March 14th, 2008
CHARLIE MURPHY: OUT FROM THE SHADOWS OF YOU KNOW WHO!by Vincent Cecolini
Charlie Murphy was once known only as the older brother of comedy legend Eddie Murphy. As a part of Eddie’s entourage and security detail, Charlie also turned up in bit roles and cameos in many of his brother’s films. During the last decade, however, Charlie has slowly stepped out of Eddie’s imposing shadow. In addition to larger roles in hit films like CB4, Kings Ransom and Roll Bounce, Charlie became one of the standout players in Dave Chappelle’s brilliant and hilarious Chappelle’s Show, on Comedy Central.
Charlie Murphy’s main contribution to the show was creating and writing perhaps it’s funniest sketch, “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories.” The most popular being the Rick James story, with Murphy as himself and Chappelle as the drug addled Rick James, including incidents such as James slapping Murphy, interspersed with scenes of the present-day Rick James, explaining his past behavior, saying, “Cocaine’ s a hell of a drug.” The sketch spawned one of the show’s popular catchphrases–” I’m Rick James, bitch!”– which Chappelle as James (and every moronic white guy on earth) declared, over and over and over again .
When Dave Chappelle went MIA after filming only three episodes of the third season, deciding he could no longer handle the grind of a weekly show, Murphy had to take advantage and strike while he was still generating some heat, and take advantage he did.
His newfound popularity has led to a successful stand-up career as well as creating a name for himself as a screenwriter, having co-written the hit film Norbit with brother Eddie. Charlie Q. Murphy, as he is sometimes known, is also a well-respected voice-over artist. According to imdb.com (internet movie database), Murphy has no less than 6 feature films in production or completed for the rest of 2007, or slated for release in 2008. He stars in the film Twisted Fortune and the upcoming Three Days To Vegas with legends Peter Falk and Rip Torn. Charlie has also just finished taping his first season of BET’s hit We Got To Do Better
SoHo Journal: You must be exhausted. You’ve just returned from performing in Stockholm, Sweden, We Got To Do Better is a hit on BET and you’re making more and more appearances on the big screen.
Charlie Murphy: I’m married and I have two kids. You have stress when you leave and you have stress when you go home. But it could be worse. The other day, I was watching this thing on A&E. They showed this dude in a maximum security prison. He said, “This place sucks. They feed you horrible food. They keep the lights off 24 hours a day. They’re all about breaking balls seven days a week, day in and day out. Break the man down! Break the man down!” The interviewer asks, “Why are you in here?” The guy responds, “I killed two cops.”
SJ: When you go to places like Stockholm, Sweden, is any of the humor lost on the audience?
CM: Very little. The show went over great. I know the adjustments I have to make when I go back there this fall. They had two Swedish comedians open for me. The next time I’m taking an American to Sweden, a guy that can cross over and entertain any type of audience. A lot of Black comics don’t have the reputation for being able to do that. You usually see Black comics in front of all-Black audiences and White comics in front of all-White audiences. I have been one of the lucky ones who has crossed over. I can go in front of Black, White, Latino or Asian audiences; it doesn’t matter. I proved I can also go in front of European or Canadian audiences. I know a couple of other guys who can do the same thing and I want the world to know.
SJ: Most comedians play to very specific audiences.
CM: If you are a comedian and you are Black, before anyone gives you a break, you have to go up on stage during an “open mic night.” And where are you going to do an open mic night? In your neighborhood. Who is your audience in your neighborhood? If you’re Black, it is Black people. And you are going to develop a style that [works] with Black people. It’s the same thing if you are White. But no White guy is going to say, “I’m going to develop my style in the ‘hood.” He’s going to do it in front of people he is familiar with. There is nothing wrong with a comic if he can’t make the transition. I just feel blessed I can do that. I think we’re in a position to set up a whole new era in Black comedy; make it known that Black comics can be universal; that they can appeal to anyone.
SJ: Why does stand-up comedy appeal to you so much? Why go on stage when you have so many opportunities to appear on television and in films?
CM: When I’m on stage, you are listening to my views–my take on things, and my twists. When people respond, it is very gratifying. Who wouldn’t like to think that what is funny to them is funny to everyone else? I love it when they understand it and they share the laugh.
SJ: You were not a “model child.” You got into your share of trouble as a teen. What was the turning point in your life that put you on the right track?
