Eddie Murphy can't help but laugh. It's February 25th — the last Saturday night that he will ever spend in his drab-white dressing room at the end of the eighth-floor hall at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This is Eddie Murphy's last live appearance on Saturday Night Live (in the future, he will appear only in pretaped segments), and as the show's final dress rehearsal nears its end, Murphy is cooling out with a pair of the show's writers, watching the evening's musical guest on his monitor. And he's laughing. "It's my last show," he says, "and Kool and the Gang are singing 'Celebration.'"
"How do you feel?" asks one of the show's writers.
"Like jumping onstage with Kool and the Gang."
Tonight, Murphy is trying to keep it quiet, but he is plainly euphoric about his imminent departure. "I can't wait to leave," he'd said earlier. "I don't like the show, I don't think the show is funny. I hate it."
And indeed, it appears that Eddie Murphy truly is too big for a TV series, even the one that made him a star. Consider: thanks to the success of 48 HRS. and Trading Places, Murphy was voted the second biggest box-office star of 1983, right behind Clint Eastwood. His two albums, Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy: Comedian, have each gone gold (almost unheard of for comedy records), and the latter LP just picked up a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording of the year. He also has a new movie, Best Defense, starring Dudley Moore, which is due for release this July.
Plus, he's aiming to break into yet another area of show business: music. He's already cut a single with the king of punk-funk, Rick James, and has even started to pen some songs of his own. At a not-so-tender 22, Eddie Murphy is turning into a one-man entertainment cartel.
But while other performers have achieved their broadest successes by moving into the mainstream, Murphy is defiantly taking the opposite approach. His material is abrasive, challenging, provocative. He's no Lenny Bruce, but his peculiar mixture of dirty words and dapper moves makes Murphy an insidiously compelling performer, perhaps a revolutionary one. You can see it in his films and his HBO special, Eddie Murphy Delirious. His appeal is direct; it's in-your-face performing, street-smart but funkily elegant. There's an electrifyingly daring buzz about him that cuts through the emotional blurriness of charisma. Murphy knows he's got it, and knows the problems it can bring.
"I've always had very strong confidence in myself," he says, "and the confidence came because I have a lot of initiative. I know I want to make something of myself. I guess that because I'm not indecisive like a lot of people, it makes people uncomfortable. I've never been conceited. I've never been crazy. And I think people are sort of expecting that of me.
"I knew me real good two years ago, before all this happened. I guess I'm like everybody else: sitting around and waiting for me to change and go freaky, get different."
"See that lady? she thought I was gonna mug her."
Murphy and I are dashing through the rain past some startled passersby to get into comanager Richie Tienken's car. ("A Cadillac," notes Murphy. "It's not mine. I don't own a Cadillac.") We're headed out to Murphy's New Jersey home. Once in the car, he's instantly fiddling with the car radio, twirling the dial from station to station as the car wends its way through East Harlem. "This looks like where I grew up in Brooklyn," he says, glancing out the window toward a side street of tin-doored tenements. "I wonder if the same things would have happened to me if I had stayed in Brooklyn," he muses. "I would've had more material." He mimics a stand-up line. "'Hey, I got shot once. Anybody out there ever been shot?'"
Eddie's father, Charles Lee Murphy, was a transit patrolman. He separated from his wife when Eddie was three. The children were sent to live with a woman who took care of them until Eddie's mother married an ice-cream distributor named Vernon Lynch in 1964 and the family moved to the lower-middle-class town of Roosevelt, Long Island. Charles Murphy was stabbed to death by his girlfriend over Labor Day weekend in 1969; Eddie refers to it as the greatest tragedy of his 22 years. It was in those days on the Island that Eddie started honing the sharp-witted comic style that would vault him into national prominence.
More material? Probably not. As Murphy points out, his comedy doesn't come out of sadness as much as, say, Richard Pryor's does. "I don't like to do stuff about my father being dead," he says. "No tragedy. My comedy's good-time comedy: conversations and fooling around with my friends, stuff that just happened to me. That's why I poke fun at everybody, 'cause I'm not a racist, I'm not a sexist; I'm just out there. I use racial slurs, but I don't hate anybody."
True. Murphy seems to bear no deep-seated animosities, and he's likable without showing any of the bogus big-star charm that many notables wheel out for the press. Is he arrogant? A little, perhaps. You get the feeling that the swagger that's present in so much of his work couldn't come from a gladhanding wimp. Still, his cautionless style has been controversial, especially with homosexuals. A group called the Eddie Murphy's Disease Foundation took out a series of advertisements in newspapers and magazines (including this one) criticizing Murphy for his "Faggots Revisited" routine from his second record and his HBO special. The group charged that Murphy's comments about gays were "exceedingly harsh" and his AIDS jokes "nothing short of inflammatory."
