Leather Suits, Impersonating White People, and Mr. T: Eddie Murphy (and Richard Pryor)

…and this place used to be segregated…now a 22 year-old black man is on stage talking about how big his dick is. – Eddie Murphy, 1983, Delirious, Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, Washington, DC.

I knew Eddie Murphy wore a red leather suit…a definite 1980s badass look…in 1983 for his stand up comedy concert Delirious because I had the cassette tape…and Eddie was on the cover in the red leather. I, however, never saw Delirious in a theater or on VHS when it came out…yeah back in the day this how you saw these types of comedic stand-up shows…unless you were lucky enough to have HBO…which meant your parents were very open-minded and assumed to be “rich.” I lived out in the “county” on my family’s farm…so HBO…and cable in general were not available. Interestingly, my parents didn’t get cable until I had gone off to college in 1988…which resulted in my parents being two of the most limited cable viewers ever…they had cable but they watched nothing but cowboy movies and TV shows…Gunsmoke was the reason my parents got cable. I did, however, have a cassette tape of Delirious. This cassette of Eddie Murphy’s amazingly funny…and extremely crude show provided me insight into a world where an extremely talented black comedian could say the word “fag” and “faggot” without a bit of worry…in 1983 you could still openly mock homosexuals and you could use the word “faggot” with impunity.

I did not see Eddie Murphy’s Delirious on a television until 1988 when I went to college. By 1987, Eddie Murphy had firmly established himself as an SNL alum and had so much celluloid exposure that there were even bad and unseen Eddie Murphy movies…which unfortunately he continued to make into the 1990s. Seeing Eddie Murphy’s Delirious in 1987 (or 1988…I can’t remember exactly but I am sure I watched it with a beer or six) added a unique perspective to an act that had been nothing more to me than Eddie Murphy’s voice on cassette which alternated between Mr. T, Michael Jackson, Eddie’s dad (who seemed to have a significant drinking problem), and a stereotypical…and angry…black woman. Now Eddie Murphy’s voice was visually-coupled with a younger version that wore a red leather suit…and black shoes that seemed to make the outfit look a little odd. My parents…while watching Gunsmoke…never knew that down the hall their son was listening to a black comedian mocking everything and everyone. After finally seeing Eddie Murphy’s red leather-clad routine…I giggled at the idea of how my very white parents would have gone bat shit crazy if they knew what I was listening to on my boombox.

1983’s Delirious was Eddie Murphy’s second show to make it to VHS…his first show, Eddie Murphy, was filmed a few years earlier when he was a new to Saturday Night Live. To this day, Eddie Murphy is ranked (by fans) as the number 1 SNL actor ever…which makes complete sense considering how the fans of 1970s SNL had moved on to real jobs, retirement planning, and basically becoming husks of their former cool selves, and how every SNL actor since Eddie Murphy has done nothing more than attempt to replicate Eddie Murphy’s comedic and financial success…and have failed miserably.

When Eddie Murphy was touring in 1983 and providing SNL fans his stand-up routine…Eddie Murphy had just finished filming 48 Hours and Trading Places. Couple these two movies with Eddie Murphy’s iconic SNL’s impersonations of Gumby, the Little Rascal’s Buckwheat, and an angry black Mr. Robinson…and you have a very talented young man who was at the beginning of a very exceptional comedic and pop culture career. Interestingly, it wasn’t until recently that I realized that Eddie Murphy had recorded Delirious in Washington, DC, at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall.

