Eddie Murphy hasn’t told a joke onstage in 28 years. He’s still the funniest guy around.

The Real King of Comedy

Eddie Murphy hasn't told a joke onstage in 28 years. He's still the funniest guy around.

Published on October 13, 2015

High above the Hollywood Hills, on a limestone patio next to a bubbling fountain, one of the funniest men on Earth clicks on his favorite new country song.

Tra-la-la twiddly-dee-dee-dee, it gives me a thrill

To wake up in the morning on rich nigger’s hill

What??? The man holding the remote starts singing along. He loves this twisted parody of an old standard, “Mockin’ Bird Hill.” And why not? Eddie Murphy wrote, recorded and sang it in his home studio, a building just across the lawn from his 32-room mansion. He’s been recording there for years, everything from folky pop to reggae and an ode to marijuana laid down with Snoop Dogg.

Dressed all in black, Murphy gets excited talking about the idea of a new album. This would be nothing like his last record, a slick, pop disc that came out in 1993.

Above: Eddie Murphy, the most successful African American actor ever (who’s also tired of making movies), will receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. (Larsen & Talbert for The Washington Post)

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“It would be like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ where the album is playing stuff, a little vignette here, here’s music, but remember, I’m Eddie, so here’s a crazy song, little sketches, everything,” he says. “National Lampoon used to do albums like that.”

A possible new album? That’s just the start. For the past five years, Murphy has been virtually invisible, tired of making movies and out of circulation. As he readies to receive the Mark Twain Award for American Humor at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night, the comedian and actor, the man who, at 23, was paid $1 million for a week’s work, who saved “Saturday Night Live” and who is box-office-wise the most successful African American actor ever, is once again talking new projects.

One movie is in the can, a promising, small-budget drama by “Driving Miss Daisy” director Bruce Beresford. He has written scripts for three other films. He’s also excited about a fourth project, aimed for HBO, in which he would play controversial former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. The potential director? Spike Lee.

Finally, there’s the most tantalizing possibility. Eddie Murphy, the Elvis, Michael Jackson and Beatles of standup, is considering a return to the stage. He last told jokes to a live audience in 1987.

Back then, he was a kid, wary of women, suited in purple leather, the anti-Dr. Doolittle, so profane that his 1987 concert film, “Raw,” held the record for most uses of the “F” word in a feature: 223. The kid is 54 now. What would that sound like?

“That’s the carrot,” Murphy says. “Every now and then when I think about it, I think, ‘What would I even talk about onstage?’ It’s never been, ‘I wonder if I’m funny. I wonder if I can come up with jokes.’ It’s more, ‘What would it be like without the leather suit and the anger?’ ”

He sits down to talk. He speaks quietly and holds an acoustic guitar, noodling as he answers questions. Not a wrinkle, not a strand of gray in his hair. And as Eddie Murphy breaks down his entire career — the 39 years from the moment he appeared at a talent show on Long Island to the present — he offers anecdotes punctuated by peerless impressions.

This is not showing off. These are the voices that emerge naturally as he relates each story. He does Sidney Poitier, Quentin Tarantino, George Lopez and James Brown. He also does himself. But not the Eddie you think you know. The fast-talking smart ass with the joyous, wide-eyed heh-heh-heh-heh of “Beverly Hills Cop.” He killed that laugh off years ago.

“You know what’s funny? I’ve never heard anybody do me,” he says.

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“He doesn’t do me. He does Buddy Love. My comic persona. I’ve never heard anyone do this. I’ve heard people say” — and here, his eyes get wide, his mouth opens, he raises the volume and spews — “I’m Eddie Murphy! What’s going on?!”

A pause. “That’s not me. That’s the donkey from ‘Shrek.’ ”

The real Eddie Murphy likes to stay connected but not too connected. He has big-screen TVs all around the house but doesn’t tweet or Instagram. In that spirit, he seems blissfully unaware of the hapless photographer who documents his daily coffee runs with girlfriend Paige Butcher. He acts surprised to hear of the hype that surrounded his return to SNL this year for the show’s 40th anniversary — and the chatter over his decision not to perform.

But he’s not afraid to address that night, when he surprised even his friends by doing no more than thanking the crowd.

So what happened? Simple. They wanted him to play Bill Cosby. Because nobody does a better Bill Cosby than Eddie Murphy. Except the timing was more than a little awkward.

