The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an "Oh my God, that was the best ever!" response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We've already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. With this week's news that Eddie Murphy will be quasi-returning to live performing by hosting the Oscars, we decided it was time to revisit his classic stand-up films, Delirious and Raw.
Background: Eddie Murphy was all of 19 when he was cast on Saturday Night Live in 1980, the year Lorne Michaels left the show along with all the original cast members. (Murphy and Joe Piscopo were the only members of the 1980 cast to make it to the 1981 season.) In the middle of his SNL tenure, one marked by a series of memorable characters including a full-grown Buckwheat and the host of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, Murphy co-starred in 48 Hrs., a surprise hit that was followed by a string of movies that made Murphy one of the biggest, most bankable stars of the eighties. Included among those successes were Murphy’s stand-up specials. The first, 1983’s Eddie Murphy: Delirious, premiered on HBO; the second, 1987’s Eddie Murphy Raw, which was released in theaters between Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Coming to America, grossed $50 million.
Nostalgia Demo: Anyone between their teens and 30s in the eighties who liked comedy, or going to the movies; anyone born in the eighties who got wind of Murphy from older siblings, his comedy records, or Saturday Night Live reruns.
Fact Check: We had been kicking around the idea of doing a nostalgia fact check on Eddie Murphy’s stand-up films for a couple months. Once one of the biggest, funniest, edgiest movie stars around, he’s now best known as the guy who makes big, not that funny, family fare like Imagine That and Daddy Day Care, or for being the voice of a donkey. He influenced a generation of comedians, but is too young to be paid the respect an older man might expect (Murphy is only 51, just four years older than his Tower Heist co-star Ben Stiller, though they're from an entirely different comedic and movie-star generation). He now has a reputation for being difficult and unlikable (one that interfered with his Oscar campaign for Dreamgirls), but in his early films and stand-up specials he’s boundlessly charismatic. And this week, 24 years after Raw and with little to no stand-up appearances in between, Murphy went and got named host of the upcoming Oscars, making his comedy specials all the more relevant. Come February, Murphy will, essentially, be doing stand-up for all the world to see. Yes, he’ll be wearing a tux, not a red leather warm-up suit, but he’ll be onstage, with a mike, performing for a live audience that wants desperately to laugh. There couldn't be a better time to revisit his stand-up films.
Admittedly, I was not an obsessive watcher of Delirious and Raw in my youth. I knew Murphy mostly from SNL reruns — his Buckwheat in particular stuck in my mind — and later from 48 Hrs., which I loved. All to say, I liked Murphy quite a bit, and I definitely had a mental image of him in that red Delirious suit, but I'd only ever seen bits of these two films before watching them this week. What did I learn from re-watching Eddie Murphy's stand-up films? The really succinct assessment is this: Eddie Murphy’s jokes are bad, but Eddie Murphy’s performance is stellar.
The bad first, because it's impossible to avoid. The first joke that a 22-year-old Murphy tells when he gets onstage in Delirious is, “I got rules. Faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m onstage.“ He then launches into a fifteen-minute bit of grotesque, aggressive homophobia that includes jokes like “I’m afraid of gay people,” “I have a nightmare I go out to Hollywood and find out Mr. T is a faggot,” and ends with a riff about how he doesn’t really like women hanging out with homosexuals because what if they go home to their man “with AIDS on their lips.” Admittedly, 1983 was a different moment in the AIDS crisis, when transmission was still mysterious, but this is still unremittingly horrible stuff. (Even if I had been watching these films at a younger age, as a high-schooler in the second half of the nineties in liberal New York City, this would still have been offensive.) Making it more off-putting still, this isn’t one joke stuffed two-thirds of the way into the routine, it’s the opening, crowd-killing bit. Eddie Murphy has probably come a long way since then, but so have audiences. (Citing his youth and the times, Murphy apologized for the AIDS joke in a 1990 Spin interview done by Spike Lee, not so much the rest.)
The virulent homophobia is not all that’s aged poorly: Embedded in the opening riff is a long digression imagining that Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners were lovers, complete with impersonations. (Someone wanting to do a read on Murphy’s early work, with the persistent rumors about his sexual orientation in mind, might point out where Murphy’s imagination keeps taking him.) Surely, a 1983 audience was familiar with these two characters, who were already old-timey references (The Honeymooners aired from 1953-56) in 1982, but Ed and Ralph aren't as familiar as they once were. (I know I grew up on a diet of The Brady Bunch and Saved by the Bell, with the occasional I Love Lucy, though maybe others still saw lots of The Honeymooners.) Any piece of entertainment that makes constant pop-culture references runs the risk of seeming out of date, and Murphy’s work is no exception. I watched The Cosby Show religiously as a kid, and Murphy’s extended imitation of him in Raw (Cosby called to tell Murphy not to curse so much), is dead-on and delightful, but it might just be a ten-minute speech in a funny voice to somebody who didn’t grow up on it. Murphy is a wonderful impersonator (hopefully a skill he’ll put to good use at the Oscars), but his impersonations have aged better when they’re about more anonymous, and thus more timeless, characters, like his stepfather, or an Italian guy all hepped up on Rocky, than when they’re of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, who feel like even easier targets now than they did in the eighties.