When we stop at a local diner to get a sandwich, I slide a copy of the group's latest press release over to him, and he decides to respond — for the first time.
"This is what I have to say about homosexuals," he states. "I am not the first comic to do homosexual jokes. When I said I was afraid of homosexuals, all it was was a setup for my Mr. T joke [in which Mr. T demands to be buggered and gets his wish]. I don't have anything against homosexuals, I'm not afraid of them. I know homosexuals. It was a joke. I make fun of everybody; I poke fun at anything that I think is funny. It's comedy. It's not real.
"I think homosexuals didn't get offended by this. Faggots who have nothing to fucking do but sit around with tight asses and feel like people are pointing fingers at them ... people who are insecure got offended. The way I feel about it is, what they did helped my album, because the majority of the country is heterosexual, and they read that the homosexuals don't like Eddie Murphy and they think [he tries on a redneck growl], 'Hey, all right!' They're wasting their money. They blew it all out of proportion, and if they want to, I don't give a fuck. Do all the ads you want to. Kiss my ass."
What would Murphy's reaction be if a white comic began telling jokes about black people moving onto their block, that kind of thing? "That's not funny now. In the Sixties, it was funny. If I see a white comic doing I'm-afraid-of-Negroes-moving-into-my-neighborhood jokes, it's like, 'There's a guy who's not up on the times.' I don't get offended by anything that's funny. And the fact of the matter is that if you do something that's not funny, people aren't going to laugh."
Of course, it wasn't only gay people who were appalled by Murphy's bluer material; he is well aware that a segment of the population who enjoyed him on Saturday Night Live might well have blanched at such routines as "The Fart Game." But he feels it was more than worth it. "It's like when I was little and I used to listen to Richard Pryor albums. Half the excitement of it was that I wasn't supposed to be listening to it at all; I'd think it was funnier because I wasn't supposed to be hearing it. That's what it's like with my HBO special. I think for every 10 fans I had, I might have lost two and strengthened my hold on eight."
As a performer, Murphy's paramount concern seems to be maintaining the biting edge of his work, rather than broadening its appeal across the demographic spectrum. His stand-up work provides the best example.
"Older comics generally have this 'You shouldn't do this and you shouldn't do that, what kind of comedy is that?' approach," says Murphy. "It's like, 'This young comic's using profanity.' So fucking what? Times are changing and comedians are different. Go to Vegas and do your old-man shit there.
"Bill Cosby called me up and said [Murphy puts on his perfect Cos voice], 'You can't get onstage and say fuck you.' That was the most bizarre thing that's happened in my career: Bill Cosby calling me up — wow! — and reprimanding me for being too dirty.
"Rodney Dangerfield saw my act in Florida when I was 18-years-old. I said, 'Whaddya think?' And he said, 'Funny, but where you gonna go with that shit?' I never was one to take advice from a comedian."
One of the ways in which Murphy has transferred that sass to the screen is by insisting on writing his own dialogue for his films. "When white writers write for a black person, they use 'sucker' and 'jive turkey' and all that," says Murphy. "When I do a black character, it doesn't offend blacks because I just act normal, which isn't offensive to whites or blacks. And if what you say is funnier than what's on paper, how could you not change the dialogue?
"Trading Places was a good script, but 48 HRS. was very weak. Thank God for [director] Walter Hill and his pencil on the set."
For Murphy, being in films is still a thrill. "Everybody wants to be a movie star. I love that. It's the business I want to be in for the rest of my life. When I go to the movies and see myself on the screen, that's the ultimate. The first time I saw 48 HRS., I left the theater like a dope addict. It was a sneak preview, and I snuck into the theater. They showed my name on the screen, and the audience clapped. I started freaking. I was on cloud nine for two weeks."
"It's funny," recalls Murphy as we head back to the car, "I was talking to Rick James the other day, and he goes, 'I sold 5 million records in four years.' And I'm looking at him like, 20 million people saw Trading Places."
But Murphy's strongest professional passion right now is for a slice of music stardom. He's already recorded a James composition, titled "Party All the Time," that should be released soon — if Murphy can overcome a bit of uncharacteristic insecurity. "I have to have very strong music behind me," he avers. "I'll put out a 45 first and see if the public buys it. And if they buy it, I'll do an album." He laughs." I don't know what people are gonna think. If it's bad, it'll just turn into a routine for my act: 'Remember that comedy album? Thought I was a singer and shit!'"