“I totally understood,” Murphy says, speaking about the anniversary show for the first time. “It was the biggest thing in the news at the time. I can see why they thought it would be funny, and the sketch that Norm [Macdonald] wrote was hysterical.”

So why not?

“It’s horrible,” he says. “There’s nothing funny about it. If you get up there and you crack jokes about him, you’re just hurting people. You’re hurting him. You’re hurting his accusers. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m coming back to SNL for the anniversary, I’m not turning my moment on the show into this other thing.’ ”

Murphy, at his home in the Hollywood Hills, reigns as a comedian supreme, but hasn't been onstage since 1987. He’s thinking that could change. (Larsen & Talbert for The Washington Post)

Comics usually talk about how much they need the spotlight, to be loved, to fill an emotional crater left by a terrible childhood. They are misfits and outsiders. Not Murphy.

“Comedy is not music,” says Chris Rock. “It’s a nerd’s game. And he’s got to be the only non-nerd I’ve seen be that funny. He’s like the quarterback on the football team. The quarterback on the football team is never funny, but this guy is.”

Murphy loves getting laughs. He just doesn’t need to get laughs.

“Eddie’s the single most important performer in the history of [SNL],” co-creator Dick Ebersol says. “He literally saved the show.”

Up here, he has a sprawling view of the Hollywood Hills, his own bowling alley and the original “Sugar Shack,” the Ernie Barnes oil painting used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album.

The house is full of activity. One of his sons sits in the living room, playing piano as friends chat. Butcher, the Australian model, is watching a home improvement show. Most days, his mom also is here.

“You know why they think I’m reclusive?” says Murphy. “I don’t do the Hollywood stuff. I’ve never been on the circuit.”

Then the armchair psychologists weigh in. They say that comics are depressed, insecure, dark.

“If you don’t see me,” Murphy says, “you just assume he’s in the room in the dark, smoking a cigarette with his foot in a bucket of s—.”

He starts into the story of the first time he got a laugh from a crowd. He was 8, and taking the bus home from the pool in Brooklyn. As the bus rolled, young Eddie would imitate the way he imagined the people outside sounded.

“People would start getting off the bus, and as they would get off, they would look back at me, clapping,” he says.

By then, Murphy was living with his mother, Lillian, stepfather Vernon Lynch and older brother Charlie. His father, Charles, had died when he was young, killed by a girlfriend. When asked how that impacted his psyche, Murphy shrugs.

“I’ll tell you this, my mother and father broke up when I was 3,” he says. “My mother is with my stepdad when I’m 4 1/2 and 5 years old. My stepdad is the real deal.”

Lynch, who worked at an ice cream plant, tried to keep the boys in line. That wasn’t a problem with Eddie.

“They had two parks in our town,” says Charlie, then often in trouble, now a successful comedian. “Roosevelt Park, you see the kids playing tennis, basketball and ducks in the pond. That’s the park Eddie used to hang out at. Then you had Centennial. People shooting dice, smoking weed, planning crimes. That’s the park I would be in.”

At 12, Eddie started repeating, out loud, that he was going to be famous. At school, Murphy did voices in the lunchroom.

“But I didn’t go, ‘I’m going to be a comedian’ until I’m 15 and I heard Richard Pryor’s ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ album.”

Murphy marks the start of his career as July 9, 1976. That night, he arrived at the Roosevelt Youth Center for a talent show wearing a white suit and green shirt and, as a record of “Let’s Stay Together” pumped over the packed house, delivered a perfect Al Green.

Before long, Murphy was playing the two clubs within walking distance. Then, he was taking the Long Island Railroad to New York City, doing a 1 a.m. set and hustling home to collapse. His mother didn’t realize how many classes he was skipping until the end of his senior year. Murphy had to go to summer school.

He had long been talking about how he would be famous. Suddenly, Murphy put a timetable on it. By 18.

“I remember when I turned 18, comics saying, ‘Hey, man, I thought you were going to get famous when you’re 18.’ Then I got ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ” He was 19.

Clockwise from top left:
Murphy as Buckwheat on “SNL” in 1981 (NBC via Getty Images); “SNL” cast members, from left, Joe Piscopo, Robin Williams and Murphy during a 1984 “SNL” rehearsal (Suzanne Vlamis/AP); Murphy performs at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1985 (Wilbur Funches/AP); Murphy makes his screen debut with Nick Nolte in “48 Hrs.” in 1982 (Paramount Pictures).

