What ever happened to your signature laugh, by the way?
I don't laugh like that anymore, somehow it doesn't come out. It's weird to change something that's as natural as that. But it started out as a real laugh, then it turned into people laughing because they thought my laugh was funny, and then there were a couple of times where I laughed because I knew it would make people laugh. Then it got weird. People came up to me and said, "Do that laugh," or if you laugh, someone turns around and goes, "Eddie?" I just stopped doing it.
You were kind of writing your own dialogue in those Eighties movies, right?
From the very beginning, I always tried to make dialogue flow comfortably, I always did that to make it seem more authentic.
Something like the part where the cops approach Billy Ray Valentine in Trading Places, when you start talking about Vietnam: It's hard to imagine that was all written.
That's on paper. Trading Places, John Landis movies, period – it looks like a bunch of improvisation, but John Landis is on you more than any other director I've ever worked with. He'll tell you how to read the line, and if he wants you to do a physical stunt, he'll show you. He really gets in there and you're like, "This motherfucker."
You guys had a falling-out – you grabbed him by the throat while you were making Coming to America. Is there any resolution between you and Landis?
Yeah, I had lunch with John about a month ago. We did the ill-fated Beverly Hills Cop III after Coming to America. Yeah, I'm cool with John, I did some great movies with him. Rarely do I have any shittiness that stays shitty. I either resolve it or walk away. Rarely do I let shit linger.
You also had some problems with Saturday Night Live.
Yeah, because they were shitty to me on Saturday Night Live a couple of times after I'd left the show. They said some shitty things. There was that David Spade sketch [when Spade showed a picture of Murphy around the time of Vampire in Brooklyn and said, "Look, children, a falling star"]. I made a stink about it, it became part of the folklore. What really irritated me about it at the time was that it was a career shot. It was like, "Hey, come on, man, it's one thing for you guys to do a joke about some movie of mine, but my career? I'm one of you guys. How many people have come off this show whose careers really are fucked up, and you guys are shitting on me?" And you know every joke has to go through all the producers, and ultimately, you know Lorne or whoever says, [Lorne Michaels voice] "OK, it's OK to make this career crack..."
I felt shitty about that for years, but now, I don't have none of that. I wouldn't go to retrospectives, but I don't let it linger. I saw David Spade four years ago. Chris Rock was like, "Do you guys still hate each other?" and I was like, "I don't hate David Spade, I'm cool with him."
You're still the biggest star who came from the show.
That's only because John Belushi's dead. Belushi's like Spanky of the Little Rascals series. I guess that makes me Stymie, but that's cool. I'll be Stymie. Think of all the people who came off that show. I bet you could figure out the combined grosses of people who came off Saturday Night Live in the movies – me, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd. I bet it's $15 billion. It's no coincidence – that show's like Harvard for a comic actor. When you come off the show and get into the movie business, it's like you're moving in slow motion for a couple of years. You've been working like a crazy person in a pressure cooker, then you're in the movies, just sitting in your trailer.
You've talked about doing stand-up again – what would it be like now?
If I ever get back onstage, I'm going to have a really great show for you all – an hour and a half of stand-up and about 40 minutes of my shitty band. But I don't know. The way that used to come about, you'd be around the house, hanging out, say something funny and it'd be like, "I'm going to go to the club, try that out tonight." That still happens, but it's been a long time. I'm not that guy in the leather suit anymore. The hardest thing for comics nowadays is to find your fucking voice.
People do love that guy in the leather suit – that's a good guy.
Yeah, you know. He's a kid. No more leather suits. I'm still that person in terms of how I'm wired. Whatever muscle makes jokes pop out, that muscle still works, I just don't have a leather suit on anymore. One of the things that's really cool is whenever they talk about stand-up, they'll mention me with all of those guys, like, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, but I haven't done it since I was 27, so why fuck with it? But that's just weighing both sides. It comes up too much for me to not do it again. It's like, when it hits me, I'll do it, eventually.
Why did you quit in the first place?
It stopped being fun. In the beginning, it was fun, then I was controversial. Whenever I would do anything, there would be picketing, negative backlash. I thought I should just do movies. I don't have to deal with this shit. Big chunks of time went by and before you knew it, it had been a hundred years since I had done it.
A young Eddie Murphy coming up now would never use the word "faggot" the way you did. A lot of the stuff you just don't do now. Nowadays, comics say something that's offensive and they have got to apologize to everybody. How do you even write an act and go into a club when everybody has their cameras, it's on YouTube, if you say something offensive, you've got to apologize to everyone? How do you come up with anything?
But there was a huge part of your act that wasn't controversial. From the ice cream truck to the old woman falling down the stairs: "Oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, help me!"
The old woman that fell down the steps, nowadays, if I did that, all the old ladies that fell down the steps would be outside. [Imitates old lady] "I fell down the steps and it wasn't funny. I lay there for hours and hours! It's wrong and he must be stopped! [Waves finger] No, no, no" [laughs].
People are looking at your Oscar-hosting gig like a return to stand-up, which puts the pressure on.
There's no pressure. It ain't about me that night, it's about the Oscars and making the show move smoothly. It's not "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 version of my ice cream bit, sit back and relax. I want some ice cream... In closing, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to say, 'Goonie goo goo.' Thank you very much!" I don't think it's going to be anything like that.
