Q&A: Charlie Murphy
Baby brother does his thing and big brother does his thing—which are impressive things when baby bro is Eddie Murphy and big bro is Charlie Murphy. Thriving as a multi-hyphenate performer—juggling gigs as a writer, film and TV actor, standup comic and radio personality—the elder Murphy (he’ll be 57 next month, Eddie is 55) really broke through on Chappelle’s Show. Hilariously, his “True Hollywood Stories” re-enacted his celebrity encounters as a member of Eddie’s entourage (most memorably, Prince and Rick James). Recently, Murphy spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Steve Bornfeld about standup comedy and how doing 10 months in jail as a teen taught him to change the trajectory of his life.
As a standup comic, you have a storytelling style rather than just telling jokes. Was that always your preferred approach?
That’s something you have to learn as you get more confident. In the beginning, you might be afraid to even make eye contact. But as you go along, you look into the audience’s eyes. As the confidence grows, you do different moves. And I didn’t even realize it. That’s the main muscle all comedians try to develop. Anybody can tell a joke, but can you put the jokes in a story?
A few years ago you did a Comedy Central standup special titled I Will Not Apologize. Is not apologizing harder to do now with political correctness and the proliferation of social media, where you can get ganged up on pretty quickly?
Yeah, man. Once people give into that, comedy starts dying. You can’t have comedians working with handcuffs on. Not everybody has Jeff Foxworthy sensibilities. Jeff Foxworthy is a very good comedian but maybe it’s not what you like. You like something a little more raunchy. Someone who says “sh*t” instead of “poo-poo.”
Your comedy can certainly get raw, but would anything another comedian says offend you?
Everything is par for the course. It’s just jokes. They’re saying it to provoke laughter. Even if it’s not funny to me, if everyone else is laughing, I can’t say it’s not funny.
As a teenager, you did 10 months in jail for petty larceny and robbery. Did jail change your outlook and set you on a different path?
Oh yeah, it set me on a path of not going back. My mom helped me with that. When I got out, my mom said, “You can’t come home. You have to leave this community.” I joined the navy the same day I got out. I’m glad that happened to me because the environment was a trap and it still exists today in poorer neighborhoods. Only the real smart boys get through that trap, influenced by others on how they dress, what they sound like, who’s the most popular person. I was ignorant. I wasn’t looking far from where I was standing. The world wasn’t much bigger than what I could see.
Do you get pushback from the African-American community for that point of view?
Not yet, but if I do get pushback, I’ll know that they heard me. You’re a grown man, you’re 40 years old, you’re hanging around with your pants hanging off your butt crack, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You think it’s hip? You think it’s cool? You walk into the room, people are intimidated, they think you’re going to do something antisocial. That was me—I was that guy. And when I was young, you couldn’t tell me there was something wrong with that.
How did being in the military help turn you around?
I wasn’t around people that were trying to plan the next robbery or picking pockets, I was around people trying to do the right things and better themselves, mentally, spiritually and physically—for real. Not listening to some ignorant fool named T-Bone or Slick. I learned you’re not supposed to hit girls or rob people. You’re supposed to get a job.
How did your comedy chops figure into that?
That was always part of my personality, but it was an untapped, unused resource. That’s who I am and I make people laugh.
How did the abrupt ending of Chappelle’s Show affect you?
Everybody was at loose ends. It was a success and then the rug was pulled out. But what an opportunity—look at what I’ve done since. If the Chappelle show had gone five or six seasons, would I still have become a stand-up comedian? Probably not. I would have been just a comedic actor. But doing stand-up with such conviction? If I had a crutch to lean on, I don’t think I would have done it. But you have to be willing to take the risk of hitting the wall at full speed.
One of your funniest Chappelle’s Show sketches was the Prince segment. What did you think when you heard he had died?
Wow, so young, too soon. But emotionally devastated? No, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t like me and Prince were pals. I had an experience because of who I’m related to. My brother was Prince’s pal, not me. We had an experience, we played basketball.
You co-wrote and co-starred in Norbit with Eddie. When can we expect the next project from the Murphy Brothers?
I would love to, but right now, the focus that it takes, it couldn’t happen with all the things I’m doing. But absolutely, I expect to do something. He’s still an artist, I’m still an artist. There will be another moment when we arrive together again.
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