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I began my stand-up career sitting down.
In the winter of 2004, as I took the stage of the Laugh Factory on Forty-second Street in Times Square for my very first performance as a stand-up comedian, I couldn't even make eye contact with the audience. It was about ten o'clock on a Thursday night during an open mic hosted by Rob Stapleton, and the house was packed with an all-black audience.
I knew what they were thinking.
What makes this guy think he can suddenly show up, twentyfive years after Eddie Murphy got famous, tell a joke, and make me laugh? Impossible.
I wasn't there to argue with them.
But that night in the Laugh Factory was another step along my path to better understanding who I was as an individual, of discovering what innate talents I possessed away from the spotlight on my world-famous brother. Part of me was taking the stage that night to prove to myself that I wasn't afraid of performing live. But another part of me was extremely curious to find out if I could stand before a crowd, tell a story, and hear laughter in response. When I climbed onstage, I had no clue what was going to happen. I had no material. I had no idea how to structure a joke, let alone a ten-minute comedy set. I grabbed the mic, immediately sat down in a chair, and stared at my shoes. My mind was blank. I was scared shitless.
I thought, How the fuck did I get here?
One week earlier I was on the radio with the comedian TALENT, one of the hosts of The Kiss 98.7 WakeUp Club in New York City. I was in the studio with my friend and costar from Chappelle's Show Donnell Rawlings (Ashy Larry), talking about the instant popularity of the True Hollywood Stories sketches, which had recently premiered on Comedy Central.
TALENT said, "Charlie, the door is wide open now for you to do stand-up comedy."
"No," I said. "I don't really consider myself a stand-up comic. And I wouldn't want to disrespect the art form by going to clubs just to play off the buzz from these Rick James sketches. I don't think that'd be fair to all those comedians who work hard at their craft."
"What people don't realize about Charlie Murphy," Donnell said to TALENT, "is that they think he's some tough dude, like Tyree from the Mad Real World sketch on Chappelle's Show, or Gusto from CB4, or Jimmy from Harlem Nights. But really, Charlie's afraid to get in front of a microphone in a room full of people."
Everybody in the studio started laughing. They thought that was hilarious.
"The truth is," Donnell continued, "Charlie can talk on the radio or act in front of a camera, but if you put him up onstage in a club, he'll freeze up."
I took exception to what Donnell was saying. I had no problem standing in front of people, expressing myself.
I said, "The truth is, Donnell, I just don't consider myself a comedian."
"You're a comedian," said Donnell. "A comedian who's afraid to get on the mic."
I'll be the first to admit: I'm a dude who likes making people laugh, but I can't handle the feeling of being mocked and laughed at. And here I was, getting laughed at live on the radio, while Donnell called me out like I was some noÂ€‘comedy bitch.
That night I turned over in my mind what Donnell had said. Why didn't I try stand-up comedy? Was I really not interested in it, or was it deeper than that? Was I afraid to fail publicly especially in an arena that my brother had mastered with such astronomical success?
I did some soul-searching and, a week after that radio interview with Donnell, I made up my mind.
I called Neal Brennan at three o'clock in the morning. Neal was the cocreator of Chappelle's Show. He's a comedian, writer, director, and all-around laid-back modern-day hippie dude. Neal had also directed and helped me write all my True Hollywood Stories segments. While I was on Chappelle's Show, I would often call Neal at odd hours whenever inspiration struck. He never seemed to notice what time of day or night I was calling.
I said, "Neal, I want to perform some stand-up comedy."
Neal thought about it for a long hippie minute. "You serious?"
"Okay, Charlie. I'll call you back later with a time and place."
I didn't know it, but Neal decided to also call Donnell and invite him to meet us later that night at the Laugh Factory. Donnell was the last guy I wanted to see in the audience for my first stand-up performance. I don't handle failure well (as you'll learn later), and I knew Donnell would revel in it if I bombed. I'd never hear the end of it.