In the course of doing this fact check, a number of men told me that when they were younger, in their early teens, they used to put on Eddie Murphy records, or watch his performances, and cackle. Certainly, a lot of his material was over their head — which was part of the appeal — but much of it was aimed squarely at them. Murphy was only 22 at the time he recorded Delirious, basically still a kid, and his jokes reflect that. Murphy makes poop jokes (what is with his pronunciation of “fart,” which he says like “faht”?), and cracks about how his mother has eyes in the back of her head (and a wonderful shoe-throwing arm). Kids may have nervously laughed at one of the 200-plus times Murphy says “Fuck” in Delirious (he said a bad word!), but his riff about the ice cream man coming was something they could relate to. Murphy goes for that bravura bit entirely, screaming and yearning like an actual kid in need of an ice cream cone, and it's sealed with a hilarious, painful kicker about the cruelty and honesty of children, who breathlessly and hilariously taunt each other, “you didn’t get none / you didn’t get it none / because you’re on welfare / you can’t afford it.”
It’s not that Murphy, who is a very sexual performer and clearly revels in the audiences' attention in a sensual way, doesn’t talk about sex in Delirious (women are "throwing pussy at him like frisbees," he notes, right after showing off his ass); he saves most of the sex talk for Raw, which was filmed four years later. If in Delirious Murphy was making jokes about the life he knew, in Raw that life has become inextricably caught up with fame. (The movie opens with people talking about all the movies of Eddie’s they loved; his ego is already starting to tip toward the grandiose. Maybe Kanye can set him up with a guest verse if Eddie ever wants to get back to his music career.) Most of Raw is taken up by an extended, complicated, multi-voiced set piece about women, marriage, and Murphy's fervent desire not to give up half his fortune. Four years later, all those women throwing pussy at him like frisbees just might be gold-diggers too. This bitter bit also contains the fortune-cookie wisdom that all men cheat, and women will always forgive a man if he says sorry and can make her come really good. In David Denby’s review of Raw for New York, he notes how childish and clichéd all this “insight,” is. So this part of Raw has aged perfectly well: it’s still not very insightful.
In some interviews, which Murphy doesn't give a lot of, he's made it clear that he feels somewhat screwed and overlooked by Hollywood, in part because of his race. (The earlier linked Spin interview with Spike Lee is a must-read.) But Murphy made his name in a series of interracial buddy movies, and while he talks about race in his stand-up all the time, it's not particularly provocative, especially compared to the work of Murphy's hero, Richard Pryor. Some sample jokes: "Why don't white people leave the house when there's a ghost in the house?" Murphy wonders about Poltergeist. A little more edgily he notes that, "What's funny is, white people made up the rumor" that black men have bigger dicks. The most racially provocative joke Murphy tells comes in Raw and it's also a sex joke, which is much more Murphy's metier: He talks about how Michael Jackson took Brooke Shields, "the whitest girl in America," to the Grammys and nobody cared, because — and this is Murphy's point — Jackson is not particularly masculine. "If I took Brooke Shields to the Grammys, ya'll would lose your minds," he continues. "That's because Brooke Shields would get fucked that night." That's a cynical not-really-a-joke from a famous man who knows his own appeal and power, but also the limits of that power in a bigoted world: He delivers the line proudly, with a bit of a leer — he's more man than Michael — but look at all this worse-than-bullshit he still has to put up with.
Even so, especially in Delirious, Murphy is wholly magnetic. He seems like he's having the best time, and is so in control of everything that's happening onstage that it's all effortless. In another New York piece from 1982, Dick Ebersol, who was overseeing SNL at the time, says about Murphy, “He never loses the charm in his eyes ... His eyes tell the audience he’s laughing” and while this sounds clichéd it's also true. Murphy looks so happy up there, in the most contagious way — and it's what is so monumentally untrue about him now. When you see Eddie Murphy now, everything about him seems tight: It's hard to imagine him bounding across the stage, perfectly impersonating a small child, joking with the audience, goofily taking a picture of them and then his penis, so big-hearted and joyous that you actively want to put the horrible gay jokes out of your mind and just enjoy him.
In Raw you can see the beginning of Murphy's transformation into someone more guarded: He comes onstage in his skintight purple and black leather outfit topped off with a scarf and gloves like it's armor. He's already much more concerned with looking cool. When he starts in with his jokes about women, there's something much more jaded right below the surface. But then there's that squishy face he makes whenever he's talking about how dumb men are, and he finishes out the set with a complicated piece involving his father, his mother, him, a short Italian man, and a fistfight, and you don't really want him to stop. He's a dervish of energy and fun, and it hardly matters that his punchlines don't always land.