But while Murphy admits to trepidation, he also believes that he has something new to offer the rock world: an unambiguously masculine image, which he feels is lacking in the predominantly androgynist pop scene. "Who can you think of that has a purely masculine image?" he says, challenging me. After a few seconds in thought — racing past Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, Mick Jagger, God knows how many others — I mumble, "Uh, Bruce Springsteen."
"But people don't wanna fuck him. You see him perform, you think he's a nice guy, you'd like to meet him. Elvis Presley, that was my idol. He's just the greatest entertainer who ever lived. When Elvis Presley walked into a room, Elvis Presley was in the fucking room. I don't care who was in there with him — Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, anyone — he was cool. The girls wanted to fuck him, and the guys said, 'Damn, I'd like to be like him.'"
It's the sort of reaction that Murphy is already accustomed to getting — and taking advantage of. "Shit, man," he says, recalling his recent tour of the country with his stand-up act, "entertainers don't like to talk about it, but we partied every night for two months straight."
But now Murphy says he's declaring a halt to his weeks of whoopee: no more disco cruising, no more after-the-show shenanigans with his on-the-prowl coterie. Eddie's engaged. "She's a bio major at Adelphi University. Her name's Lisa Figueroa. She's Puerto Rican. We're gonna have spicy black children. And she's got a straight-A average."
A high liver, she isn't. The articulate, delicately featured woman, who resembles a Hispanic Brooke Shields, confesses that she stopped living on campus this year (her third) and moved back in with her parents in the Bronx, "because I was homesick."
"She's great for me," says Eddie. "I've had a problem since I was young: if a woman lets me dominate her, I get bored with her really fast. Lisa won't listen to me if I'm being an asshole. She doesn't go along with the game plan; she'll question me. It's shocking to me. It's like she'll ask [firmly], 'Where you going?' And I'm like this." His face freezes in disbelief. "'Uh, out.' And she'll go, 'Where, why?' It used to be [defiantly], 'I'm going out!' 'Okay, [whiningly] if only you come back.' She's a great girl."
Not that Murphy is looking to tie the knot in the near future. "I gotta get to know me better," he says with a smile. "I'd hate to have Lisa move in and then wake up one morning and I'm grrrrr!" He laughs. "So, I'm waiting to know me better, but I'm sure there's not gonna be any change."
So far, the personal changes have been amazingly few for Murphy, whose fastidious personal habits — he doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs — are well-documented. The big change is his house, a splendid structure in a cushy community. ("All my white neighbors always say, 'Oh, Stevie Wonder has a house near here, and so do the Isley Brothers.'") To the right of the enormous front door lies a living room so relentlessly white that it could be a set for a conceptual rock video. Magazine covers (featuring Murphy) and concert posters (ditto) are the sole wall decorations. "I gotta get some pictures of my family," he notes.
After going a couple of rounds with his punching bags, which hang in his basement gym, he bounces upstairs, shirt off, to another living-room area and snaps on the wall-screen television. When I ask about Saturday Night Live, his voice is low, his tone almost solemn.
"I haven't written very much this season, and I think it shows. I don't think I'm funny. Do you know why? Because I approached the show this season like, 'Look, I got 10 fucking shows. I'm doing them and getting the fuck outta here. I hate this fucking place.' And when you don't like what you're doing, it shows — which is very bad, and I apologize for doing it." It gave him, at least, the chance to work with his close friend Joe Piscopo for another season. His hope is to have Piscopo also leave the show at the end of this year and to star with him in his next buddy film.
But Murphy feels there was a bigger reason why he agreed to return to the show at all this year: executive producer Dick Ebersol. "It was pressure from Dick. It was very funny. Dick came in with one of these: 'I know you've got a career, but I've got other people up here who won't have a career if you leave the show. I'm not talking about me — people like secretaries and stuff will be out of a job. I don't want you to think about that, though.' One of those kinda raps.
"I used to ask Billy [Murray] and Danny [Aykroyd] and [John] Belushi all the time, 'How come you don't come back?' Now, Billy would come back — he's sentimental, I guess — but Aykroyd used to tell me he hadn't been in the studio since he left the show. And I couldn't understand why. But now, man, I really can."
