A few years back, when Eddie Murphy was doing press for Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist, he was asked more than once if he’d ever do stand up comedy again.
“Some days I’m like, it’s right there, I’m going to do it tomorrow,” Murphy told EW in 2011. “But then the other side of it is, I haven’t done stand-up comedy since I was 27, 28 years old, and now I’ll see a show with comedians and they talk about me favorably with people like Richard [Pryor], Lenny Bruce, all those guys. They talk about me in the same breath, so it’s kind of like, why f— with that?”
It’s a fair point. Murphy is now 53 years old, around the same age when Hollywood veterans traditionally start the legacy-building phase of their careers: donating money to hospitals, making movies that will either get them closer to the Oscar brass ring or be fit for their grandchildren to see. It is time to play it safe.
But Eddie Murphy is, and always has been a comedian and comedy lives on the edge. Too many of us have either forgotten when he was dangerous or came of age when he was making occasionally-good-but-mostly-shitty family comedies. The days when he was swallowing Saturday Night Live whole for four shining years, skewing the entire balance of the late-night enterprise because he was too high-wattage to be part of any ensemble, have faded. The leather-clad panther who bulldozed his way through 1983’s HBO special Eddie Murphy Delirious and 1987’s Eddie Murphy Raw — still the highest-grossing stand-up concert film, ever — is a distant memory.
The reason why people like me, people of a certain age — guys who stayed up late and put their boom box up to the TV speaker to record Delirious when their parents were asleep and then passed it around to his friends like it was the kama sutra of funny — shake their heads when they see Murphy in films like Flubber is because we remember.
We remember his first stand-up set for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1982, a blistering six-minutes that would form the spine of Murphy’s comedy: smart, urbane, willing to stare race in the face and turn uncomfortable chuckles into outright guffaws.
We remember the ridiculous confidence of Murphy in Delirious, stalking the stage like a shiny red Elvis (even if we’d choose not to remember his act’s rampant homophobia).
We remember Eddie wrestling with fame, romance and Bill Cosby’s derision in Raw (even if his then-recent divorce turned a full 45 minutes of that set into a buffet of misogyny).
We remember that he was a quicksilver mimic, an incendiary writer and an astute observer wrapped in a rock-god virile package. He was a trickster formed out of chocolate clay by the God of Laughing Your Ass Off.
Then he walked away.
He focused on being an actor, a director a musician…on everything except for being a stand-up comedian. And even though he did some pantheon-level work — Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, Bowfinger — one can’t help but notice the absence of that thing he was among the best ever at.
He’s addressed it before, the reason why he left. Talking to Rolling Stone, Murphy said:
“It stopped being fun. In the beginning, it was fun, then I was controversial. Whenever I would do anything, there would be picketing, negative backlash. I thought I should just do movies. I don’t have to deal with this shit. Big chunks of time went by and before you knew it, it had been a hundred years since I had done it.”
True, he’s not the serpentine stud he was in the ‘80s, but he’s the best preserved 53-year old you’ve ever seen. He’s been away from the stage for a long time, but if Cosby can still go on tour at 77, then Eddie can do it, too. He was a once-in-a-generation talent and that doesn’t just go away.
When Michael Jordan realized he couldn’t crash the rim like he did in his 20s, he developed a lethal mid-range jumper and still won a bunch of rings.
Eddie Murphy won’t be the young lion he was — but he can still roar.