Ellen DeGeneres received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last month, spurring feelings of déjà vu. Like the two previous honorees, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, she’s a strong comic performer who perhaps unfairly jumped to the head of the (punch) line – especially considering the likes of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Dick Gregory, among others, haven’t notched the tribute.
Also near the top of our list of the deserving, but not in same age range, is Eddie Murphy, who in some respects has gotten a, well, raw deal in the comedy world he helped change. That’s why we’re thrilled, if not downright delirious, that he’s being saluted Wednesday in a Spike TV tribute called, “Eddie Murphy: One Night Only.”
The guest lineup, which includes Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Tracy Morgan, brims with performers influenced by Murphy, who created the era of the comedy movie blockbuster – the laughter and box office echoes of “48 Hours” and “Beverly Hills Cop” resound today in “Bridesmaids” and the “Hangover” flicks.
Murphy got his start telling jokes in clubs at age 15 and became a TV superstar four years later on “Saturday Night Live” after John Belushi and the rest of the original cast left. Murphy’s comic twists on throwback characters – Mr. Robinson (a Mr. Rogers parody), Gumby, Buckwheat, to name a few – helped forge the silly-smart comic sensibility of his time with talent and poise beyond his years.
He also quickly proved himself a standup great, clearly influenced by Richard Pryor, whom he outdid, at least at the box office. The Spike special ostensibly is a celebration of the upcoming 30th anniversary of Murphy’s classic “Delirious,” in which he donned a red leather jumpsuit and leaped into standup history (the bit recounting his aunt falling down stairs might be hardest we ever laughed). His honest, bawdy wit, imbued with just enough domestic grounding to give him wide appeal, flows through the standup of, among others Rock, Louis C.K. and Martin Lawrence, a guest on Wednesday’s special.
But comedy, as Steve Martin told us, isn’t pretty – success can be tough to sustain over numerous decades. Murphy, after a prolonged dry spell, came back strong in the mid-1990s with the “Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle” flicks. Younger generations know his voice as Donkey from the animated “Shrek” hits.
Still, his early triumphs created such great expectations that recent misfires (“Meet Dave” and “A Thousand Words”) often are mercilessly eviscerated, along with reasonably funny films that suffer in comparison to the likes of “Trading Places” and “Coming to America” (admit it: the outrageous “Norbit” made you laugh).
Murphy apparently became embittered when his critically lauded dramatic turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” failed to secure him an Oscar. Speaking of the Oscars, plans for him to host the Academy Awards last year fell through, robbing him of an opportunity to shine on the world stage.
His recognition tends to come from peers, as with the Comedy Icon award he received last year from Comedy Central. Murphy, at 51, doesn’t need the Oscars or the Twain award to prove his enduring impact on humor. His work – hopefully with more successes to come – and the long line of acolytes who followed him onto the stage tell the story, punch line and all. Check out a preview of Wednesday’s special below:
|Stevie Wonder Performs with Eddie|
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.