Some jokes never get old. You’ll be on the subway or walking down the street and suddenly you’re chuckling to yourself about a long-ago Saturday Night Live sketch—maybe Eddie Murphy in “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” or Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” or maybe Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein singing Christmas songs.
Or maybe it’s something from Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central’s unexpected megahit from a few years back, which has sold more DVD’s than any other television show, ever.
It was way too short-lived—the show ran only two full seasons with its namesake as host, and one abbreviated one without him. Of all the biting, hilarious sketches, “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” were perhaps the most memorable of all.
Meet Charlie Murphy, older brother to Eddie. Fans of Chappelle’s Show will remember (and others can look online—thank you, Internet!) his dispatches from a hard-partying 80’s entourage: In three separate segments, Mr. Murphy recounted—with wide-eyed astonishment—coke-tinged nights at the height of Eddie’s fame, hanging out with celebrities at Studio 54 and the China Club, sporting track suits and Jheri curls. One of those famous people was corn-rowed, gold-toothed “Superfreak” Rick James (played by Dave Chappelle), who would punch Mr. Murphy for no reason and generally provoke him into giving a retaliatory beating, sometimes involving karate-style moves.
One time, for example, the Rick James character punched Mr. Murphy in the face while wearing a ring that read “Unity.” As the story goes, the word was stamped into Mr. Murphy’s forehead for a week.
Why in the world would the platform-shoe-wearing, crazy-cackling Mr. James do such things? The answer became a shibboleth oft-quoted among the Chapelle’s Show’s adoring fans: “I’m Rick James, bitch!”
Mr. Murphy, 47, was the surprise breakout star. He is tall, lean-looking, dark-skinned (“Back then, we was the blackest niggaz on the planet, according to Rick James,” he said on Chappelle’s Show), and bears a striking resemblance to his brother—though his hearty laugh isn’t quite as unhinged. Neither Murphy, at least on-screen, looks a day over 35. “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories”—exactly what they claimed—were among the most side-splitting, effective sketches on a show that was seriously funny, creative and always edgy. (Another favorite sketch: A fake game show called “I Know Black People!”) In the Hollywood sketches, Mr. Chappelle also played Prince, who appeared dunking baskets with his team “the Blouses” and making pancakes.
At the same time that he was working with Mr. Chappelle, Mr. Murphy was finding his stand-up legs, as his brother had almost 30 years before. (Remember Eddie Murphy’s Raw?)
This week, Mr. Murphy will play a series of shows at Carolines on Broadway, where he first debuted four years ago.
Just don’t go hoping to see “live” renditions of his true Hollywood stories.
“If you expect, like, a Dave Chappelle/Rick James sketch onstage, that’s not part of my show,” said Mr. Murphy from a hotel in Birmingham, Ala., where he was performing last weekend. “It wore itself out with me. I’m a comedian, I write new material, and I’m not going to allow myself to be pigeonholed. You can only say this: I have a lot of things to say, and I make sure that I do that while I have the opportunity to.”
Asked what fans could expect from him at Carolines, Mr. Murphy was vague. “For me, if you’re going to see a comedian, then you should be expecting to laugh,” he said.
That’s a hell of a promise—especially at a moment when stand-up seems to be terrifically out of vogue. With the exception of shock-femme Sarah Silverman and the right-wing dudes who spout stereotypes that pass for jokes, who’s actually making it as a solo comic? Dane Cook? Not really. Louis C.K.? Not quite. Sketch shows rule—MTV’s Human Giant and the Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s lonely out there for a man on his own.
It’s risky, too. Suggest going to see some stand-up and your average person will likely either groan or suddenly come up with other plans. (“I have to bathe my cat.”) So much comedy—onstage, on television, in movies—just isn’t funny. And the intimacy of a stand-up routine can be too much for many people to bear.
So it’s all the more admirable that, midway through his life, Charlie Murphy has decided to put it all out there. He easily could have coasted on his brother’s coattails, continued to appear in bit parts in movies, written the occasional sketch for someone. Instead, he’s been on an almost constant comedy tour of the U.S. for four years, working to make his name as a genuine comedian who just happens to be Eddie Murphy’s brother.
He realizes that he’s been given a late-in-life gift—fame—and he plans to use it as best he can.
“One of the things comedians have to go through first to become a headliner is, you have to get people to like you,” he said. “There has to be something about you. ‘You hear about so-and-so?’ That’s how you pick up a fan base. I already had that from the movies I had been in before, and what happened with Chappelle’s Show sparked it off.
“Once I went onstage a couple times, the word got around very quickly amongst other comedians, because you’re not a like a new guy who is doing comedy—Eddie Murphy’s brother is onstage doing comedy,” he said, acknowledging his advantage. “So everybody came down to watch my show. Now, mind y’all, I was doing stand-up for two weeks, and I had guys that had been in the game for 15 years standing back in the room analyzing my show. I thought that was funny, ’cause I was like, ‘I’m a baby, man!’ But come analyze it now!”
Mr. Murphy grew up in Brooklyn (all over—Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Brownsville) and was in the Navy until 1984—the same year his little brother starred as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.
“When I came out of the military, I started working for him. That was my introduction into the game. I started working for him as security,” said Mr. Murphy. “Initially, it was like, ‘This is a great opportunity!’ I was looking at getting paid a certain amount of money, and it was a ton compared to what I was making in the service. So I took that really serious.”
The perils of keeping it in the family quickly became apparent to both Murphy brothers. “The fact that your client is your family member, that’s the worst kind of client you could have, because none of your decisions are based on logic—they’re all based on emotion,” he explained. “That’s not the way to do security.”
After a year, Mr. Murphy began what would turn out to be a lucrative writing career. “Started writin’, writin’, writin’, writin’,” he said. He sold a screenplay that he co-wrote with his brother and half-brother—the forgettable mid-90’s Eddie flick Vampire in Brooklyn. “It was the largest amount of money I ever made at one time,” said Mr. Murphy. Determined to repeat the success, he kept on writing, turning out a script a year for the last 10 years. Nine of those are sitting at the comedian’s house in Englewood, N.J. But one that he co-wrote, Norbit, in which Eddie Murphy plays about 50 roles, including a nerdy dude and a giant woman, is currently one of the top 10 money-makers of 2007.
He also had a cameo in the 2006 box-office smash Night at the Museum, in which Ben Stiller plays a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History who must control the restless historical figures and wild animals which come to life when the lights go down. Mr. Murphy only had a few lines as a taxi driver who appears at the end of the movie—“Who they gonna get to clean up all that doo?” he asks—but he expressed enthusiasm at having been involved. “I was blessed at the beginning of the year,” he said.
Mr. Murphy is hoping to record a DVD of his stand-up. “I want to take what I got, dump it, and start all over again right in front of everybody, because I know I can do this, and it’s another way of proving, of staying engaged,” he said. He’s also appearing in numerous upcoming films, including Perfect Christmas, a seasonal affair starring Terrence Howard and Gabrielle Union. One gets the sense, however, that it’s proving himself in front of a live audience that matters most to Mr. Murphy.
“I’ll put it to you like this,” he said: “Someone came to me once after the show and said, ‘You know, I came to your show, Charlie, and I was expecting you to talk about Chappelle’s Show, and Rick James and Prince, and you didn’t talk about none of that. And guess what? It didn’t matter.’ That was so rewarding to me—because that was a moment. You see, you can be perceived as a gimmick really easy the way I came on the scene, so that was my redemption right there. No, I’m not a gimmick, and no, I’m not going to be leaning on the obvious… I’m not gonna give nobody a perm; I’m not passing out cookies. I will make you laugh.”