When news broke that comedian Charlie Murphy died of leukemia at age 57, most remembered him as the Chappelle's Show fixture, who charmed audiences with true Hollywood tales alongside his famous brother, Eddie Murphy. Friends and family spoke of him as a born storyteller with no-nonsense delivery and a broad smile. Like all of the comedy greats, Murphy honed his skill on the road as a standup.
After starting his career with bit roles in films like Harlem Nights and Chris Rock's CB4, Murphy almost exclusively worked as a standup comic. One of his tour mates on the popular Comedy Get Down Tour was Cedric 'The Entertainer.' Cedric spoke with Rolling Stone about backstage life with Murphy and why he was such a captivating storyteller.
He had this big, crazy laugh. He had this weird sense of humor, loved things that were kind of dark. He was the character you saw on Chappelle's Show and even more so when you met him backstage. Those stories he tells, they're so real. They just come to life so vividly in front of you that you're like, "Aw, man, tell me one more, please!" Like your grandfather before you go to bed. And that’s how it was with Charlie.
He told this story about this old man in his 70s going through the security line at the airport. Charlie likes to dress like a rock star, so, he said, "I came offstage, I didn't get a chance to change for the airplane. So, you know me, I got on belts and a jacket with studs and biker stuff on it. I got on boots that’s got like metal tips on it. I'm going through the line and this old man sees me and he like, 'I'm not going to wait for whoever this sissy is, with these straps and chains and boots on.'" And Charlie’s looking at him like, Is he talking about me? His boys tell him, "Yeah, he’s talking about you, Charlie." So the man starts skipping the line, and as he starts to pass Charlie, Charlie leans over to the old guy and says, "Look, if you bump into me, you’re going to learn how old your ass really is." And he laughed so hard. Then he'd stop and ask, "Was I wrong for that? Was I wrong for that?"
"His team said he was weak – every time he does chemo he gets a little weaker – but he wants to do Detroit."
He had a million of them. He told us a story about a night, he was with his brother Eddie and Stevie Wonder was about to do some kind of video and Ed went by to support him. They're in a big warehouse, and there are teenagers standing in a triangle throwing the frisbee around. Somehow the frisbee gets loose, Stevie Wonder is there, the frisbee is heading straight toward him. He said Stevie Wonder, on time, turns around and grabs the frisbee in midair. We were like, "Nah, you lyin.' No way! Is he a bat? Does he have sonar?" He said, "I watched it with my own eyes. It happened, man, I was there." Charlie Murphy, he gets to see everything.
I was always a fan. I loved him in CB4 as Gusto, the kind of mean, villainous rapper dude. But then, I saw him as this interesting stand-up after the Pryor tribute. His delivery, his attitude, he creates a sense of danger. He is a risk-taker. He finds that funny, when people are shocked by something that he says. He doesn’t show any fear, and in his comedy, he could be really aggressive toward these things in life [that] people are afraid to speak up on. In a weird way, it reminds me of Sonny in A Bronx Tale, watching the boss gangster dude tell a story. You like, yeah, it’s a funny story, but it’s even more interesting because it’s probably true.
He was [also] one of those guys who would get up and take the first flight after performing all night so he could be there for his kids. That was one thing we all loved and admired about him. He was that kind of dedicated to his family.
We did a show in Los Angeles, once. His mom was there, and Ed came. The next week, maybe the next day, we did a show up in Oakland and he stopped everybody and told us how special that was for him. He just wanted to thank each one of us: "I watched all of y'all onstage. I recognize that comedy is not a game, and even though I’m older, I had to go through my whole life being Eddie’s brother.” Just imagine. Your little brother is the most famous dude around you and you have to be his brother. You’re known as his brother. But for them to have come out and seen him on a stage like that, in the iconic Forum arena, to see him do his comedy, he was just thankful for allowing him to be in that space in that time. He was just real emotional, and it made us all emotional, and it was just a dope thing for him to do, to stop and say that.
"Charlie's long-form comedy was reminiscent of the old-school guys who would tell a great story, sit and smoke a cigarette and have a drink."
In the second year of the tour, he started to lose weight, we didn’t know exactly what it was. He lost his wife to cancer and once she started doing chemo, he felt like it killed her. She was fine, then she started doing [chemotherapy] and in a month, she was gone. So he was leaning toward more herbal remedies and natural, holistic things. He kept a lot of it to himself. Once we started noticing, and the crowds were kind of responding to him, we all had a meeting with him. He didn’t reveal exactly what was going on at the time, but he did say he would start going to the doctor.
We kept him on the books. Matter of fact, I checked on him the day before his passing. His team said he was weak – and every time he does chemo he gets a little weaker – but he wants to do Detroit. And we had him on the books for Detroit on May 13th. That was his plan. We were not going to put anybody else in the spot.
Within the last couple years, we knew his illness was there, we knew up close, and we knew he was fighting hard. It’s going to be a great loss overall, and it's just really sad. I’ve been on two big arena tours and lost two of my brothers. Bernie Mac on the first one [The Kings of Comedy] and now, Charlie.
In this age of YouTube, comedy has definitely got to a place where people tell their jokes fast and they want to keep people’s attention. But Charlie's long-form comedy was very reminiscent of the old-school guys who would tell a great story and sit and smoke a cigarette and have a drink. He’d have social commentary in the middle of it, and then he’d come back and drop a joke, like, Boom. But it’d still be all related to one theme. This guy was the real deal. He was not trying to be his brother in any way, he was his own man.
As told to Matthew Love
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