CM: I got out of that environment. I joined the military. That’s why I was so happy when my sons turned 18. They got out of the environment and went to school. They came back as adults and they’re cool. It is the guys who don’t get the opportunity to leave who are in trouble. There are guys who grew up within a mile of where I was born. They are now 50 and they’re still there. Most of them have never been out of New York. Some have never even been to Manhattan. That is horrific to me. I can’t believe there are grown people who have never left Long Island. I’ve been in the military. I’ve gone all over the world. To think of all of the places I’ve been and all of the things I have seen, and then to hear someone say, “I’m still in the same box we were in 30 years ago” is horrible. What saved me was being able to leave.
SJ: How did the military affect you?
CM: It made me a more responsible adult. I started each day at 6:30am or 7am, not at 2pm. You don’t stay up all night and then sleep all day. I went through periods like that while I was living in Hollywood with my brother, but in the back of my mind, that discipline was planted. You learn the things your mother told you growing up. Always make sure your clothes are neat. My mother told me those things, but I rebelled. When I was in the military, I couldn’t rebel or I was dealt with severely. That was the first time I was forced to snap into position. You learn they are the right things to do for a reason.
SJ: What did you see in Eddie that made you decide to support him early on?
CM: I was just being protective of my younger brother. And no one was going to fuck with him when I was there. It was not because I thought he was going to become a big movie star. If I am around my nieces and nephews, if I am around my children –I have an eight-year-old son and a one-yearold daughter–and another kid comes around to bully them, I think about jumping in and fucking that kid up. I don’t do it. But thinking about it is part of that old machine. You are not touching anyone in my family. You are not talking bad about them, ’cause they’re part of my DNA. I can’t let you disrespect that.
SJ: The bigger a star becomes, the bigger a public target he or she becomes.
CM: That’s why you read articles about people having experiences [with celebrities]. There are photographs of them with blood coming out of their mouths. They look into lawsuits. Basically, they got their asses kicked for something they could have avoided. You will never see me with a busted mouth ’cause I just had to voice my opinion. You will never see a picture of me bloodied ’cause I got tazered because cops told me to leave and I stayed anyway. It’s not going to happen. I don’t do shit like that. Other people do shit like that, but that’s not me.
SJ: Obviously, talent runs in the Murphy family. But at what point did you realize, “Hey, I can do this too!”
CM: The moment I started doing it. You have to believe in yourself to get into it, but in the beginning you are going to get a lot of rejection. So, if you don’t think you can do it, and you’re second-guessing yourself, everyone will help you with your decision. You have to believe, “Fuck what anyone else thinks, I can do this and I’m going to keep doing it.” It is just like if you decide to become a basketball player. When you start dribbling that ball, you’re not going to be anywhere as good as you are going to be when you make it to the pros. It comes down to practice.
SJ: What was that first thing you did?
CM: It was a movie called “The Landlord” and it starred Pearl Bailey, Louis Gossett Jr. and Beau Bridges. It is an old film that was shot in Brooklyn in 1971. I was an extra in it. There’s a scene where Beau Bridges comes out of his house and finds a kid stealing hubcaps off of his car. That little boy is me. That was my first crime scene. Even in my first movie I was a gangsta.
SJ: Now that you’ve achieved a degree of success, people are noticing your earlier films.
CM: I’m just grateful I’ve maintained my health and maintained my pace. I’m showing up at these venues and getting better at my craft. I’ve been on stage so much, that when we went to shoot [BET’s We Got To Do Better], it was a breeze. If I was just off Chappelle’s Show and someone said, “We have this idea for a show,” that would have been a different experience. I’ve been doing what I do now for a long time. I’m the same guy I have always been. I’m doing things I’ve always done. People are just noticing it now. I would have had little experience standing in front of an audience and talking; in front of a camera, yes, but not with people talking back. But doing stand-up creates comfort and has made me a much better performer.
SJ: And it is your show.
CM: I haven’t been screaming, “It’s my show. It has to be perfect!” There has been none of that. That’s why it came out the way it came out. If you go to Las Vegas with your mortgage money, you are going to lose your house. But if you go there and you don’t give a fuck, you are going to win some money. That’s because you relax.
SJ: When will you find out if We Got To Do Better will be picked up for a second season?
CM: I’m not worried about that! [BET] is calling me back. We did a good show, but there is a lot of other stuff happening. That’s the beauty of my life right now. I do not have to sweat anything. As long as I keep writing jokes, I can keep going on stage. Everything else is gravy.
SJ: You’ve grabbed the bull by the horns.
