Being on the phone with Charlie Murphy, it’s easy to picture him on the other side of the line: gesturing matter-of-factly with his hands, wide-eyed with that big, toothy smile. He talks brusquely, confidently, sometimes in the third-person using his full name; laying down his answers as truth and not opinion, he tells it like it is. And what it is, not surprisingly, is endlessly quotable. “I live like a shark,” he says of his schedule. “I got to keep moving, or I’ll suffocate.” As the older brother to Eddie Murphy, Charlie no doubt knows what it is to work. He’s pushed hard to build his own name, one that doesn’t coattail entirely off the younger Murphy. It’s funny then that what ultimately brought Charlie into the spotlight was his association with his brother; Charlie’s “True Hollywood Stories” from Chappelle’s Show (hilarious reenactments of his celebrity encounters hanging in Eddie’s entourage) not only increased the visibility of the show, but it underscored the comedic storytelling charms of Charlie as well. Following the implosion of Chappelle’s Show, it seemed a natural move for Charlie to embark on a stand-up career. And it’s treated him pretty well so far: He’s performed to packed theaters across the country; he launched his own web series Charlie Murphy’s Crash Comedy in 2009; and he debuted his first stand-up special, I Will Not Apologize, earlier this year on Comedy Central. Charlie, who appears in the new Lottery Ticket (which opened last week to impressive numbers) and who will be at the Boulder Theater tonight, spoke with The A.V. Club about exactly what it means to be Charlie Murphy, and not just “Eddie Murphy’s brother.”
The A.V. Club: As someone who started doing stand-up much later in his career, how has it been for you?
Charlie Murphy: It’s very rewarding. It’s very satisfying and it’s very liberating. Before I did stand-up, let’s say I would have a meeting, with anyone that had a title—producer, director, whatever—no matter how many movies I had been in at the time, [I’m] coming in there not as an actor, [but] as Eddie Murphy’s brother. “You are not Eddie—you are just his brother.” The thing about that, you’re comparing me to someone you can’t compare yourself to; to compare me to a cultural icon, one of the best comics in history—I got to beat that in order to have your attention? I got to be equivalent to the best comic in history? Well, guess what? None of the other ones are. We can write a list of names of a hundred people—none of them are equivalent. So how come I have to be something that they don’t have to be?
Because of stand-up comedy, it takes that out of the picture. Because when I walk into your office now, and you go, “We’re going to have a production meeting about blah, blah, blah.” And I say, “I think we should go this direction or I think this approach is funny,” you’re going to take me seriously because I’m a stand-up comedian and you’re not. You’re a producer. “You think that’s funny? Let’s go into a room tonight, and I’ll go onstage and do my part and you go after me and let’s see if you get a laugh.” I have something to check them with now.
Before stand-up, I didn’t even have an agent. Once I started doing stand-up—boom. I got an agent. In fact, I got three agents. I got a lawyer. Now I get taken seriously. People say your name and everybody knows, like, “We have a reference point. We’ve seen Chappelle’s Show. We know he’s funny.” It evens the playing field—everyone else in the room, they respect you and they’re not looking at you like he’s so-and-so’s brother. The reality is that I’m not “Eddie Murphy’s brother.” I’m Charlie Murphy.
AVC: Did you ever consider trying to disassociate yourself from your brother by changing your name or anything like that?
CM: That would be the equivalent to when I was watching that movie Poetic Justice. I was at the première. And Janet Jackson had a line where she said, “I don’t have any family.” If any other actress had said that line, it would have just been a line. But because we know your whole family, we grew up looking at your whole family, Janet, you can’t say that line. As a matter of fact, that was one of the reasons your character became unbelievable. We were buying into your character until you said, “I don’t have any family.” The moment she said that, the entire movie theater busted out laughing. I’ll never forget that. There are certain things you can’t do. People just won’t accept that.
AVC: So you can’t escape your name, but then the dichotomy is that you don’t really want to either. You’re just forced to reassert yourself.