It was a disaster in Studio 8H. Belushi, Aykroyd and Gilda were gone. So were Bill Murray, Chevy and Jane Curtin. The new SNL cast? Denny Dillon, Charles Rocket, Gail Matthius.

Murphy, hired as a featured player, not a regular cast member, for that sixth season, didn’t get to speak until the third episode. On Dec. 6, 1980, he appeared on the fake news playing a college basketball player tired of whites co-opting black culture.

“This was a cast cowed by the fact they were following in the footsteps of these luminaries,” recalls former SNL writer David Sheffield. “I remember watching Eddie and he was completely relaxed. He looked like if the set fell down on top of him, he would not give a damn.”

By the spring of 1981, SNL’s ratings were so bad that NBC was considering canceling it. Dick Ebersol, who had helped conceive the show in 1975, was secretly shuffled into Rockefeller Center to watch rehearsals through a closed-circuit feed.

Murphy was the only cast member who stood out.

“Comedy is not music,” says Chris Rock. “It’s a nerd’s game. And he’s got to be the only non-nerd I’ve seen be that funny. He’s like the quarterback on the football team. The quarterback on the football team is never funny, but this guy is.”

“The joy was popping out of him,” says Ebersol.

The next season, Ebersol brought back only Murphy and Joe Piscopo and instituted a new, unspoken rule. Put Murphy on screen at least three times during the first half of each show.

Murphy did James Brown and Stevie Wonder. He threw on a wig to become “Buckwheat,” suited up in green foam for the bitter, Borscht-belt Gumby and portrayed a street-tough version of PBS icon Fred Rogers, Mr. Robinson. When Nick Nolte canceled as host, Murphy took over, opening with, “Live from New York, It’s the Eddie Murphy show!”

“Eddie’s the single most important performer in the history of the show,” Ebersol says. “He literally saved the show.”

He also somehow avoided the drugs pervading the show. One night, during his first season, the still teenage Murphy went to the after-hours blues bar that served as a cast hangout. Belushi and Robin Williams were there. So were the drugs.

“It wasn’t a big moral thing,” Murphy says now. “It just as easily could have gone, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ But I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m okay.’ I think about that sometimes, especially now that both of them are gone.”

Keenen Ivory Wayans, his friend for years, has his theory on what kept Murphy in line.

“He always had his parents close by,” Wayans says. “He likes his weed every now and then, but he never got hooked on anything. His greatest temptation was women. And that was as a young man. But I think he’s tried to keep a sense of normalcy about him. He just never gave in.”

Murphy’s electricity translated to film. In 1982, Murphy made his screen debut in “48 Hrs.” as a convict paired with a grizzled police officer played by Nolte.

“There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Reggie Hammond,” he said, the first of countless, iconic scene-stealing moments in film.

This was before the “The Cosby Show” or Oprah Winfrey and just after the blaxploitation era.

“There wasn’t a lot of opportunities for the brothers,” says former “30 Rock” and SNL star Tracy Morgan. “Eddie didn’t open the door. Eddie just kicked the door off the hinges. He changed show business by saying, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town.’ ”

Mike Myers, who would work with Murphy in the “Shrek” films, remembers when he first saw “48 Hrs.”

“It’s like the first time I saw New York City,” he says. “You can’t keep your eyes off of him. There’s that wonderful combination of virtuosity and danger.”

John Landis cast Murphy in 1983’s “Trading Places.”

“He was not camera savvy,” he says, “but he was just full of energy and full of life.”

Paramount signed Murphy to an exclusive contract — one of the last in the industry. Over the next five years, he would launch a franchise with “Beverly Hills Cop,” gross $50 million with a concert film, “Raw,” and, in 1988, reunite with Landis for another smash, “Coming to America.” He was the biggest star in Hollywood and he wasn’t yet 28.

Clockwise from top left:
Murphy stars in 1988’s “Coming to America” (Paramount via Everett Collection); In “The Nutty Professor,” Murphy played the plump lead and several roles (Bruce McBroom/Universal Pictures via Reuters); Kerry Washington and Eddie Murphy in “A Thousand Words” (Bruce McBroom/Paramount Pictures); The comedian plays troubled singer Jimmy Early in “Dreamgirls” (David James/Paramount Pictures via AP)..

The money could be blinding. There was the $1 million for a week of shooting the instantly forgettable “Best Defense” in 1984. Murphy signed on to “Beverly Hills Cop III” knowing the script wasn’t working. “Meet Dave.” “Holy Man.” “A Thousand Words.” He has confessed for them all.

