Charlie Murphy is on stage at Louisiana’s Grambling State University performing standup comedy for 500 or so of its students to kick off Homecoming Weekend. But the kids aren’t all that interested. They’re murmuring, not paying attention. A low chatter hovers above the crowd, beating Murphy’s jokes back.
Stray boos. Errant heckles. Murphy starts feeling the heat.
“I’ve made people who barely speak English laugh,” he says in response to a hecklers’ “You suck.”
Murphy starts a bit about circus elephants. “Have you ever asked yourself how they get them to stand on one foot? They set the other three on fire.”
The stray boos turn into a chorus. Bedlam.
“Boo?” Murphy says, startled, and calls the show’s promoter on stage. He asks to be presented with his check for the evening. “This is you guys’ money, that y’all paid to have Charlie Murphy come see y’all, right? Y’all can have it back. Goodnight. FUCK YOU!”
And with that, Murphy drops the check and microphone, and walks briskly offstage. That was last Wednesday.
The next morning, a series of angry Tweets from Murphy (@cmurphycomedy): “Comedy is not just jokes about Dicks Pussy and Fucking. And neither is the world around you,” “I gave back your 22 thousand because I don’t need it you do,” and “There’s the open Market and the Chitilin circuit. If the chitlin circuit ain’t feeling me cool. I don’t eat Chitlins anyway.”
So, uhhh, that sucked. (And $22k? Clearly you’re in the wrong business.) It was a bit odd, too, considering, just a few short days before Murphy’s outburst at the kids, he talked to us about the strides he’s made as a comedian—how he’d gone from a nervous hot-head who basically willed himself onto stage despite being terrified, to learning the ropes over the last several years, to someone who now, he feels, has nearly mastered the art.
“I can say I’m a pro now,” Murphy says over the phone from his home in Englewood, N.J. “Because it’s a lot of little subtleties you gotta learn that you only know from performing. I can feel hostility from a crowd now, elation, everything. When you first start, you can’t feel those things. And if I notice an audience getting restless or hostile, I extinguish it. You learn how to do that. Every audience you go in front of it is not going to be thrilled to see you. When that happens, you have to win them over. That’s part of the job, man.”
Murphy’s had a lot of jobs over the years. He’s been in the Navy. He’s written scripts—most notably 2007’s Norbit. He’s played parts big and small in movies like CB4 and Night at the Museum . But, of course, he first burst brightly into the public spotlight via Chappelle’s Show , with his hilariously ribald “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” sketches, wherein Murphy told memorable, laugh-out-loud tales of celebrity encounters with the likes of Rick James and Prince, who he’d run into while working another job: head of security for his very famous younger brother, Eddie.
Back then, Charlie would regularly get over-aggressive with fans of his brother’s who cast off any remote signs of disrespect. He laid more hands on unimpressed fans than a preacher in a church full of sinners, telling anyone who looked unappreciative within eyesight of his funny sibling what the five fingers said to the face: “SLAP!”
After a few too many overzealous episodes—the last being Charlie threatening to dump paralyzed-from-the-neck-down ex-NFL great Darryl Stingley out of his wheelchair and stomp his mouth if he kept staring and talking shit from across a Chicago dining room—he moved on. But the stories from that time in his life remained, and his retelling of them would go on to make him famous. CHARLIE MURPHAAAAAAAY, as Rick James so memorably called him, became as much a household name as his younger brother’s.
It’s the skit that made his name, but he’s reticent to keep letting it. He wants to be just plain ol’ Charlie Murphy now, thank you. He opened his set at Grambling with an announcement as such after the crowd showed off their best Rick James impressions as he walked onstage.
“Comedians are doing a spiritual service, man,” Murphy says. “Anytime you make somebody’s spirit light, you making them laugh, you making them forget about their problems, you’re doing something positive, man. So for someone else to come and try to spoil that, it’s really super negative. Because, you’re not trying to spoil it for one person, you trying to spoil it for however many people are in the room.”
While on Chappelle, Murphy realized he was the only cast member working on the show who didn’t do standup, an artform he’d long admired since watching his brother sell out arenas and command an audience with jokes. So, at age 42, he gave it a shot. That was 10 years ago. From then on, he’s been hooked, touring the country with other performers like Joe Rogan and performing shows at Madison Square Garden with D.L. Hugely. He’s filmed a comedy special, I Will Not Apologize, and has written a book about his transition to the stage, The Making of a Stand-Up Guy.
“I don’t want to be booed off the stage because I’m not funny. I want to be accepted. I don’t want anyone to be like, ‘Oh, he was garbage.’ The fear I had initially when I started out was rooted in that. We’re 10 years down the line now: DVDs, books, hundred of shows. No one can tell me, ‘You’re not funny.’ That’s absurd. No one gives you money to do all these shows, and travel around the world, because you’re slow. So nobody can tell me I’m not funny.”
And if they do, they can have their money back.
Q&A With Comedian Dave Hill