Our forthcoming tribute special, Eddie Murphy: One Night Only
, is an inherently challenging endeavor. How can we encapsulate all the various aspects, traits, and talents of a guy like Murphy using just one night and one television special? Don't we need Ken Burns and at least twelve hours to give this man his proper due? Maybe, but it's more fun (and watchable) to condense it to a few hours and bring out some of Murphy's biggest friends and fans to show you what he's meant to comedy.
Murphy is a performer whose career has taken so many divergent paths that it's hard to call anything he does a "trademark" other than his often imitated and iconic laugh. Yet one aspect that has endured in his three decades (and counting) is his ability to breathe life into a variety of characters.
We saw it first with Saturday Night Live, where his characters ranged from the esoteric (his portrayal of Gumby as a has-been Borsch belt comic) to masterful mimic (his James Brown) to the downright brilliant (prisoner poet Tyrone Green). Then there were characters such as Buckwheat, which combined a pop culture reference with social satire. Here he used a racially troubling portrayal from an old kids' show to first parody the habit of washed-up celebrities to cash in on their lack of self-awareness with an album of standards called "Buckwheat Sings. This was followed by a series of skits that played out Buckwheat's assassination. It was done in the style of live news cut-ins that gave developments on his condition and replayed the incident from multiple angles. It was every bit as dark as it reads. But it was also hilarious in its execution, owing almost entirely to Murphy. Not only was it funny, but it actually a statement about the absurdity of celebrity in our culture.
To put it in simpler terms, Eddie Murphy creates and portrays characters that we always want to see more of. He doesn't just do an imitation of someone or give his voice a quirky affectation. Rather, he breathes life into them and gives them a presence all their own. Whether it's a protagonist of a film or a character under make-up that literally only appears in one scene, Murphy can completely disappear into a role and make you unconscious of his presence despite the fact that he's one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
In this sense, his work is reminiscent of the late Peter Sellers. And, like Sellers, Murphy would play multiple roles in the same film. He did it first in "Coming to America." In the film he not only plays the main protagonist, Prince Akeem, but also several memorable side characters. Among them are would-be soul crooner "Sexual Chocolate" Randy Watson and a brilliant dual performance in scenes where he plays both an elderly black barber (Clarence) and elderly Jewish customer (Saul) who debate the greatest heavyweight boxers and whether Muhammad Ali should be referred to as Ali or Cassius Clay. These characters serve their singular purpose, but also move far beyond sight gags. Murphy's so compelling in the roles that it makes you wish that they'd had their own movies (in particular I still think there's a film that could be made out of Sexual Chocolate's pursuit of stardom).
Eddie would later do the same by playing Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, Lance Perkins and the rest of the Klump family in smash hit "The Nutty Professor," as well as taking on multiple roles once again in the 2007 comedy Norbit as the lead, Rasputia and Mr. Wong. What can’t this guy do? Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!
Murphy's ability to adopt multiple personas in a single movie isn't just a trick or a gag. It's almost a necessity, because that much talent and natural ability shouldn't be wasted on a single role.
It's finally time to pay an all-star tribute to comedy's original rock star. Tune in to Eddie Murphy: One Night Only on Wednesday, November 14 at 10/9c on SPIKE.
Source: Christopher Polk/NBCUniversal /Getty Images Entertainment/Paramount