CM: If I don’t go down in history for anything else, I will be remembered for making the best of my situation. There was a lot of gravy and I went all over the world.
SJ: What was it like working on Harlem Nights with so many great comedians? Red Foxx and Richard Pryor broke a lot of new ground.
CM: It was absolutely incredible. It is now part of my legacy. I didn’t just see Red Foxx on television. I worked with him. I got to sit down day after day and hang out with him. It was the same with Richard Pryor. He wasn’t just some guy on a movie screen to me. I knew this man. Yes, I was blessed to be in Harlem Nights with those guys. Arsenio Hall and my brother were in it on top of that. It is a great thing to say I was in that movie. It’s a great thing to say I worked with Sammy Davis Jr.
SJ: How did you become part of Chappelle’s Show’s cast?
CM: Chappelle called me up. They were just beginning work on the first episode. He had seen the movies I had been in and liked the characters I played. He thought I’d be the perfect person to be in a sketch, so he called me and they hired me.
SJ: Did you always have natural storytelling ability?
CM: I’ve been doing what I do now for a long time. I’m the same guy I have always been. I’m doing things I’ve always done. People are just noticing it now.
SJ: It seems like so many great things happen by accident. “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” stories were not originally intended to be a Chappelle’s Show sketch.
CM: I had ideas for sketches that got done, but that wasn’t one of them. We were having a conversation one day and everyone’s eyebrows went up. They said, “Hey, now that is funny!”
SJ: After building a rich career, do you have mixed feeling about being recognized for “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories”?
CM: No. Regardless of how it happened, there had to be a spark, something that brought me notoriety. And it is from my work, so it’s great. How it happened is not important. That it happened is what is important. There is no reason for me to be bitter about how it happened, ’cause for some people, it never happens.
SJ: It had to be surreal when phrases and even your name became catch phrases.
CM: Absolutely. I use it in my live shows. I say “Char-Lay Mur-fay.” The crowd loves it. They scream back “Darkness.”
SJ: Will you ever get tired of hearing it?
CM: No. The great thing about it is it’s my real name. It is not like they’re calling me “T-Bone” or “Buck Nasty.”
SJ: I feel bad for actor Vinny Pastore, who played “Big Pussy” on The Sopranos.
CM: How about my brother, Eddie? He played “Buckwheat” on Saturday Night Live. When you’re all dressed up and acting cool and getting out of a Rolls Royce, the last thing you want is for someone to call you “Buckwheat.”
SJ: Was Dave Chappelle upset when you and Donnell Rawlings hosted Chappelle’s Show: The Lost Episodes?
CM: He wasn’t upset. It was just our chance to air the shows we completed before he left. They were good. It was all his work; all his writing and all of his genius. It was a fitting farewell. And there were no better hosts than me and Donnell, ’cause we were on the show. They were going to show it regardless of whether we hosted it or not. It would have been weird if it was The Lost Episodes hosted by Cedric The Entertainer or Chris Rock or Steve Harvey.” It would have been weird ’cause those guys were never on the show. I believe they were all approached, but they all turned it down. That’s when they asked us. They were afraid people would think they were taking over Chappelle’s Show. Dave Chappelle’s Show is over. Dave is not on it. And no more are being made. But there was a rumor that the show was going to go on without Dave. How is that possible? It’s not! It is like The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.
SJ: And then there was Norbit, which you co-wrote. It was a big hit, but you don’t like writing screenplays.
CM: Not true. I’m going to film my stand up in January so I can free up six to eight months to write more jokes. I’ll also have the time to write another screenplay.
SJ: Do you have the filming of your DVD completely planned out?
CM: It’s my total focus; rewriting, editing and refining my show. I’ll be doing that through the end of the year. It is a work in progress. As good as it is, and as much as people like it, it is nowhere near where I want it to be. I think I can make it even better. That’s why I’m constantly putting new material in and taking old material out. It is getting tighter. I’ve been weaving this for four years now.
SJ: Are you a workaholic or a perfectionist?
CM: I am just someone dedicated to his craft. I see stand up comics who do a couple of weeks here and a couple of weeks there. Sometimes they will take six months off. I wonder how much better they would be if they constantly worked.
SJ: There are plenty of people who only work as hard as they have to.
CM: With [stand-up comedy], the more you do it, the better you will be at it. Taking time off is [detrimental]. If your goal is to be the best you can be, or to be remembered as one of the best, you can’t be sitting on your ass.