One of the most controversial things I've ever published, based on the sheer volume and intensity of the mail sent to me afterwards, was my statement of belief that Eddie Murphy is, in fact, done.
I am happy to say that Eddie proved me wrong this weekend, if only for a single moment. If that happened, then anything could happen. That's good to know. I still don't believe he's ever going to get back out there in a major way. The occasion was Murphy's acceptance of the Mark Twain Prize For American Humor from the Kennedy Center, a major award at this point considering it's only been around for 18 years. That means that Eddie's been retired from comedy a full decade longer than they've been giving out this award. And to be fair, Eddie really only has two comedy albums to his name. One had a TV special that accompanied it, and there was also a full-length theatrical concert film. That's not a lot of material if we're talking about Murphy as a stand-up.
That is not the entire purpose of the award. The official website explains the prize like this:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
It is, like many awards shows, an excuse to do a television show that could be a big deal for the Kennedy Center in terms of ancillary business. They turn these events into a star-studded celebration of each of the comic figures, and they're already getting a ton of press from the events.
That's because Eddie Murphy, speaking for less than ten minutes at the very end of the show, not only told a joke, but he told a Bill Cosby joke.
This is interesting for two reasons. First, Eddie's Bill Cosby story in “Raw” is one of the single funniest things he ever did. It was a huge middle finger in the face of a moral hypocrisy that no one else dared call out in the face of the massive cultural success of “The Cosby Show.” The idea that Cosby, no mater how great a stand-up comic he was, would call another comedian to yell at them about their use of language of any kind was just mind-boggling to me. The story's great because it gives Murphy a chance to do laser-accurate impressions of both Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, the two stand-up comics who were undeniable influences on Murphy's presentation and his voice as a performer. It's also great because it felt like Murphy saying, “I may be closer to Richard than I am to Bill, but I'm not either one of them. I'm Eddie Murphy.”
It's also interesting because Murphy infamously pulled out of doing a Bill Cosby joke on the “Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special.” That was different, though. That was a sketch someone else wrote for him, and I can see how Murphy would want to be in complete control over any message he sends about Cosby. The joke is, at least in the excerpted version seen via the AP video embedded at the Washington Post, more about how you know you've really screwed up when people start asking you to give back the various trophies and awards you've won.
I thought it was genuinely funny, particularly his impression of Cosby finally snapping onstage and breaking his own rules he laid down for Murphy so memorably all those years ago. The entire special will air on November 23rd on PBS Stations nationwide, and we'll have a chance to see the entire acceptance speech by Murphy at that point.
It's remarkably premature for people to start talking about what it means that he made the joke, beyond the obvious, which is that Murphy clearly isn't worried about Bill Cosby being upset by something he's said. He wasn't worried about it in '87, and he's not worried about it now. I would imagine Bill Cosby is equally unaffected by Murphy's decision, because there are so many things that are so much worse for Cosby right now that a few jokes are the least of his concerns. As even more women step forward, over 50 total so far, his few responses of any kind have been straight up pathetic and painful to witness.
When I said in that article that Eddie Murphy is done, it's not because I think Eddie is incapable of being funny. In some ways, I compare him to Stephen King, because the vast majority of their work is less about what they say and more about how they say it. King's books are sometimes terrible stories, but as a storyteller, he has one of the most natural voices of any writer ever. And when Eddie Murphy's on that stage, there are few people more comfortable, more able to ride that crowd like a wave. I've seen him live once, on the “Pieces Of My Mind” tour, and I've seen hundreds and hundreds of hours of live stand-up comedy. Few people I've seen have ever been better at playing the crowd like an instrument. Murphy was a wizard. I am sure he can do it if he wants to, anytime he wants to. I just don't think he wants to anymore, and that's why I think he's finished. When the fire goes out, it goes out. There's little or nothing that is going to change his mind.
When I say Bill Cosby is done, it's totally different, and I think Murphy nailed it in one. There have been calls for various universities and organizations to rescind honors they have heaped on Cosby over the last few decades. There's no small irony in the fact that Cosby turned down the Mark Twain award several times before he finally accepted it because he was upset about the swearing on the Richard Pryor memorial. Both Murphy and Pryor are human beings with plenty of controversy of their own, but neither one of them is an ongoing sexual predator with a truly monstrous litany of abuses that continue to come to light. Looks like someone finally lost that high ground permanently, and the way Murphy weighed in on it demonstrated just how nimble a wit he truly is.
“The Mark Twain Prize For American Humor Recognizes Eddie Murphy” airs November 23, 2015 on PBS.