Rewatched Eddie Murphy’s concert film Delirious last night. He opens with three minutes of his faggot material, so there’s that right out of the gate. In Murphy’s defense, it feels more crude than venomous, and the bit about Mr. T. getting fucked up the ass (it’s 1983!) is legitimately funny, but he still says “faggot” one too many times and you just squirm. It is possible for straight comedians spin gay-sex-is-gross frisson into true and funny observations about how sex in general is gross instead of how gay people are gross. Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt do that now (e.g. Oswalt’s deliciously specific, “That’s gayer than eight guys blowing nine guys”) but they have the advantage of three decades of moral improvement in American culture.
Mr. T. is just the beginning though. The first half of the set is pretty much all impressions: James Brown, Luther Vandross, of course Stevie Wonder. Aside from Wonder, you don’t really think of Murphy as an impressionist–the joke of Saturday Night Live characters like Mr. Robinson, Buckwheat, and Gumby was that they were so surreally different from their nominal sources–but here’s just one spot-on late 20th century cultural figure after another, and the audience eats it up. (Sadly though, Delirious does not contain Murphy’s version of a Richard Pryor set, which is simultaneously brilliant impersonation, loving homage, and shameless ripoff.) It’s too square and reductionist to call Murphy “the black Rich Little”, but his most striking technical chops lie in mimicry.
The climax is a reenactment of a family cookout from his childhood, the “Goonie Goo-Goo” bit. It’s very accomplished: Murphy’s not afraid to let it spread out, telling a whole story while switching back and forth between about four characters, but it left me cold. It felt like a Richard Pryor recital, Murphy showing that he could do deep character work too. And he can: “Goonie Goo-Goo” is as solid as anything Pryor did, but it can’t get out from under Pryor’s shadow. Standup comedy being like all other art forms, only more so, makes it painfully apparent how comedians are creations of their eras. Pryor was a titan who at the time of Delirious had only just slipped past his prime: his influence was inescapable. If you were a black standup in 1983 you lived in the house Richard built whether you liked it or not. No point in trying to fight it. Just have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.
The best part of Delirious is the James Brown impersonation. (The joke being that even his band can’t understand what James Brown is saying.) Plenty of comedians impersonate singers: what sets Murphy apart is that he impersonates their singing. Because this is always done in the service of the joke, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s actually got a good voice. His 1985 single “Party all the Time” seemed like a vanity project, but I wonder if it was closer to Murphy’s heart that we realized. Of course all comedy is about timing, but there are moments where his rhythmic skill doesn’t feel exclusively speech-like. The punch line to the black-people-in-The-Amityville-Horror bit (“Too bad we can’t stay!”) lands like a well-placed snare hit. Eddie Murphy is a secret musician.