“It’s very hard when you grow up in the projects to turn down the money they’ve been offering you,” Murphy says.

Sheffield, who wrote “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor” with Murphy and SNL partner Barry Blaustein, wishes the actor had been more selective.

“Most major stars are very savvy about developing things,” says Sheffield. “They’ll find a book they like and option it. Or buy a screenplay they like and attach themselves to it. Eddie has just taken things offered to him. And the things he’s offered are not always suited for him.”

That may be true, but Murphy believes there’s more at play. He brings up Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, two directors he admires and would love to work with.

“I’m telling you,” says Jeff Garlin, who starred in the family comedy “Daddy Day Care” with Murphy in 2003, “the greatest slight in the history of the Academy Awards is Eddie Murphy not winning anything for ‘The Nutty Professor.’ ”

“Even though I’ve had some success in the movies, I’ve never turned into a white man in Hollywood,” he says. “I don’t have any sour grapes, but there’s a difference. If you’re black and you’re in this business, it’s different than if you’re a white guy in this business. And it’s not just me. How many movies has Denzel done with Steven Spielberg? How many movies has Will Smith done with Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese? How many movies has Tom Hanks done with Steven Spielberg? How many movies has Leonardo DiCaprio done with Martin Scorsese?”

He admits that he can be sensitive. That was particularly true during the ’90s, when the critics seemed to be getting meaner. In panning 1995’s “Vampire in Brooklyn,” the New York Times wrote: “Eddie Murphy as the living dead: that’s not a bad description of his career.”

And then, while Murphy was home watching SNL, David Spade came on screen. A photo of Murphy appeared over his left shoulder.

“Look children,” Spade said with a characteristic snicker. “It’s a falling star. Make a wish.”

Murphy stopped watching the show for a time and declined to return for its 25th anniversary.

“I loved my time there and it hurt my feelings,” he says now. “Okay, so I’m making some movie flops, so now my career is over, and I’m getting this from my alma mater?”

There was an upside. Murphy found he could channel his feelings into his work. After the Spade slam, Murphy came back with “The Nutty Professor,” playing no fewer than seven roles. The film earned rave reviews and more than $270 million worldwide.

“ ‘Nutty Professor’ was me going, ‘Say what you want to say, but I can do this and you can’t and nobody else in the town can do this,’ ” he says.

“It’s not just seven characters,” says Rock. “It’s seven characters he hadn’t done before. These aren’t the same characters as ‘Coming to America.’ They’re not from SNL. That mother’s a totally new person.”

“I’m telling you,” says Jeff Garlin, who starred in the family comedy “Daddy Day Care” with Murphy in 2003, “the greatest slight in the history of the Academy Awards is Eddie Murphy not winning anything for ‘The Nutty Professor.’ ”

Then, in the midst of a split from his wife, Nicole, with whom he has five children, Murphy was cast to play the broken-down soul singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls.” The divorce was painful, stressful, worse than anything he’s ever experienced other than a parent dying.

“Getting divorced didn’t sour me on the institution of marriage,” he says today. “I’ll tell you what I’ll never do: I’ll never get divorced again. That’s a s—– deal for anybody.”

“Dreamgirls” helped him push through. He channeled his pain into his stunning portrayal of Early.

“They say, ‘Oh, this is great, this is his best acting, it looked like you were really crying on the inside,’ ” Murphy says and pauses. “I was.”

“Henry Joseph Church,” the film he made with Beresford, is not meant to prove anything. Murphy signed on because he liked the script, a drama in which he plays a cook who takes care of a young girl. He also found, while soldiering through recent bombs, that he could no longer make films just for the money.

“The check movies are over for me,” says Murphy.

In that spirit, he has written a script called “Buck Wonder, Super Slave,” a parody of “12 Years a Slave,” “Roots” and superhero movies. He also has an R-rated talking animal movie and a film about two brothers who inherit a black circus.

So how likely is a return to the stage? At one point, he and his friend Arsenio Hall had a plan. Murphy would come out as his brother, Charlie, and do five minutes before anybody realized who was performing. That plan seems on hold.

But Hall has not given up. Recently, the two were hanging out and a good bit emerged. Hall wanted it, but Murphy said it was his.

“As long as a comic is holding onto a joke,” Hall says, “that’s a man who’s thinking about it.”

At age 12, Eddie started repeating, out loud, that he was going to be famous. On Sunday, the legend will receive comedy's highest honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. (Larsen & Talbert for The Washington Post)

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