Delirious / 1983
dir: Bruce Gowers
Raw / 1987
dir: Robert Townsend
In the final moments of Delirious, Eddie Murphy mentions Marian Anderson, the African-American singer who in 1939 was denied from performing in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, where Delirious was filmed in August 1983. “Here we are not even fifty years later – a 22-year-old black man onstage gettin’ paid to hold his dick. God bless America.” He drops the mic and leaves the stage, followed by the camera and an attentive entourage through the hall’s tunnels to a feast in his dressing room.
From 1981 to 1990, ages 19 to 29 Eddie Murphy was the biggest celebrity in the country, maybe the world. He started on Saturday Night Live at 19, and would soon begin starring in some of the most iconic comedy and action movies of the decade. Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, 48 Hrs., Coming to America (and don’t forget The Golden Child!) – each holding strong as all-time greats. (Maybe not The Golden Child…)
But what really put Murphy on a separate plane were his two stand-up specials, Delirious and Raw. You weren’t about to see any other young comedians doing crossover action movies in 1983; no other action star would be caught dead doing ten minutes of stand up, let alone over an hour. Onstage, Eddie was immature, brash, and ridiculously crude; the candid style, rapid-fire pace, and loose structure reminded the audiences of just How Fucking Cool he was, and they ate it up. Twenty-five and thirty years later, though, the vulgarity and the bluntness and the outfits leave Murphy looking unhinged, deep into some ego (cocaine) fueled tirades that have become increasingly less resonant with anyone that isn’t Eddie Murphy.
These specials – 1987’s Raw was actually a theatrically released concert film directed by Robert Townsend that grossed over fifty million dollars – document the divide between Eddie Murphy: Mega Star and Eddie Murphy: Human Being. Obviously, those halves had to meet somewhere. The necessity of red and purple leather suits, however, is less apparent.
But then 22-year-old Eddie Murphy: Goddamn Superstar trots out from the wings on to this humongous empty stage and opens his set with “I got some rules when I do my stand-up: straight up, faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass when I’m onstage. That’s why I keep movin’ up here, you don’t know where the faggot section is, you gotta keep movin’,” proceeds to act out Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton having sex, and it all fucking kills. (Did you have to be famous for routines about AIDS and “dick control” to land so successfully, or was this just the wonder of the ‘80s?) They aren’t really jokes, they’re collections of impersonations and gestures and swear words. It’s his attitude that people reacted to, and you can hear how much they loved it.
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to enjoy my notes on Eddie Murphy’s Delirious set:
– rules – faggots – Mr. T gay sex* – Honeymooners gay sex* – gay men – AIDS
– on fucking – dick control
– on pussy – show business (singers getting pussy)
– Michael Jackson*
– James Brown*
– regarding comments on his Stevie Wonder impression from disgruntled black fans – talking to Stevie Wonder in the car*
– (“It’s hot as a fuck in this thing”)
– kids love ice cream, don’t like to share*
– mom hits kids with shoe
– white kids/swearing around the house
– can’t hit a black woman – modern women
– (“Who farted?”)
– on farting (pronounced “fahting”) – brother shits in the bathtub
– (Borrows camera from crowd, takes pictures from stage)
– black dudes have big dicks and nice asses – on other races’ dicks
– on women with moustaches – kids crying
– drunk dad at cookout*
– fat aunt falls down the steps
– drunk dad at cookout (reprise)*
– D.C. – Reagan (crowd boos) – black politicians – Jesse Jackson*
– racism in the ‘80s – slavery interlude – in Texas looking for racism, does not find it
– (“Do Mr. Rob” “Shut up, bitch!” – standing ovation) ^
– making fun of Chinese people
– languages – French – Arabic – Spanish – Ricky Ricardo*
– kids in the audience
– easy joke about a rabbit and a bear for people to tell at work and school
– Star Trek* – cable – white people in ghost movies
– Marian Anderson
* denotes an impression
^ a woman in the crowd requests the SNL character, to which a man in the audience immediately responds, “Shut up, bitch!” Eddie finds this hilarious, and is left with no choice but to beckon for a standing ovation, which he receives.
Murphy’s opening jokes in Delirious make up the most outrageous and, not coincidentally, most dated material of the hour. His observations on the crazy differences between blacks and whites are lame, but bits about gays and AIDS, still regarded as a “gay disease” in 1983, are plain unfunny and unfortunate. (Supposedly, if Wikipedia can be trusted, he did express regret about some of these comments in a future interview.) He settles down, however, as he proceeds, spending a lot of time talking about his family, more astutely examining black life in the early 1980s, and doing impressions.
The set moves smoothly, but there’s nothing really holding it together. It’s wild, but it’s not especially offbeat or of a unique viewpoint; it’s offensive, but it’s still about half family humor. There’s no great structure to Delirious, but Eddie Murphy was a very young, very famous man. He knew it and he played it. He fed off the crowd as it roared and dared him to say some crazy shit, and he went one better every time. Sometimes it’s funny, but on the whole, it’d be nothing if not for Murphy’s personality and the honking laugh.
Delirious was also released as an album, Comedian. It was his final comedy album. His next record, 1985’s How Could It Be, was a pop/R&B LP, his first and certainly not last attempt to storm the pop charts. Its lead single, “Party All The Time”, is generally – and erroneously, if you ask me – regarded as one of the worst songs of the decade. But when you star in the highest grossing movie of 1984, you probably get a free pass for 1985.