I am not sure if Eddie Murphy’s leather suit in his 1987 stand-up movie Raw (filmed 4 years after Delirious) is blue or purple. It is covered in paisleys and has matching shoes…which looks far better than the black ones he wore with the red leather suit in 1983. His hair is cut in what appears to be a Ultramagnetic MCs high-and-tight ‘fro. Eddie is wearing unsnapped racing gloves. In three words…Eddie Murphy is SMOOTH AS SHIT…and unfortunately I had never seen this film until a few week’s ago. Somehow, I had gone from Delirious on cassette to Delirious on VHS (and watched in my college dorm room) to nearly 25 years later…and then one boring evening I decided to watch Raw while eating dinner. Even in 2015, Eddie Murphy’s 1987 show seems unbelievably funny…crazy intelligently funny. Even with dated 1980s pop cultural references, Raw is a fantastic example of how the 1980s was all about looking and acting bigger than one may have actually been…but Eddie Murphy in 1987 wasn’t acting big or rock star-like. Eddie Murphy in 1987 was the MAN…Eddie Murphy had truly reached a pinnacle in his career.

Eddie is so fucking smooth, that the beginning of Raw is a short clip of Eddie as a small boy performing for his family (that includes a very young looking Samuel L. Jackson1) and telling extremely rude jokes that obviously embarrasses his parents…Eddie doesn’t give a fuck. In 1987, Eddie Murphy shows us he has always been an attention freak. This ability to mock himself shows Eddie Murphy’s security in knowing who he is and how he performs. Following this clip is footage of Eddie taking the stage.

Madison Square Garden is packed…surprisingly the director, Robert Townsend,2 inserts shots of fans talking about how much they love Eddie Murphy…these clips show primarily white women gushing their interest in the leather-clad comedian. As soon as these lily-white clips end, Eddie mounts the stage like a rock star. Late-1980s rock/rap instrumental music informs the crowd that pop culture icon is coming out. Eddie is a badass…Eddie knows who the fuck he is…Eddie knows he is on top of the world…Eddie walks out to a darkened…rock show dark…MSG with a grimace…and immediately goes into a piece about avoiding Mr. T at Hollywood parties in the preceding 4 years due to Mr. T’s supposed desire to kick Eddie’s ass for material Eddie used in 1983…basically Eddie Murphy impersonated Mr. T…a gay Mr. T… BA Barackas didn’t think too highly of this I guess.

In 1987, Eddie Murphy had been in 3 big films3 since leaving SNL…Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child,4 and Beverly Hills Cop II. Eddie is the top comedian in the world in 1987. Eddie Murphy is shitting pure comedic gold as he struts around the stage mimicking Mr. T, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, numerous generic white guys, and black women. Impersonation is the first place Eddie begins his routine…and he maintains it in perfect form throughout the whole MSG show.

Eddie Murphy is a rock star in 1987 because Eddie Murphy was a early 1980s rising star (and eventually the star) of SNL…Eddie Murphy had done Trading Places and 48 Hours...Eddie Murphy had rocked Washington, DC, in his Delirious show…and Eddie Murphy did this all because he could impersonate people.

Seeing Delirious and Raw again in 2015 is an endeavor that is full of trepidation and fear of seeing Eddie Murphy as an earnest young man who may be nothing more than a bad version of impersonations he had perfected on SNL. Watching these shows in 2015 had me wondering if I was going to come away from them with the same feeling I get when I see pictures of myself from the fall of 1987 when I was a senior in high school and rocking the worst mullet seen at my high school…the mullet was the official hairstyle of Tennessee in 1987. Seeing pictures of me from the fall of 1987 makes me cringe…my mullet is a sad attempt to look way cooler than I ever was…this mullet is made even worse by the fact that almost every picture of me in 1987 shows me wearing an acid-washed Jordache jean jacket. Watching Delirious and Raw in 2015…when saying “faggot” is completely (and correctly) inappropriate…could have been a horrible trip down memory lane that could have left me feeling as confused as I get when I see my 1987 mullet and jean jacket wearing self…basically I looked like an ugly teen lesbian with horrible fashion sense. I was worried seeing a 1983 and 1987 Eddie Murphy would leave me as embarrassed.

Unbelievably Delirious and Raw stand up to viewing without embarrassment. Instead of me sitting there in front of my TV wondering how I could have found Eddie Murphy funny, I found myself delightfully entertained…and with a sore belly from laughing. I know that mocking homosexuals is wrong…and I am willing to bet Eddie Murphy knows this now too…but fortunately Eddie Murphy’s comedic genius is obvious even though the 22 and 26 year-old Eddie Murphys’ juvenile mocking of homosexuals.

What comes through decades after these shows were filmed is that Eddie Murphy’s talent at impersonation and his ability to exaggerate the common idiocy of famous and generic people is a talent that few other comedians can do. Eddie Murphy’s genius is on par with George Carlin, yet Eddie Murphy doesn’t attack the public in general…which George Carlin perfected and uproariously presented with quick wit and sharp intellect…Eddie Murphy mocks, impersonates, and jokes about specific persons (Mr. T, etc.) or specific characters. Eddie Murphy presented the stereotypical black woman that so many of us knew…or didn’t know but suspected…in such a manner that it becomes obvious that Eddie Murphy isn’t mocking this “typical” black woman…instead Eddie Murphy shows his fear (and respect?) of this woman. Mrs. Murphy, Eddie’s mom, was a woman that all of us learned to fear…especially her gunslinger ability to hit her kids with her thrown shoe…and Mrs. Murphy became the foundation for the stereotypical black woman character that Eddie Murphy perfected.

Arguably, Eddie Murphy in Raw has matured…or at least participated in relationships with a few women…when he took the stage in 1987. In Raw, Eddie Murphy attempts to tackle male-female relationships in a way that is both insightful and obvious. True comedic genius is shown through the ability to take the ordinary and experienced and turn into a comedy monologue that not only portrays the truth…but expands the truth to the point of the humorously accurate.

Eddie Murphy has moved on and nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Dreamgirls in 2007. Like the rest of us, Eddie Murphy has moved away from the 1980s and grown up a bit. Eddie Murphy has had a successful career that built easily upon SNL, tons of buddy films like Beverly Hills Cop, and Delirious and Raw. As obvious as Eddie Murphy’s taste in leather suits changed, matured, and developed…from obnoxious red to glamorous and badass purple/blue…it is also obvious that the 1983 Delirious Eddie Murphy had transformed into a little bit older 1987 Raw Eddie Murphy who bounded the MSG stage in complete badassness. Eddie Murphy was a rock star in 1987…in 1987 he was Guns-n-Roses…in 1983 he was Ratt (or pre-Theater of Pain Motley Crue)…in the four years between 1983 and 1987, Eddie Murphy had grown from an up-coming shock rock band to a full-fledged genre-busting megaband. Like another 1980’s Eddie of iconic stature,5 Eddie Murphy had come of age.

I can’t really comment on Eddie Murphy’s fashion sense…again I was the 17 year-old sporting the mullet and Jordache jean jacket when Eddie Murphy was bounding the MSG stage in purple/blue leather. I can, however, state that aside from realizing that “faggot” is completely unacceptable, Eddie Murphy’s comedy is still something to be seen with wonderment. Go back and watch any number of other comics who took the stage in the 1980s and you will be hard pressed to find no more than a handful that were not only funny then…but funny now. Eddie Murphy excelled at bringing a Richard Pryor-type routine6 to a primarily white audience. Eddie Murphy not only made it acceptable to laugh at the unacceptable through his use of words like “faggot,” Eddie Murphy had made it acceptable to laugh at a black man impersonating a black woman…which now is so common place that the word “Madea” immediately makes us think of boring comedy that has become the Hollywood norm. Eddie Murphy had brought a type of comedy that had not been fully integrated into the full American comedy show fan base that used cable as the means to widen their view of the world. Eddie Murphy truly made a difference.

*Note: Since writing this…but not editing it…if you call me skim-reading it as “editing”…I have seen Richard Pryor’s Live and Smokin’. This is the first time Richard Pryor was filmed on stage doing “comedy.” It is 1971 and filmed at The Improvisation Club in New York. “Jarring” is what best describes my initial reaction to Richard Pryor’s “routine.” Richard Pryor had no routine planned…instead he had a list of things he was going to talk about. This show begins with Richard Pryor talking about how it was a bad day to be filming a show because he hadn’t done any coke previous to the show. Couple this with how casually Richard Pryor lights a cigarette with a match…which he just drops to the floor after lighting his smoke, and what you have is the true view of what Richard Pryor did for black comedians. Redd Foxx may have been doing dirty jokes…but only black people were listening to him. Richard Pryor, in 1971, is obviously in front of a primarily white audience…even though you never see any member of the audience…and Richard Pryor isn’t so much as telling jokes as much as he is speaking the “truth” as he saw it. Richard Pryor openly mocks the white audience…and they respond as you imagined white people would respond to a black guy mocking them in 1971. There is nervous laughter…there are a few boos…and (most importantly) you hear very little real laughter. This crowd did not find Richard Pryor and his mocking of whites funny. Especially jarring was the way that Richard Pryor actually looks and acts a little hesitant or embarrassed to be there…it is almost as if he knew he was crossing a line…he was being the first black to openly mock whites…in front of whites.

When Richard Pryor crossed that line…he completely goes way over that line. Richard Pryor admits to loving white people…because he likes to “fuck white big-titted blondes” and that he has sucked dick…and then when silence follows he asks the crowd “none of you have sucked dicks before?” This is obviously a first…Richard Pryor had gone where no one had gone before in front of white audiences. Interestingly, the more I watched the more I realized that Richard Pryor wasn’t embarrassed or hesitant…Richard Pryor was purposefully working the crowd…Richard Pryor was saying shit that needed to said…and he knew that the full effect would only be felt if it was slowly and softly presented. Richard Pryor’s impersonation of white guys is spot on…and no one in the audience was ready to laugh at it…again, Live and Smokin’ isn’t a comedy routine…Live and Smokin’ is a black man saying things that needed to be said. When Richard Pryor says “I’m not black, I am Puerto Rican. I tried that negro thing for 23 years and realized it had no upward mobility…” Richard Pryor is ripping a gauze or film off of 1971 race relations.

At the end, I realized Richard Pryor laid the ground work for Eddie Murphy. In 1971, Richard Pryor doesn’t get a laugh when he impersonates whites…but 12 years later Eddie Murphy gets a roar of laughter for it. Eddie Murphy’s quote at the beginning says it all…once we were a segregated nation…then Richard Pryor began (in 1971) talking about fucking white women and this laid the foundation for a 1983 Eddie Murphy to talk about how whites think black guys have big dicks. As crude or base this may seem…this is what progress looks like.

1. Samuel L. Jackson plays Eddie’s uncle and is definitely the most fly muthafucka in the living room…SLJ finds Eddie’s routine unbelievably funny.

2. Robert Townsend is an African-American which makes the primarily white fans in the intro clips even more interestingly odd.

3. Eddie Murphy had also been in Best Defense which is obviously a movie none of us had ever heard of.

4. The Golden Child is a movie I remember to this day and contains one of my favorite comedy scenes…one which I still quote to this day.

5. Eddie Van Halen turned from axe grinder in a skirt-chasing band that was overshadowed by megalomaniac frontman…to aging virtuoso that still is recognized as one of the greatest guitarist of all times. If that isn’t enough to establish Eddie Van Halen’s bono fides, then the mere mention of his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Valerie Bertinelli…who was probably every 1980’s teen boy’s first lust…should seal the deal. 

6. Richard Pryor was one of Eddie Murphy’s influences…and even though Richard Pryor had gotten some commercial crossover success with such terrible roles as the one he had in one of the Superman movies…but Richard Pryor’s comedy albums and shows were still sort of off-limits to white audiences in the 1980s. It would take the advent of Blockbuster and later Netflix to bring Richard Pryor to white America’s attention…and by then he was either not touring or was dead.

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