He Was King

Writing my last scene stealer post on Beverly Hills Cop got me thinking about Eddie Murphy. He was the king of comedy in the 80s; a provocateur and an in-your-face, larger than life personality who delivered many superb comedic performances with brashness and bravado. Even before his string of hit comedies, he was lighting the stand-up comedy stage on fire with his sharp tongue and profanity-laced hilarity. Love or hate his brand of stand-up, it got people talking.

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that makes references to pop culture or provides social commentary specific to a particular time risks becoming outdated, and such is the case with Murphy’s early stand-up.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.


  1. Nice! I agree, would have been interesting to see him tackle the Oscars. Haven't seen all that SNL stuff you mention but the stand-up and the early films made him one of the funniest guys in the business. Real shame he's sunk so low! We demand the old Eddie back!

  2. Man, seeing the juxtaposition of Eddie Murphy at the top of his game in Delirious against Eddie Murphy in "I'll wear a fat suit because that's funny, I guess" made me really sad. Granted, I've never seen his family movies, so I could be wrong. Maybe they're ok.

  3. i actually love his raunchy stand-up. he, like chris rock, is not afraid to be politically incorrect. i think that's part of their genius

  4. "I'm Gumby, dammit!"

    I saw Delirious way back when it first came to video. I may have laughed harder at that than I had at anything else. I saw it again just a few years ago. I cringed at the gay jokes, but the rest of it was still very funny.

    You are right about Murphy being everywhere in the 80s. If you haven't seen it, I recommend Robert Townsend's 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle. It's a biting comedy about a young black actor trying to find a good role in Hollywood. Among the things people try to pigeonhole him as is another Eddie Murphy.

  5. At his best, there are few funnier. Unfortunately he was forced into childish movies too early. He needs to swear, to be controversial, to piss people off. That is where his humour works, and still works today when seen in films such as Tower Heist.

    I believe there is still time for him to pick a good role and remind everyone of his capabilities.

    I think of him in a movie such as 'The Hangover' and almost laugh at the thought of the material applicable.

  6. @Pete – yep, seeing Billy Crystal do his tried and true, and predictable Oscar opening bit left me wondering what Murphy would have done.

    His films just haven’t been great these last few years, and it’s a shame. Hopefully he’ll have an upswing soon!

    @Dave Enkosky – I enjoyed ‘The Nutty Professor,’ but the sequel was painful and unnecessary. I honestly can’t think of a performance of his that I’ve really enjoyed since 1996 apart from ‘Dreamgirls,’ which he was good in. I didn’t care much for the film, though. His family movies weren’t my thing either.

    @Candice Frederick – I enjoy his stand-up too, but some of the “edgier, touchier” segments are a little cringe-worthy today. I agree that their (Murphy’s and Rock’s) absolute fearlessness and unfiltered points of view are part of the appeal of their stand-up style in many ways.

    @Chip Lary – Ha! I remember that one. A lot of the comedy still holds up, but as you say, some of the material is just cringe-worthy today. It happens as times move forward, right?

    I haven’t seen ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’ Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out.

    @Chris – I agree. He ruled the 80s and his comedies were so funny.

    His string of family movies are what they are – and I read an article while I was writing this piece in which Murphy admits that some of his choices were driven strictly by “the paper” he earned. No surprise, really.

    I haven’t seen ‘Tower Heist.’ I haven’t wanted to up until now, but perhaps I’ll catch it on The Movie Network I subscribe to when it’s available on there.

    I, too, think he’s got many more great comedic roles in him. He just needs the right vehicle. Interesting idea – Murphy in a film like ‘The Hangover’ would be killer.


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