I drove into the city from New Jersey in my black Hummer, all decked out in diamond chains, gold jewelry, fancy clothes, and a big, expensive watch. I knew that most comedians struggle to make ends meet, so I was trying to give the impression that I was comfortable in my skin and had found success doing my thing. I was thinking I'd convince the audience that I was already a star. In reality, I was trying to mask the fact that when it came to taking the stage as a stand-up comic, on the inside I was like a scared little boy. When I entered the club, Neal and Donnell were waiting for me.
Donnell smiled. He said, "You're really going up there, huh?"
"Watch me," I said, with false bravado.
The Laugh Factory building on Forty-second Street used to house a peep show. It's a large venue with two bars and four or five big rooms on the upper level. While a show is in progress in one of the large rooms, the other comedians hang together in the greenroom. That night was my first time experiencing the camaraderie of being with other comedians as one of them even if it was my first, and possibly final, public performance.
My first order of business was to toss back a couple glasses of chilled tequila. That was a mistake I would make before each performance for the next few years, having convinced myself that the looseness a buzz provided was a benefit to my stage act. Eventually I would learn that the alcohol created a silly, clownish stage presence and a false sense of confidence. But I was years away from those sorts of realizations, and for that moment, the booze helped to steel my nerves.
Before I took the stage, Neal said to me, "Charlie, whatever you do, don't try to be funny. Just be yourself."
The best thing I had going for me that night the only thing, really was that the True Hollywood Stories sketches had premiered the week before and were instantly popular with viewers. At the very least, people knew I was Eddie Murphy's brother. But that was as far as it went. No one had ever heard of me doing stand-up comedy.
So there I was, onstage, sitting in a chair, mind blank, avoiding making eye contact with the audience. Just me and the microphone.
Then, in a ridiculously transparent attempt to shield myself from potential failure and embarrassment, I uttered my first words as a stand-up comedian: "Look, I know you're all looking at me thinking, What the fuck does Charlie Murphy think he's doing? Well, all I can say about that is: Fuck y'all. I don't give a fuck if you motherfuckers laugh or not."
After I said that, the weirdest thing happened: People laughed.
I didn't realize it at the time, but with those words, I had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the golden rules of comedy: Always Address the Obvious.
I thought I was going to feel relieved to have gotten a laugh, but instead I felt something else entirely: fear. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to figure out how to get that laughter back. I liked the sound of it, I liked the way it made me feel, and I was hungry for more. I had the odd sensation that I was holding the end of a rope, and each time I got a laugh, I felt another tug, pulling me along, farther and deeper into unexplored territory.
Everyone was having a good time laughing at my stories, which I told in what basically amounted to a painfully shy stream-of-consciousness, cloaked in a nonchalant machismo. I talked to the audience like I normally talk, sitting there in a chair like some hip-hop version of Bill Cosby. They thought I had a routine, that I was doing bits. But I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I was just shooting the shit. I was supposed to be onstage for between five and ten minutes. I did fifteen.
I walked off to a round of applause, went to the bar, exhaled, and tossed back a few more tequilas. I was feeling a rush similar to the one I'd experienced the first time I'd gone skydiving. Skydiving is one of those things where, for the longest time, you say, "I'm way too scared to try that. No way." Then one day you muster the courage to take the risk and find yourself up in a plane, strapped to some dude. Next thing you know, you're falling through the air, thinking, Holy shit! I'm fucking skydiving! I might die!
But I didn't die not skydiving, and not onstage that night. I was terrified while it was happening, but it was a fun experience and I landed safely. To extend the metaphor a bit, I will say that comedy is a lot like skydiving in that the setup for each joke is like jumping from a plane, and the punch line is the parachute.
It would take years for me to professionally develop as a technique what I had just accidentally accomplished in those awkward first fifteen minutes on the stage of the Laugh Factory.
