Most of the people tuning in to Wednesday night’s Spike TV tribute Eddie Murphy: One Night Only will do so to see the headliner. But a sizable number will be watching for the other Murphy, the one with the cult cred.
For a certain generation — those too young to remember the ’80s — Charlie Murphy is the funny Murphy brother. Eddie is the one who stars in family-friendly movies and pussed out on hosting the Oscars, but Charlie is the renegade who still does stand-up tours and, if his “True Hollywood Stories” segments on Chappelle’s Show are to be believed, once kicked Rick James’s ass. Eddie is the comic your parents like, and Charlie is the one who might cut you.
As I learned when I called Charlie to talk about his brother’s tribute, his reputation as the Murphy family bad boy is not undeserved.
Eric Spitznagel: Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, but the stories you told about Eddie for One Night Onlywere kinda sweet.
Charlie Murphy: Well, sure. What’d you think I was gonna say?
I don’t know. I guess I was expecting something with a little more bite.
That wasn’t the objective at all. It wasn’t about embarrassing him. It was paying homage to Eddie. It’s not like those roasts, which aren’t tributes at all. They’re not even real roasts. Back when Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin were doing roasts, they were all friends. They knew each other’s children, each other’s wives, each other’s families. It wasn’t about being disrespectful. It was about being funny. But today, people take the easy way out.
How is it easy?
It’s easy to go on television and say horrible things about somebody. And it’s cowardly. They say stuff at these roasts that they’d never say to your face. They’ll say the most vile thing they can think of about a person’s mom. But would they say it backstage, in the green room, when there are no cameras? Of course not. They’re cowards.
You’ve said that, growing up with Eddie, he used to get so upset by your teasing that he’d go after you with a knife.
Oh, yeah. That happened all the time. And it wasn’t just Eddie. A lot of people came after me with a knife.
Like how many?
Dozens, at least.
You’ve had dozens of people attack you with a knife?
It’s just my personality, man. Or it was. I used to irritate people. I’d give them a hard time, and when it drove them crazy, that was funny to me.
Was it funny when they tried to kill you?
Oh yeah, that was the funniest part.
How do you talk down somebody when they’re coming at you with a knife?
You don’t talk them down. You get the hell out of there! They’re trying to kill you, son. You got to leave. They didn’t always come after me with a knife. Sometimes they tried to choke me. I had people dive over tables and start strangling me.
Did you deserve a strangling?
A little bit, yeah. I was bad, man. I used to go hard. Let me give you an example. When I was in the eighth grade, we had Franken Berry and Count Chocula, right?
As in the cereals?
Yeah. There was one girl in my class who was really big, bigger than all the other girls, and she was very light-skinned and had acne, so she had red bumps all over her face. There was another girl that hung out with her, who was real short, and she was dark. And every time they’d walk in the classroom, I would go, “Franken Berry! Count Chocula!” And the whole class would bust out laughing. And that became their names, Franken Berry and Count Chocula. I said it every day when they came in the classroom, until one day Franken Berry punched me in the face.
I don’t blame her. You were an asshole, Charlie.
I really was.
No wonder everybody tries to strangle or stab you.
I had a math teacher once who paid me to not come back to class.
He paid you actual money?
Yeah. I used to tease him so hard that one day he took me aside and said, “I’m gonna give you an ‘A.’ Here’s $100. Don’t come back.”
You could say that was your first paycheck as a comic.
It was, yeah. For him, it was either pay me to leave or kill me. I’d been torturing him for three weeks, so I think he really wanted to kill me.
What about as an adult? You were part of your brother Eddie’s entourage for a while. You must’ve run into a few celebrities who wanted you dead.
Mr. Universe wanted me dead. I know you don’t believe this, but it really happened. At one point in my life, Mr. Universe was after me.
Any specific reason? Did you make jokes about his pecs or something?
It was over a girl. I met her, and we started dating, and after about three weeks of really passionate lovemaking, my brother came over to my house and said, “Hey man, you know that girl you’ve been dating? That’s Mr. Universe’s girlfriend. He says he’s going to kill you.”
And you, of course, responded in the most mature way possible.
I threatened him right back. I said, “Hey, man, you tell Mr. Universe I want to see him pose with keloids on his chest.”
Keloids as in scars?
Right. “See how many shows you do after I carve your chest up. See how many trophies you win. You may star in the next horror flick, but that’s about it.”
Did he respond?
I never heard from him again. He thought I was crazy, man.
And you weren’t?
Crazy? No, man, I was terrified. Mr. Universe wanted to kick my ass. I was scared shitless.
Not so scared that you didn’t threaten to disfigure him.
Oh, I was just talking out my ass. I wouldn’t have carved up nobody’s shit. But it worked. I got his attention. Sometimes you gotta hit people where their anxieties are.
So I was flipping through your book recently, The Making of a Stand-Up Guy. And I came upon a few sentences that gave me pause. Can I read them to you?
You’re writing about hanging out with Eddie in the ’80s, right around the time his career blew up. Here’s the quote: “Cocaine was piled high on the bar like little ski slopes. And, of course, people were having sex everywhere, constantly.” Is that hyperbole?
That was the ’80s, man.
There was constant public sex happening all around you?
You weren’t around in the ’80s? You must be young. Were you an adult in the ’80s? Like in your 20s?
I was a teenager.
So you missed it. You missed it, man. It was incredible. I’m telling you. It was insane. It’s a shame it all had to come to an end.
People were having sex on top of chandeliers — that kind of thing?
In public, yeah. Not on chandeliers, but in public. When you went to Studio 54, everything was going on in there. You’d be standing next to a motherfucker for twenty minutes and not even realize he’s naked.