CM: That’s what I do. I respect everybody. You don’t have to earn my respect. You earn my disrespect. I tell people on the regular, I ask, “Do you have a dog?” And if they say, yes, I say, “What do you call your dog?” “My dog’s name is Buster.” “Really? And when you want to interact with him, you call him Buster, right?” “Yeah.” “Well, he’s a dog. I’m a man, okay? If you can respect a dog, you can respect me. And if you can’t respect me, then that’s your choice. Don’t come around me. Keep moving.”
AVC: How did being on the Chappelle’s Show change all that?
CM: It’s tremendous. The show ended when it ended, [and that’s] what forced me to [do stand-up]. If the Chappelle’s Show had stayed on, I seriously doubt I would have developed this fast as a stand-up comedian. I probably would never have taken stand-up comedy really seriously. Once I started doing it, and started finding success in it, and started living off it, it became like, “You better be serious this. It’s not something to be casual about. You are nothing to be casual about, as far as who you are and where you fit in, in the scheme of things.”
AVC: Going from “Eddie Murphy’s brother” to “Charlie Murphy from Chappelle’s Show,” does it still feel like you’re being put in a box?
CM: Let me put it like this: I’m at the Four Seasons Maui, and yesterday I was with Joe Rogan. We were standing by the pool, and the waitress came over and she said, “We’re getting these paparazzi in the bushes right now filming you guys. We’re going to get them out of here.” And I thought, “You know what? I’ve made it.” [Laughs.] I walk out of the comedy club and TMZ is right there. I’ve been on TMZ the last four weeks in a row. All those things, it feels good. It also lets you know you’re part of the fabric, you’re part of what’s going on, you’re part of what’s relevant. They wouldn’t be covering you if you weren’t.
AVC: With stand-up going so well for you, what keeps you returning to acting?
CM: Because I’m a writer, I’m gifted and blessed to be able to work [both sides]. Most people are either one or the other—you’re a writer, a director, a producer, or you’re the actor in front of the camera. Most actors can’t write. Most writers can’t act. Most comedians can’t act. I can do all three, so why wouldn’t I do that? If everyone else is getting issued one gun, and I’m getting issued four of them and we’re all going to the same battle, I’m bringing all four of my guns. Because I want to win.
I also do voice acting on The Boondocks. A lot of people that are fans of Charlie Murphy became fans of Charlie Murphy because of The Boondocks, and not the Chappelle’s Show. A lot of people think, “Oh, this is the guy from the Rick James sketch. Charlie Murphy—that’s it.” And that’s like, you know, my shoelace and I’m dressed up in a three-piece suit. You got my shoelace thinking you got me, but there’s a whole man with a pair of shoes on, socks, pants, drawers—you’re not looking at all that stuff, you’re looking at the shoelace. [The Rick James sketch] is also very important, because it’s what got people’s attention. I’m not going to act like that’s not true, that is true. It got people into me. It allowed me to give them more of me.
AVC: Is that what prompted you to write your autobiography, The Making Of A Stand-Up Guy? So people could get the whole story?
CM: When [the publishers] first came to me, they kept saying, “We want you to write a joke book.” If I was 90 years old, and I was the Quincy Jones of comedy, and all the comedians were in agreement that this guy is the wizard, he is the one, if I had that going, then maybe I would have the gall to write a joke book. Then they tried, “Well, write a book about Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories, a whole book of stories like the one with Rick James.” First of all, my encounter with everyone was not the same encounter that I had with Rick James. That story is funny because of the personality of the person involved. Second of all, I’m not Latoya Jackson. I have real talent. You’ll never see Charlie Murphy’s Psychic Connection or none of that. I can act. I’m respected for doing it, and I can write. So that’s what I do.
AVC: Your stand-up special is called I Will Not Apologize. What are you not apologizing for?
CM: Anything I’ve said. There’s nothing that I’m saying that is, like, really far from the truth [on the special], so there’s no reason to apologize, especially when you’re standing in front of a crowd of 3,000 people and they’re laughing. They thought it was funny.
If you come to see my show, you’re going to go through a series of emotions, as well as laugh. That’s why I call it a show. It’s not one-dimension. Human beings are not one-dimension. You’re way more than your name. You’re way more than the way you look. You’re way more than even your political views or your religious views. All those things combined is what makes you a human being. I’m not going to be one dimension. I’m not going to allow you to put me in a box or to make me behave like somebody else. I’m giving you me.