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Charlie Murphy on the Black Jesus Controversy and 10 Years of Hearing About Rick James

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Actor Charlie Murphy arrives at Spike TV's
Charlie Murphy. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

For any Chappelle’s Show fan, the name Charlie Murphy requires some kind of trigger warning, as it immediately calls up the “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” sketch that brought “I’m Rick James, bitch!” into the world. But there’s a lot more to the writer-actor-comedian than reminiscences of youthful debauchery as a member of younger brother Eddie’s entourage. In addition to his busy touring schedule, Murphy has made memorable voice-acting appearances on The Boondocks and Black Dynamite, and is now one of the stars of Black Jesus. The live-action Adult Swim series co-created by Aaron McGruder is unsurprisingly controversial, as it depicts what might happen were the Son of God to return to present-day Compton and build a community garden where he and his disciples can be comfortably “smokin’, drinkin’, and chillin’.” Murphy plays Vic, a local landlord whose difficulty in accepting that the weed-happy guy living in a van might actually be the messiah leads him to hire a ne’er-do-well homeless guy named Lloyd (Friday’s John Witherspoon) to help keep tabs on the implausible title character.

Will Vic keep working with Lloyd to bring Jesus down?
My character is the voice of all the nonbelievers. All the people that are negative to show: I am that. He works with Lloyd throughout this whole run. Vic and Lloyd are a team, and they’re just getting started. I promise you, one of these nights a little pee is gonna come out of you because of Vic and Lloyd. [Laughs] You’d better not tell anybody.

I’ll keep it between us. What’s it like working with John Witherspoon?
Witherspoon is from the Richard Pryor era of comedians, probably the only one of that class that is still alive. Working with him is like … the last time I felt like this is when I worked with Redd Foxx on Harlem Nights; it’s like having an uncle who does what you do. There’s so much wisdom coming from him. Whenever he’s on set, the whole time that’s who I’m talking to. We worked on a movie once [2008’s The Hustle], but what I’m learning from him now about what I do is priceless. Business stuff — I’m saving about 100 grand a year from just having a conversation with him about my organizational structure. He was telling me how he travels, and who he has with him, and how he has his shows set up, and from that conversation I’m like, “Okay, this guy’s fired, that guy’s fired … I don’t need none of you all, ’cause I just finished talking to John and this is not necessary.” I’m like a student of comedy and John is my teacher. Business stuff, emotional stuff, spiritual and family stuff, we talk about all of it.

There’s a spiritual side to Black Jesus that may surprise people.
The more people see [of] the show, the more they understand. All the characterizations of the show I heard before it came on were just off. Every one of them. 100 percent. It’s very not what people expect. Before they saw the show, people had an opinion [and said] how you were going to be damned to hell for watching it. [Laughs] Damned to hell for watching a TV show? Really? And Adolf Hitler existed? Pol Pot killed millions of people and I’m going to be damned to hell for watching a TV show?

That’s a pretty tough system.
Watch the show. I’m not trying to go to hell. I’m not trying to disrespect God. God made me just like he made everybody who’s got an opinion on it. He made me and he gave me the ability to make people laugh, and that’s all we were doing when we made this show. When people watch the show, they laugh.

You’re probably going to hear a lot about Jesus during your tour. It’s pretty extensive.
I cursed somebody out last week because he was trying to get me to add more [dates]. As it stands right now I get like three days a week to myself. I’ve got a family, I’ve got two kids, I’m a single parent [Murphy’s wife died in 2009], and I’ve got a nanny that works with me. I’m very aware of the fact that I’m only home three days out of the week for most of the year. And you got two kids growing up like that, it’s a trade-off, but I know what I’m giving up for the trade.

What are the live shows like?
It’s straight stand-up. When I first got into stand-up, there was all sorts of speculation about what it would be — you know, “He must be telling stories like [on] Chappelle’s Show. He’s gonna tell stories about Rick James and Prince.” It was everything but “he’s a real stand-up.” We’re way beyond that now.

It’s been ten years since you first told the Rick James story on TV. Do you still get your name shouted at you from people doing their own Rick James imitations?
I should take the phone up on the block right now and let you hear it. They yell it every day, man. The show’s still on TV! It’s still funny. It’s a huge blessing. Everybody in this game, we’re all trying to connect, and when you connect, you gotta be thankful for that.

Charlie Murphy on Rick James and Black Jesus