Rob Stapleton, who I had known for years, took the mic right after me. He wondered aloud to the audience why they were laughing. He told them I didn't have a set, that I had basically subjected them all to my psychiatry session. He said to the audience, "What's so funny? That's the same way that motherfucker talks in the car."
But they didn't care, and to me the entire evening felt like a great success. After the show Rob said, "Charlie, what you did tonight, that's what every comedian is searching for a way to connect with the audience. The key is to figure out how to reÂ€‘create that magic on a consistent basis. I hope you decide to stick with it because once you start doing stand-up, you can never stop. You've gotta keep pushing forward. Because if you stop, it's damn near impossible to start over again."
But I was barely listening. I had survived my first stand-up set, and all I wanted to do was drive home and collapse into my bed.
The next night the phone rang and it was Neal and Donnell. Neal said, "C'mon, you're going back out."
I said, "No. I'll probably go out again in, like, a week."
In my heart, I felt that what had happened the previous night at the Laugh Factory had been a wonderful stroke of luck, and I didn't want to tempt fate. I had no interest in heading right back out and jumping through rings of fire until I got burned.
"You can't wait till next week, Charlie," said Neal. "You have to strike while the iron is hot."
They convinced me to go out with them on a circuit of comedy clubs all over New York City another set at the Laugh Factory, in addition to sets at the Comic Strip, Stand Up New York, the Comedy Cellar, and Gotham. The whole night was exhausting and terrifying. Plus, I think I knew what they were doing: They were dragging me to perform at every place they could think of until they saw me bomb. But I didn't bomb. People kept laughing at my non-act.
"This isn't supposed to be happening," grumbled Donnell. "Let's go to another club."
As the night wore on, I started getting more comfortable with the material I was delivering, and I started playing off the vibes I was feeling from the different audiences. I had cast away the chair and was now standing up, meeting their eyes (sometimes). I was getting addicted to the laughter but, more than that, to the attention and the energy and I wanted more.
I recognized that there was a lot more than just laughter going on while I was onstage. I needed to learn how to be comfortable in the spaces in between the jokes. I had to establish a rhythm with the audience and bring them along with me, up and down, like the Cyclone on Coney Island. Each time I took the stage, I was getting a little better, by tiny increments. I recognized immediately that each performance is a complete experience with its own beginning, middle, and end. It's a conversation, a spiritual connection, for a moment, with a roomful of people. Then that moment passes and all that's left are the good feelings and positive energy created from that interaction. Realizing this so early on freed me up to feel the love I was receiving from the audience, rather than being overcritical of myself or hyperaware that I didn't have the slightest clue what the fuck I was doing. I think a big part of why I succeeded in front of audiences right off the bat was because I gave myself permission to have fun.
Eight days later I was onstage in Old Westbury with Dave Chappelle, doing fifteen minutes of stand-up in front of a crowd of 5,500 people. At that point, I wasn't doing very much original comedy. All audiences wanted from me was a recap of the material they loved so much from the Rick James sketches. But even though I was merely feeding them what they already knew and were hungry to hear, word for word from the television segments, I was simultaneously developing my skills in timing, structure, and delivery to live and sometimes extremely unruly audiences. The enthusiasm and response I was receiving felt tremendous.
The laughter was seeping into my blood.
Stand-up comedy became my new passion. I was falling in love with the culture of comedy, and with the New York comedy scene. For the next month I performed in four or five clubs a night. When the first month was over, I had built up my first official ten minutes of stand-up material. I had jokes! Shit, I had a set!
Then, out of nowhere, I got a call from comedian Paul Mooney. Paul used to open for Richard Pryor, and later for Eddie, and he was also a writer and cast member in some of the most hilarious sketches on Chappelle's Show such as Ask a Black Dude, Mooney on Movies, and Negrodamus.
Paul said, "I hear you're doing stand-up. I'm doing eight shows at Carolines this weekend and I want you to emcee."
"Are you serious?"
"Sure. You don't have to be that funny, and it's a chance to test out your jokes on a highly intelligent audience. Intelligent, because they'll all be there to see me."