Raw is a step up in production, but not quality. It was filmed in Madison Square Garden’s theatre in the fall of 1987. Beverly Hills Cop II kicked off that summer and made over $150 million. There were people as famous as Murphy – action stars, mostly, Schwarzeneggar, Stallone, so on and so forth – but no one famous like him, no one who could do what he did with such incredible returns. (Can’t believe it didn’t work out for Jay Leno…) So if you’re the hugest celebrity in the world, why not wear a tight purple leather suit with a flowing black scarf? Fuck it. That’s the general attitude – he’s allowing us to peer behind the curtain that separates the Hollywood elites from the norms. This is what it’s like in Eddie Murphy’s head. It’s totally fucking awesome and you just know Rick James is in there somewhere. But before you even notice how incredible everyone’s leather suit is, Eddie says, “Fuck it,” and slams the drapes behind him.
Murphy, in his late 20s here, even more heavily built the set’s material around grandiose anecdotes studded with “punchlines”. Most of the stories are about sex, women, celebrity (easily the worst comedy topic), white people, and black people. There’s a long stretch in which he imitates Italian men and describes a fight he was in; he talks for a while about divorce and women getting half of wealthy husbands’ assets; he gives some significant time to describing the pros and cons of having an African wife, and describes marrying a woman who is essentially imported to America (a “bush bitch,” obviously), comes from nothing, will always be naked, but still demands half when they divorce; there’s another extended impression of his dad drunk; and he breaks down some of his older material, fitting in a Bill Cosby impression as he does so. There’s also a joke about McDonald’s hamburgers that really gets the audience going.
It may be about a half-hour longer – including a funny sketch about young Eddie, featuring Samuel L. Jackson – but Raw seems to have less material than Delirious. This is even stranger when you consider how rapidly Eddie speaks. There’s just not as much substance to it.
The titles of the specials¸ Raw and Delirious, might do well to be flipped. In 1983, you could still be surprised by Murphy’s candor and his language. Even during jokes in poor taste for 2012’s audiences, his manic energy feels fresh. In 1987, he’s fundamentally the same but lacking the spark, and just so absolutely crazy on fame, cocaine, and his own brilliance.
And I know what you’re thinking: “How bad could anything be that includes a man saying ‘My dick is a blowtorch,’ to massive applause?” And that’s a fine point. Like Delirious, Raw does have its high moments. You watch it today and see how unimaginably Cool he was – in ways that wouldn’t stand a chance of being Cool today, though in some cases (COLORED LEATHER SUITS) maybe because Eddie did it first – and you understand why it was so popular, and why people loved the guy. Murphy’s command of the crowd is insane. They’re with him every step of the way. They keep even his most sodden material afloat.
The movie reminds me of Louis CK’s Hilarious in some respects, particularly the lack of crowd reaction shots despite its audible excitement. As soon as Eddie hits that stage, the focus is on him 100% of the time. CK obviously takes some notes from Murphy, as any comedian in his or her 30s and 40s today does, but no matter where his career takes him his stand-up will remain highly regarded because it’s better written, more considered, and more human. Murphy tells us in Raw that it wasn’t a big deal when Michael Jackson took Brooke Shields (a white girl!) to the Grammys, but if Shields had gone with him instead people would’ve flipped out, because they knew she “would get fucked that night.”
Now, rude as it is to assume that Michael couldn’t seal the deal with Brook Shields or that 20-year-old Brooke Shields doesn’t deserve some fucking romance, who hasn’t imagined taking Brooke Shields to a classy awards gala? But does anyone do it as aggressively as Eddie Murphy? Fantasy drives comedy, but in equal parts with failure (and the occasional redemption). This idea was most likely nowhere on Murphy’s radar in 1987, which is unfortunate because it wasn’t much longer before he hit a great and inevitable slump.
The Eddie Murphy business in the ‘80s was a commodity based on Coolness. Historically, though, coasting on Coolness only lasts so long. Murphy briefly attempted to enter a Serious Artist phase with his auteur effort Harlem Nights, a film that won him a Razzie for “Worst Screenplay” and was noted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as one of the crummiest movies of 1989. This isn’t a movie I’ve even attempted to watch (yet), but you can sense how it derailed him for several years simply by looking at his biography. He followed it with Another 48 Hrs. and Boomerang, which were decent and high-grossing, but not at the level of Coming to America, arguably Murphy at his peak, starring in one of the biggest movies of ‘88. His momentum was long gone, though, by the time he reprised Axel Foley for 1994’s awful Beverly Hills Cop III.
Eddie eventually found a new niche in zanier fare, including several franchises and a lot of voice work. It’s not surprising that voiceovers for animation suit him so well; Murphy’s Magic™ is about 95% vocal attitude. A return to fully serious fare in Dreamgirls resulted in an Oscar nomination. He followed it up with a string of fully horrible light comedies, and that Brett Ratner movie that’s an allegory about rich people or whatever. (Oh it’s not an allegory? It’s just a Brett Ratner movie? Whatever.) This unevenness epitomizes the last two decades of his career. For every Dreamgirls-like moment of accomplishment, there are a half-dozen tremendous and shameful Norbit-shaped disappointments, the failure he avoided throughout his formative decade of celebrity catching up with him after all these years.
Even if he never makes a good film again, bad-movie Eddie isn’t the one we think about. He’ll always be the kid in the sweaty red leather suit getting paid to be rude and loud. His stand-up days may be twenty-five years behind him, but those routines are still what define his career, gave it form and allowed him to prove how hot he was and show how far he would go. When he packed up the leather, he let go of a crucial part of his persona. At least, for a few shining years, we knew where Eddie stood on the important issues: