Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 1, Charlie Murphy

Standups who do something other than crack jokes are not new or unusual. Carlin’s act consisted of tearing down cultural conceits with jazzy profanity. Rickles was still slinging insults at 87 when he sat down with Jerry Seinfeld in Comedians in Cars and talked about playing clubs in the early days. (“Sir, is that your wife?” he asked a mobster who was “a really bad guy.” “Yeah,” the wise guy sneered. “She’s a moose,” Rickles said.) Seinfeld made observations about “nothing,” then made them meta in his TV series. (“Why do they call it Ovaltine? …that’s gold, Jerry! Gold!”)

But a new wave of standup has arrived that is often not funny at all. Call it literary, instead.

Charlie Murphy, older brother of Eddie, was a brilliant writer and comedian best known for telling “True Hollywood Stories” on Chapelle’s Show. His stories about Prince playing basketball in club gear and serving pancakes afterward, and Rick James torturing Charlie and getting his comeuppance, are funny and tightly told (at least in final form). They convey a sense of personality and wonder; are filled with well-chosen, surreal details; yet have a traditional sense of comedic meaning. (“I learned something that day,” Charlie says. “Never judge a book by its cover.”)

But Charlie told other stories for that series, in front of the same green screen, which never became skits—probably because they are darker, rambling, and more violent. But in some ways they are more complex, closer to short stories than what we often think of as standup.

In one video, Charlie talks about his pride in his brother’s success, and how he became “a little zealous with the way [he was] performing [his] job” as head of security for Eddie. “Because [Eddie] was so good at [performing], and I was so proud of him, if you didn’t laugh, I was real emotional,” Charlie says. He fought men in clubs, heckled audience members, and cussed an old man on a flight out of a protective instinct for his brother.

The last third of the session is an anecdote about being in a restaurant in Chicago, where football player Darryl Stingley was eating with his retinue. Stingley had been paralyzed from the neck down at 26 by a bad hit, which Charlie calls “a very tragic thing.” But Stingley, jealous at the attention Eddie Murphy was getting, started hating on him loudly and disruptively, and no one did anything.

“As a society, it’s kind of wrong to step to this guy,” Charlie says, miming paralysis. But he went over to where Stingley was sitting and threatened to flip him out of his wheelchair and “stomp his mouth” if he did not shut up. Stingley was “horrified,” Charlie says—a word he uses often in these stories—and did not speak again. Charlie does the voice of one of the young women: “Darryl, you’re not eating anything.” Charlie adds calmly, “He had lost his appetite.”

In another video he tells the story of a different “Darrel,” a fake name. (This video is 18 minutes long—the Prince story is only six—as if Charlie still struggles to understand the event.) This Darrel had known Eddie for many years and worked for him while Eddie was at Saturday Night Live. Darrel was smart, had full rides to Colgate and Stanford, but never went. He was “like the black John Belushi, but he wasn’t famous,” Charlie says.

One night Darrel came in staggering drunk to a restaurant in LA and insulted and cussed every member of the Murphy crew and a reporter for E! Entertainment. “It was like pouring acid on you, man,” Charlie says. “He had a talent with that.” Darrel followed them back to Eddie’s house and started laying hands on Charlie and insulting everyone. Charlie beat him. Darrel ruined Charlie’s sweater and cussed him more. Charlie knocked him out. But Darrel just kept coming back.

“I want more, I want more, I want more,” he slurred.

Charlie beat him unconscious again. Darrel was woken up but attacked the three big men escorting him off the property.

“You ever used to read Beetle Bailey?” Charlie says. When the Sarge beat him up, “and he looked like dirty laundry? When they finished beating [Darrel], he looked like a bag of dirty laundry.” Still he wanted more. Charlie seems aghast, fascinated, by Darrel’s odd masochism. He ends by taking his listeners “to the twilight zone” with even more weirdness. What was it Darrel wanted more of? And what was the story of Stingley about, since Charlie is not laughing when he tells it?

Sometimes literature is said to be epistemological—on the nature of knowing. Comedy too is often rooted in characters not knowing or understanding what has happened to them. Charlie Murphy’s unfunny stories are significant in this way, and his knowledge “horrifying”—not the least to him, apparently. This does not preclude them from being affective standup.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.