"Yeah, Paul. I got it."
The gig at Carolines went great. Paul and many other comedians encouraged me to continue to work hard at my stand-up and refine my act.
Soon after my gig at Carolines, my cousin Rich, who is also my manager, came to me with plans for the "I'm Rich Bitch" comedy tour featuring me, Donnell, and fellow Chappelle's Show alum Bill Burr. Donnell and Bill had years of experience performing stand-up, and hours of material. I had twelve (pretty good, but by no means terrific) minutes of stand-up comedy, and now I was headed out on the road.
What was supposed to be a three-month tour turned into nine months. When we started, we were getting ten thousand dollars a weekend and splitting it three ways. I was happy with that. Then, one day on the road, as the venues, crowds, and money continued to grow, Bill Burr said to me, "You realize, Charlie, that every time we do a show, it's sold out?"
"Yeah. Why? Is that not normal?"
"It's extremely not normal."
All I knew was that I was performing with two outstanding comedians both pros with great sets so I thought it was natural for us to enjoy so much success together.
Pretty soon, my twelve minutes grew to twenty, then thirtyfive. I didn't realize it at the time, but as the months rolled past, I was gaining in popularity and stature, and all the while my material was improving.
Meanwhile, the True Hollywood Stories sketches were being constantly rerun on Comedy Central and had gone viral on the Internet. The segments, and the catchphrases that emerged from them, were becoming a phenomenon. Six months into the "I'm Rich Bitch" tour, I was stunned to learn that my name had become the main draw for audiences. When I had written forty-five minutes of stand-up material, I thought I had enough to try headlining my own show.
Donnell said, "Charlie, you've only been doing comedy for one year! Now you want to headline? You must be outta your goddamn mind."
Maybe so, but that didn't change the fact that I was determined to do it. Did I have forty-five minutes of quality stand-up? Absolutely not. I was learning on the fly and enjoying success before I really even had a solid act. That was the powerful benefit of the crossover audiences I was attracting as a direct result of my popularity from Chappelle's Show. Even though my name recognition from television, DVD sales, and the Internet could fill the seats, I knew that I still had to come out with great material, entertain the audience, and make them feel like they got their money's worth. Most comedians pay their dues for a decade or more before acquiring the depth of material and confidence to consider themselves headliners. But I had a head of steam and I wasn't afraid anymore to perform live on the contrary, I was thrilled by the challenge and plotting my next move.
That doesn't mean that, each step forward, I didn't still feel nervous and uncertain, but I resolved to power on through sheer tenacity. I still had a lot to prove to people who thought I was nothing more than just some one-hit brother of a famous person. I may not have had the most top-notch material yet, but what I did have was focus and a fierce desire to improve each time I stepped to the microphone.
My material slowly improved. One ringing endorsement came while I was on the road, from a dude who shit his pants laughing during one of my shows. One of the things people don't think about at live shows is that folks in the audience can have physical problems resulting from laughing too hard. When Eddie was at the top of his game, I saw people at his shows suffer heart attacks and hyperventilate and require oxygen. I even saw women going into labor their water breaking right there in their seats. They all had to be rushed to the hospital straight from the show from laughing too hard.
But through all that, I'd never seen anybody shit himself. I must've been on that night because when I make a man laugh so hard he soils his drawers, that's high praise indeed. The only reason I even found out it happened was because the staff at the club got into a fight with the dude when he refused to leave. He was having such a good time, he tried to act like it wasn't him. It's one thing to pretend it ain't you when you sneak out a fart, but when you've shit your pants, after a few minutes, it's confirmed, motherfucker. We all know it's you.