Do you have anything planned yet?
Not at all. You have to see what movies get nominated. When I was like, "I'll do it," the first thing I said was, "I ain't doing no big stupid musical number." But we'll come up with something funny. I should come out in my red leather suit.
A lot of people felt you got robbed for Dreamgirls.
Well, you know, for the record, Jeffrey Katzenberg said something wonderful: "Winning an Oscar is more art than science." All this other stuff comes into play with winning an Oscar, and Alan Arkin's performance in Little Miss Sunshine is Oscar-worthy, it's a great performance. That's just the way the shit went. He's been gigging for years and years, the guy's in his seventies. I totally understood and was totally cool. I wasn't like, "What the fuck?"
So you didn't storm out?
Afterward, people were like, "He's upset," and I'm like, "I wasn't upset!" What happened was after I lost, I'm just chilling, and I was sitting next to Beyoncé's Pops, and he leans over and grabs me and is like, [solemn voice] "There will be other times." And then you feel Spielberg on your shoulder going, "It's all right, man." Then Clint Eastwood walks by: "Hey, guy..." So I was like, "It's not going to be this night!" [Mimes getting up] I didn't have sour grapes at all. That's another reason I wanted to host the show – to show them that I'm down with it.
Dreamgirls might be the first time you were taken seriously as a musician.
Well, I never stopped recording music – I just stopped putting it out. Because when you see actors singing, it's like, "Hey, don't come in here in my fucking music section, stay over there. Don't do your actor shit over here."
Ever thought of giving the songs to other artists?
Raphael Saadiq is a friend, and there's this track that he liked and wanted to record, and it just felt weird. It's my track! If he had a hit record with it and told people, "Eddie Murphy wrote that," they'd say, "Get the fuck out of here." A hundred years from now when I'm gone, they'll dig through it. If you've made enough of an impact as an artist, they dig through everything, they want to know everything, every piece of paper you drew on. All this music is documented. Then I don't look like a weird actor-singer – "Wow, we didn't know this fucker, he could do all this other shit, too."
When you did Dreamgirls, did it make you feel you should have done more movies that challenging?
I've done stuff that's more challenging than that. If you hadn't followed what I was doing with music and stuff, Dreamgirls comes out of left field. It seemed like a challenge, but it really wasn't.
But there is a critique of you out there that you don't push yourself enough. Is there truth to that?
I'm never gonna go, "I want to do this role because it's a challenge. I might not be able to pull it off, that's why I'm excited about doing it." For someone to sit on the outside, talking about, "They need to push themselves," it's so ridiculous. Push myself? I've had a whole fucking career already, these are the gravy years. I have more than distinguished myself in the movie business.
Growing up, it was pretty stable except for the period when your mom got sick and you went into a foster home. Your brother Charlie paints Ms. Jenkins, who ran the foster home, as pretty Dickensian.
She beat on Charlie. She didn't beat on me, I was too little.
He said no one was allowed to watch her TV. Wasn't that the TV you watched?
No, at Ms. Jenkins' house, she said the TV was broke, and late at night, we'd hear her in there watching The Tonight Show and be like, "The TV works, that bitch is lying..." Little kids, we cursed like adults. Little kids saying, "That motherfucker told me..." A six-year-old. "You can kiss my ass!" I remember saying, "That bitch is lying!" when I was little. That whole period with Ms. Jenkins is maybe a year and a half, and I was so young, I'm sure there was a bunch of shitty stuff going on. My parents broke up when I was three, my mother goes into the hospital when I'm four for TB, and we were at Ms. Jenkins'. Then we get out and my dad gets killed. Up until eight, every year, it was something traumatic going on. I'm sure all of that's repressed.
Charlie wrote vividly about your dad's murder. Does he remember more than you?
I don't know all the logistics behind it. I know what happened, kind of, I know it was him and a girl. I never got all into what happened, what went down.
Did you and Charlie have a lot in common?
We were so different that people would see us and be like, "Y'all are brothers? I didn't know you was brothers." And Charlie was in gangs, and even now, Charlie's like extra ultramacho – piranha, pit bulls, hatchets, axes, machetes. He has a black belt in karate. I got through a lot of school because the kids knew I was his brother, nobody was fucking with me. "You don't fuck with Eddie, his brother will kill you." Charlie was a really tough guy.
Your stepdad was a positive influence?
Even when the boxing gloves came out?
Well, you know the boxing-glove thing, it was maybe once or twice that that happened, it wasn't like he'd beat you and leave you folded up in the corner. That stuff, with people disciplining their kids back in the day, it's totally different. You hear about Joe Jackson, who had, what, 10 kids? You're whipping somebody's ass if you have 10 kids, in this little house! Ten kids, one of them is spinning all around and walking backward and shit? You'd be like, "Somebody's getting their ass whipped" [laughs]. It's a whole different time.
Is there truth to your old stand-up bit about him coming home drunk and challenging you to a fight?
We never kicked his ass and took his money, but my [step] father would come home like that. When I'd do that stuff in my stand-up routine, I could hear my mother laughing. Even if I was at Madison Square Garden, when I'd do my dad, I could hear my mother laughing harder than anyone. Actually hearing that routine made my dad stop drinking. He was laughing, but he was like, "That's what I'd sound like?" "Yeah, that's what you would sound like."
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