In addition to Piscopo, Murphy cites castmember Tim Kazurinsky as another friend. "But for most people up there, their life is the show, and when my life became more than the show, some people resented it. Basically, people say you get a swelled head when you do whatever the fuck you want to do. And at Saturday Night Live, I got in that position. In the old days, the producer used to be able to say, 'Eddie, you do this sketch and that sketch.' And I'd go, 'But I don't think that that's funny.' And he'd say, 'Fuck you, you do it.' Then, it became, 'Eddie, you do this sketch,' and I'd say, 'Fuck you, I ain't doing that shit.' So, it was like, 'Oh, so you think you're hot shit now.' I guess because of my age — they resented that, too. I was this young kid who could do whatever he wanted up at the show. And I wasn't an asshole. I just didn't do anything I didn't think was funny. And then people started expecting me to get conceited and my head to swell."
Who, exactly? "Dick thought I was out of my mind," Murphy says in a quiet voice. "Dick thinks I'm crazy. He's running around telling hosts — you know, he said to Jerry Lewis, because Lewis got famous at an early age, 'Jerry, do you think you could talk to Eddie, because I don't think he's handling his fame well.' Lewis — who's absolutely brilliant, by the way — never said anything to me, but Ebersol even got on the phone with Larry Holmes and said, 'You know, Larry, maybe you should talk to Eddie. He's not handling it, not handling the fame.' And I heard Holmes go, 'Well, you gotta remember where he came from.'" Murphy collapses into laughter but remains tense; he claps his hands together repeatedly.
"I don't know where he comes from," he says of Ebersol. "I guess it's because he wasn't my boss anymore — because I didn't have a boss anymore."
A lot of people credit Dick Ebersol with saving Saturday Night Live after Lorne Michael's departure and the disastrous reign of Jean Doumanian. A lot of people also think that some of Ebersol's raps could fertilize the Gobi desert. As he lolls around his office with the show's affable producer, Bob Tischler, the rangy, phlegmatic executive seems eager to bestow his blessing on Eddie Murphy's departure.
"It is right, it is the right time for Eddie to move on," says Ebersol. "But I do resent how the world has changed in the last five years so that it becomes like a media event. To the guy at home, whether Eddie Murphy's live in front of 400 people is really not a prime consideration."
"That's funny that you resent the world for that," says Tischler. "I resent the world for things like Lebanon."
Once the laughs have died down, Ebersol declares that Murphy has been easy to work with in his final year. "The only major difference — and no bullshit, cut me off if you think I'm lying — is that his participation is now that of a performer. He takes the material — given material — and molds it into what he wants it to be, whereas up until he started making Trading Places in December 1982, he was a big part of the day-to-day creative process.
"Has it changed him in terms of his dealings with us? Not really. It might be harder to get him on the telephone, but other than that, he doesn't give us any more shit than he used to. He never cared — nor has he to this day — how many pieces he was in; if he felt he was good, that's all he cared about. Eddie, many more times than not, wouldn't let us put him in the position of doing something that he felt was shaky. He has a pretty good shit detector."
How would you assess your personal relationship with Murphy?
"I'd say it's good, but, at the same time, my overriding feeling is that I'm sad about it all," says Ebersol. "Because, in a lot of ways, it's a realization of being older. In the beginning, it was almost a palsy-walsy type of thing. The first time he ever came to California, he stayed at my house. And with all the things that have happened over the last year and a half, there have been times when I've had to be the boss. The relationship, no question about it, is friendly, but I've had to put my foot down about a couple of things, mostly in the last year."
(Ebersol says the incident with Jerry Lewis never took place, that it was Lewis who complained about Murphy's passing up a midweek dialogue rehearsal. "That was one of the more difficult weeks," Ebersol recalls. "Somebody told that story to Eddie, which caused some amazing scenes here in December.")
"Dick had invested in much more of a personal relationship than he realized," posits Tischler. "And Eddie, because he's become so good and has all of this, he's just not in the same position anymore."
"I guess what I'm getting at," says Ebersol, "is that I'm thrilled for all the success and everything. I think of him leaving here as a friend, and yet, at the same time, I wish he were leaving here as what I perceive to be ... you know, dad and son or whatever, like when it first started out."
"My shit is getting back. I got my shit back!"
A few minutes before the beginning of the Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal, Eddie Murphy is checking out his newly revived physique in his mirror. In walks Ebersol.
"I hear you're soused ... too drunk to go on," he jokes. "We're gonna put two cameras in your home. You can do the show from your hot tub. You won't ever have to come in." Murphy makes no response.