When the "I'm Rich Bitch" tour ended, comedian Mike Epps hired me to open for him on an eighteen-city tour. After our first few shows together, I started noticing a distinct difference between Mike's core audience and the folks who came out specifically to see me, still based mainly on the strength of my popularity from Chappelle's Show. Mike's audience was a hundred percent black; mine was mixed. Usually, there's a different energy in the room and a different approach for a black comedian to take when he's performing for an all-black crowd. There are certain protocols you've got to go along with, certain things that are expected of you by the audience, and if you don't follow those unspoken rules nobody has a good time. I didn't know that back then, so, like most things in my life, I had to learn this lesson the hard way.
Part of my problem was the attitude I was taking toward the audience. When I started opening for Mike, I went straight out and bought special clothes, complete with fancy sunglasses, and I was always dripping in diamonds and flashy jewelry. I remember looking at my reflection for, like, an hour before each show. I had a very low haircut at the time, called a Caesar, that I just kept brushing and brushing in front of the mirror. I said stuff to myself like, You're gonna kill tonight. I imagined the audience yelling and screaming, We love you, Charlie! All that psychosis was really going on inside my head. I strutted around all cocky backstage. I didn't pray before taking the stage. I was extremely proud of myself, even though I hadn't accomplished very much as a comedian up to that point. And I was drinking, too, trying to embolden my performance with the false sense of confidence alcohol provided.
One big mistake I made before opening for Mike Epps in St. Louis, Missouri, was to give an interview to the local newspaper in which I was so pumped up I said crazy shit like, "I'm the LeBron James of comedy. I'm bomb-proof. My skills are impeccable. I'm like Mike Tyson...."
And I wasn't just saying that shit, either I believed it.
The night that interview ran, I walked onstage wearing my expensive new shades and shiny suit and felt an instant clash in energy between the audience and myself. Something was amiss from the get-go. I grabbed the microphone and said about three words before voices in the crowd started booing. It took me a moment to figure out what was happening; I'd never been booed before. There were about 4,500 people in the venue, and suddenly most of them were booing me at the top of their lungs. An unfamiliar wave of churning nausea washed over me. I was in completely uncharted territory. I had been on a nonstop winning streak for nearly two years, receiving nothing but love from every audience. Eventually, it dawned on me: Holy shit. I'm bombing.
All the way at the back of the room, I heard a little voice squeak out, "You ain't Eddie."
I'll never forget that voice. When I heard it, I thought, Is that what these people think? That I'm trying to be Eddie Murphy? Wow. They have me all wrong.
I wasn't trying to be my brother I was trying to show people what I had to say. So my defenses kicked in.
I said, "Well, being as how you don't want to hear what I have to say, there's only one thing left for me to tell you: Fuck you. Fuck all of you country-assed, gold-toothed, backwoods motherfuckers."
It was the same tough-guy front I had thrown up to protect myself from embarrassment during my very first performance, at the Laugh Factory. Except back then, my words were expressed out of a genuine humility and a profound fear of failure. On the stage that night in St. Louis, my words were coming from an attitude of anger and entitlement.
And no one was laughing.
After I told the audience to go fuck themselves, they went absolutely bananas. They howled and carried on like I was stabbing them in their throats. People leapt up and screamed, "Fuck you, Charlie Murphy! Get that motherfucker outta here!"
For a while I stood my ground, refusing to be run offstage. I wanted to leave on my own terms. I waited for an opportunity, then I said, "I just want everybody here to know, since this is our first and probably last time meeting face-to-face, FUCK YOU, TOO! I got your money. I'm going to get a lap dance."
Then I dropped the mic and walked offstage.
What a fucking disaster.
Backstage, I stalked around, drinking tequila and feeling like a real asshole. In retrospect, I don't hold any of that night against the audience; I hold it against myself. I acted out because my feelings were hurt. In truth, I was crushed. The whole thing happened the way it did because of my inexperience, my immaturity as a performer, and my ego.
Back in my hotel room, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, so, at three o'clock in the morning, I called Eddie.
He said, "Whaddya want?"
"Yo. I can't believe what just happened, man."
"I got booed off the stage. By forty-five hundred people."
"So...Who do you think you are?"