How is that possible?
They’d be wearing body paint. Girls would come into the club, and they’d be buck-naked. But they’d be painted like leopards or whatever, so you wouldn’t notice right away. I remember one night at Studio 54, they had a shooting contest. You know what that is?
I’m afraid to ask.
You want to know?
I think so? Okay, okay, tell me.
[Mr. Murphy provided a very graphic explanation, which we've opted against sharing, because it's much too disgusting. Trust us on this. We're doing you a favor. You don't want the details.]
Oh, my god.
That was the ’80s, man.
That’s going to be in my brain forever. What the hell, Charlie?
And it didn’t even make the newspaper. If they had a contest like that now, it would be all over the Internet.
The Internet would explode.
Every Web site would have a picture of the guy who won the contest. He’d be on the morning talk shows the next day, on Live With Kelly and Michael. He’d be like, “Well, you know, Kelly, I eat a lot of broccoli.”
It’s a different world than it was thirty years ago.
It is, man. It really is.
Not just for sex carnies. As a comic, you have to be careful what you say.
You have to think about that, yeah. It’s not like it used to be, where you could say whatever you wanted. Remember when [Don] Imus made his gaffe on the radio, and the whole country went nuts?
When he called those female basketball players “nappy-headed hos”?
Yeah. And everyone kept repeating it because they thought it was funny. D. L. Hughley went on Leno and made a joke about it. It was the same joke he’d been making in his stand-up act, which he told all over the country, and everyone laughed.
What was the joke?
I forget the exacting wording, but something about those girls not being hos, but definitely nappy-headed.
The joke worked when Hughley told it on tour. But this time, on The Tonight Show, it sparked a protest. He had the United Black Ministers Union or whatever saying they wanted Hughley run out of show business. They wanted to relieve him of his livelihood.
That does seem a little extreme.
It’s why a comedian’s job is so dangerous. A comic’s like anybody else — he does what he does to support himself and feed his family. But if a comic says the wrong thing, there’s a chance the audience will want to take you down. They’ll be like, “We want you out of the game. We want you to starve for saying that. We want to see your babies starve for saying that. We want to see you in misery, because you said something politically incorrect.” There’s a ferocious side of it, man.
Are there any subjects that shouldn’t be joked about?
How about rape? Daniel Tosh had some problems when—
Rape jokes are cool?
In true comedy, there is no subject that should be off-limits. When you start making lines in the stand like that, you’re flirting with censorship. You can’t be like, “You can only do it this way.” Freedom of speech means freedom of speech, not “Say what you want, just don’t say nothing I don’t like.”
How about when Michael Richards screamed the N-word during a stand-up set? Is that freedom of speech?
Here are my feelings on that. There’s a phoniness that’s going on right now in America in regards to the so-called N-word. I don’t say “N-word”; I say nigger. There’s no such thing as the N-word. If you’re saying the N-word, you’re still thinking nigger. You might as well say it. Say nigger. That’s what you mean.
I don’t think I can.
Say it, man. That’s what you’re meaning to say.
I seriously can’t. It’s like making me walk on hot coals.
What Michael Richards did — was it offensive? Yeah, it was. But do I believe he should’ve been shut down from comedy for doing it? No. Because I’ve heard everybody do the same kind of jokes that Michael Richards did. Everybody talks about race. If you go to the comedy club and hang out, you’re gonna hear race jokes, man.
After Obama got re-elected, Twitter was overrun with racist claptrap. Did you follow any of that?
Yeah. It got pretty nasty.
Were you shocked?
Not at all. I’m shocked that Obama got re-elected. Hell, I’m shocked he got elected in the first place. But I think his re-election just proved that the racist voice is on the way out. Those people, that point of view — it’s dying out, man. The young people growing up right now — they’re not part of that bullshit. They don’t say shit like “I don’t like you ’cause you’re black. I don’t like you ’cause you’re white.”
Well, some of them do. A few of those racist tweets came from teens.
It doesn’t matter. They’re not the leaders of their generation. This is what people have to realize about racists. They’re not smart. The moment you demonstrate that you’re a bigot, I know you’re not very smart. You’re a robot. Bigotry is a taught behavior. You’re not born a bigot. You’re carrying on the tradition of whatever ignorant motherfuckers taught you that shit. You’re a fucking robot. It’s crazy to worry about what a fucking robot has to say. They’ll be gone soon enough.
That’s actually the most reassuring thing I’ve heard yet about the racist response to Obama.
I got to buy some more of this weed, because it really makes me sound intelligent.
Wait, you’re high right now?
Out of my head, man. [Laughs.]
What kind of weed do you smoke before an interview?
This was just some Blueberry, I think. It’s nothing special. I just came back from a trip to Amsterdam, and that shit was amazing. You ever been?
Never. But I’ve heard stories.
It’s everything they say it is. You can just roll a joint and walk down the street. You can walk into any store and light up a blunt, and it’s no problem. And the stuff they sell — holy lord. I had something called “space cake.” You hear of that? It was on the menu at a coffee shop, so I ordered it. It’s like a blueberry muffin in an aluminum package, vacuum-sealed, and it has this sticker on the side that says, “Special muffin. Eat sparingly.” I ingested the entire goddamn muffin immediately.
Was that a mistake?
I couldn’t go to sleep. I just laid in bed and called everybody I knew. It was like 4 a.m. in the U.S., and I called every motherfucker just to tell them about the muffin. They were like, “What the fuck? I was sleeping.” And I was like, “So, what? Wake up.”
That story makes me want to go to Amsterdam.
You should go. But if you get one of those special muffins, you better follow the instructions. That’s all I’ve got to say about it. That shit will fuck you up.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)