Charlie Murphy Was Too Real to Be Overshadowed
Dave Chappelle’s best jokes contended with how the truth is tangled up with absurdity, and one of the greatest voices he found within that knotted ball was Charlie Murphy, who passed away today at the age of 57 following a battle with leukemia. A known raconteur, Charlie’s voice was singular enough to reduce being Eddie’s brother to a tertiary descriptor, as well as making his relationships with Chris Rock and Chappelle feel symbiotic—an achievement that eluded many of his similarly connected peers.
Murphy’s most recognizable creation is the Chappelle’s Show’s “Real Hollywood Stories,” which may be the greatest recurring scripted comedy segment of all-time despite airing in only two episodes. The premise was simple: Charlie tells a story about a run-in with an impossibly famous celebrity. The skits’ asphyxiation-inducing laughter mainly came from Chappelle’s performances of its central stars Rick James and Prince, in which Chappelle further extended their already legendarily esoteric personas into nutty surrealism. But as outsized as Chappelle’s imitations were, the skits truly broached greatness because of Murphy’s plainspoken framing.
With the voice of an uncle who’s fighting a cold but still wants you to sit down because he’s trying to tell you something, Charlie’s narration had a colloquial sensibility that stood in for the audience and colored the non-sequiturs. The sight of Charlie Murphy, in a jheri curl, running into Prince is hilarious because, bluntly, it’s a fucked-up haircut, but Murphy adds a certain reverence when he acknowledges that he knows that you know that it’s fucked up. He would also relay myth and fact as two complimentary storytelling elements: Rick James, basked in an orange aura, was memorably described by Murphy as a “habitual line-stepper,” giving his mysticism a palpable consequence.
But even with a series as peculiar as Chappelle’s Show, Murphy’s presence in “Real Hollywood Stories” felt especially specific in the way that seeing someone you know personally on television would be. Anyone who’s grown up in a black community knows the charismatic storyteller whose credibility is diluted by a love of slick-talking and flair—even though he’s more often than not telling the truth. This is something Charlie, a Brooklyn-bred orator, is well-aware of. While oration is a central part of the African-American tradition, off-the-cuff-styled pontificators like Charlie were a television rarity. Rock, Chappelle, and, to an extent, Eddie were incisive but polished; in contrast, Charlie’s delivery felt refreshingly profane like a Patrice O’Neal bit, but delivered with a conversational familiarity. Charlie’s perspective was a rarity in the aughts before the advent of podcasts, YouTube, and other post-Chappelle mediums made this folkloric, crass storytelling style more common.
Charlie managed to gain such a distinction despite breaking through in comedy fairly late: Eddie was 22 when his classic HBO special Delirious premiered; after appearing on 1989’s Harlem Nights, 1990 Spike Lee joint Mo’ Better Blues, and 1993 gangsta rap satire CB4, Charlie finally got around to doing comedy at the age of 42. He also co-wrote two of his brother’s movies, but they’re—to be generous—cult classics. “It’s like, if Michael Jordan all of a sudden had a big brother who plays basketball and he’s good, too,” Charlie told VICE. “That does not compute for most people.”
Charlie’s free-wheeling narrative style and sharp-tongued insults were welcomed well after the Chappelle’s Show’s end; his roles as dick-holding ex-soldier Ed Wuncler III in The Boondocks and hateful landlord in Black Jesus are standouts. His short time as a star was strong enough for him to transcend being simply the brother of one of the greatest comedians of all time, and he did so by mining his lived experience in a way that didn’t feel like he was simply reminding you of his proximity to celebrity. Chris Rock, one of the dozens of comedians who paid their respects following Charlie’s passing, tweeted, “We just lost one of the funniest most real brothers of all time.” It’s a short but fitting tribute, and a familiar one to anyone who’s shaken hands with the many lost around-the-way griots who never made it to television.