"You heard what I said. Who do you think you are?"
"I don't understand what you're saying."
"Well, Richard Pryor got booed off the stage. Bill Cosby got booed off the stage. Martin Lawrence got booed off the stage. Chris Rock got booed off the stage. Bernie Mac got booed off the stage. I got booed off the stage. You name him, Charlie, and he's been booed off the stage. So now I'm asking you: Who the fuck do you think you are, Charlie Murphy?"
I didn't know what to say.
Eddie said, "Look, man, don't be calling me no more this late about some bullshit."
And he hung up the phone.
I sat there in that hotel room in St. Louis with the phone to my ear for probably another five minutes, just listening to the dial tone. My brother had just given me an intellectual asskicking. It was harsh, but it was real. I knew that what he was saying to me in that moment was true, but I didn't want to accept it. It was all part of my education as a stand-up. The reality is, you're not a real comedian until you bomb. That was my first time experiencing that reality and it sucked.
But it would take at least one more solid kick in the nuts for that lesson to start sinking in.
The next show was in Cleveland. I had recovered psychologically (sort of ), convincing myself that the St. Louis show had been a freak thing, an aberration, so I was back to the old me: flashy sunglasses, dripping in diamonds, staring in the mirror a rock star. It was the same bush league shit all over again. I strutted out onto the stage in front of that Cleveland audience and...
It happened again. They booed me right off.
That show was the wake-up call, the experience that finally shook me from my stupor. I realized in that moment that I had lost my focus and overdone it with my shiny clothes and my giant ego. I was trying to look the part of a star, even though I was far from becoming one yet. I had come a long way from those first moments at the Laugh Factory, sitting in a chair and avoiding eye contact, but somewhere along the road I had lost sight of my first responsibility as a comedian: Make a connection with the audience. As a result, all I looked like when I stepped to the mic was a big fraud.
I decided to sit down with Mike Epps. I said, "Hey, man. I respect the fact that you gave me an opportunity to be a part of your show, but it's not working out. The crowd is booing me. I don't want people who are coming to see you and have a good time have this be part of their experience. They shouldn't be booing anything. Everybody should be happy and having fun. So I'm gonna quit."
Mike said, "Don't quit, Charlie. I know how you feel; it's happened to me before. It happens to all good comedians. Nigger, look you can do this. You're a funny brother. Don't quit."
I was quiet for a minute and finally said, "Okay."
I mean, what else could I say?
After bombing in St. Louis and Cleveland, we rolled up to our next show at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. By that time, all sorts of crazy, negative thoughts were swirling inside my mind. This was the very same venue where Eddie had performed his breakout stand-up triumph, Delirious, in 1983. Suddenly I was terrified all over again about standing in front of a live audience.
As the car approached the venue, I looked out at the soldout crowd of 3,702 people climbing the steps into the performance hall. My palms were slick with sweat. My heart kept throwing itself against the inside of my chest like it was trying to bust down a door.
I turned to my cousin Rich and said, "This is it. I'm gonna die here tonight. If I bomb tonight like I bombed the last two nights, it's over for me, man. I quit."
I made up my mind that bombing in Constitution Hall would be all the proof I needed to know I wasn't the real deal; to know, once and for all, that I wasn't a professional stand-up comedian, and that I was never going to be one.
As soon as I got inside the venue, I was told that a very famous stand-up comedian was waiting for me inside my dressing room. I didn't want to talk with anyone, especially since I was sick with the feeling that I was about to bomb for the third straight performance and that my career as a stand-up was all but over. When they told me who was waiting to speak with me, I thought, What does that brother want?
I was horrified.
As it happened, all that brother wanted was to say hello and to pass along to me a crucial piece of advice that would change my whole approach to stand-up comedy from that point forward, teaching me how to ingratiate myself to an audience, and saving my career in the process.
But before I get into who that comedian was and what he had to tell me, allow me to introduce myself.
Copyright © 2009 by Charlie Murphy