He starts making his way to the set, with Ebersol trailing behind him. "Your butt's getting big," he tells Eddie.
"That's 'cause I get tucked in it every night," Murphy retorts without looking back. And the show begins.
As it turns out, the show is an excellent one, full of funny sketches for Murphy. He and Piscopo open the show with a limp-wristed-hairdresser sketch, and five minutes later, Murphy launches into the best bit of the night: a Jesse Jackson-meets-Teddy Pendergrass number, a response to Jackson's "Hymietown" crack, sung to the accompaniment of a doo-wop choir. "Don't let me down, Hymietown," croons Murphy, and the place goes nuts. Even Edwin Newman, the retired NBC newsman who's serving as the host, gets the crowd laughing after Murphy's laid them out.
Once the dress rehearsal is over, the dressing room starts filling up with relatives, pals and assorted well-wishers who've come to view Murphy's swan song: Eddie's mother, stepfather and younger brother; Eddie's fiancée, Lisa Figueroa, and her mother; Eddie's other manager, Bob Wachs, and his wife; and some of Murphy's friends — Derrick, Alex, Clint (who works for Ebersol), Doug, even the guy they call Cognac ("'Cause I'm smooth, black and powerful"). Ebersol enters to greet the throng. "Can you believe all of this is winding down?" he asks Murphy's parents.
As the live show begins, Murphy has his pal Clint drag him into the first sketch. "I'm drunk again," he mock-moans to the delight of the studio audience. When the sketch catches fire, Tischler is ecstatic. "The magic is starting!" he cries to no one in particular as he skips across the set.
And he's right. The show's sketches are, for the most part, crisp and well-written and make especially good use of Newman and Murphy. "Hymietown" is a huge hit, as is a My Fair Lady takeoff. The show's success pleases Murphy. How much? What is he feeling?
"Nothing," he says. "I'm just glad it's almost over." His eyes turn to Kool and the Gang on the monitor once again, as they romp through a satisfactory but unspectacular performance.
"See," Murphy says with animation, "all I have to be is that good, and people will say, 'Gee, he can sing.'"
With 20 minutes to go in the show, Ebersol drops by yet again and pulls his star aside: if you want, he says, you can do something at the end. But Murphy doesn't bite. Instead, he and Piscopo head out for Murphy's final sketch, a piece about two old Jewish men on a park bench. In rehearsal, the pair had enjoyed their improvised kvetching so much that they fell on top of each other with laughter after the sketch. Live, the unlikely duo crack up in midskit, ad-libbing wildly ("Don't I look like Al Franken as a much older man?" cries Joe), letting the audience in on the fun and, it seems, their friendship. This time, the pair fall onto each other as the cameras roll. "My last TV appearance, and we fuck it up," says Eddie, grinning, as he leaves the set. "It was fun, though. Gonna go home, man."
The tributes pour into the dressing room: photos to sign for band members, farewell handshakes for cast and crew. Murphy and Piscopo head into the bathroom for a private goodbye ("Got the syringe?" Piscopo jokes); with others, Murphy is gracious but unemotional. Ebersol comes by and crushes Murphy in an embrace, resting his head on Murphy's shoulder. "It's not like I'm dying," says Murphy, returning the embrace.
For Murphy, there's a little bit of cool-out time coming up: time to pore over some film projects (he's weighing the Jackie Wilson story), to look for that buddy movie he wants to do with Piscopo and, above all, to work on his music. What this means, though, is time that will be spent pretty much alone.
Before I leave his house one day, Murphy takes me into his music room — a small space not much bigger than a large closet that is cluttered with keyboards, sound equipment and electric guitars.
"I only have four or five real friends," he says in a quiet voice as he cues up a tape cassette. "And they don't live around here. And my family is all back in Roosevelt. Anyway, so I'm walking around here late some nights ... and I get into some weird moods. Tell me what you think."
He clicks on the tape and puts the headphones over my ears. What comes out is a slow, mournful ballad for piano and rhythm box, sort of like Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" or a John Lennon ballad. Murphy's voice is high, vulnerable, fragile: "Can't believe it happened, but here I go/ Emotional warfare, toe-to-toe."
It's really quite good, in a totally unexpected way, and I tell him so.
"Now, don't get the idea I'm some heavy motherfucker," he cautions. "I'm not really serious about anything. If I have my health, and my family has health, and we're financially comfortable, I don't have anything else to be serious about. Everything else is all fun and games. There's a million guys out there like me. I was just fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time and said the right thing. And had a charming smile."