Last April, Tracy Wuster posted the announcement of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, which went to Eddie Murphy for 2015. He stated that Murphy’s “brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence on American comedy is clear.” He also asserted that some of Murphy’s work has not “held up.” Both comments are true. The focus for this post is not, however, on some of the films that might have been ill-chosen, but on his early stand up work, particularly the HBO Special Raw (1987). Murphy was (and is) representative of a 1980s cultural group of African American comedians heavily influenced by earlier comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who pushed the envelope of “acceptable” language, theme, and content in humor. Their popularity demonstrated that they found an audience appreciative of the choices they made in their stand up acts. I’d like to use this essay to look at humor’s (particularly stand-up’s) dependence upon the current cultural moment for audience acceptance and appreciation.
While scholars and fans of humor will agree that some settings and/or jokes are universally accepted—the fart joke from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” comes to mind here—other humorous productions rely heavily on the contemporary news, current politics or social situations as the nub of the joke, and thus have a much shorter shelf life. Times change, social foci shift, and what one generation finds hilarious falls flat in the next. Nowhere is this more obvious than in stand up comedy. Stand up, with its live audience and face-to-face interaction between comedian and audience foreground the contemporary social and political situation for the meat of its humor. In order to be a successful stand up comic, one needs to be able to “read” the cultural moment and gauge the audience’s engagement with issues: Who are they? What do they know about current events? How do these events affect them and their lives? What is their class, race, gender, political affiliation? And, most importantly, how far can a comedian go in depicting what he or she sees as necessitating change? For the length of the show—whether that be four minutes or two hours, the successful stand up comic must connect with the audience on a personal level; otherwise, the jokes don’t work.
Anyone who teaches humor can tell you that this “principle” of contemporaneity becomes obvious early on in the classroom. Since I teach at a Jesuit university, my students tend to be on the conservative side, grade driven middle- to upper-middle class students, and perhaps their reaction is a bit more vehement than at other schools, but in teaching Raw, which I consider to be a landmark in stand up comedy of the eighties, I need to spend a great deal of time setting up a cultural context for this early HBO special. The draw for comedians particularly in HBO’s early specials was the fact that because they were a subscription television offering, they were less tied to the standards for language and gesture than material shown on “free” TV. Comedians like Murphy tested the boundaries of the allowable, and his target audience accepted his choices without question, finding them funny. In other words, they saw humor in not just the material, but also the testing. Contemporary audiences, without the context, often only find it offensive.
This is the major concern for any stand up comedian and may explain why so few have long, successful careers in live audience humor venues. Those of us who remember when Raw was new and the Saturday Night Live skits Eddie Murphy did as “Buckwheat”, Eddie Murphy’s more recent work in film seem to be a departure from the earlier work. This is to be expected. Pushing the envelope in humor gave way in the wake of the political correctness movement, and audiences were less willing to accept any humor that denigrated or offended anyone. As a successful humorist, Murphy constantly reassessed his audience, the cultural situation, and his own strengths, and in doing so, shifted his work to reflect these changes. He does little stand up work these days, and has focused his attention on comedic film, allowing him to use another of his talents—creation of comedic characters.
What becomes clear as we look at his career is just how savvy Murphy has been at reading the social trends and adjusting his comedy to reflect them. Even as Raw was playing on HBO—and selling well as video—in 1987, Eddie Murphy was shifting his milieu of choice to film. Early comic roles in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 1987) and Coming to America (1988) brought him access to a wider, more general audience, and he tailored the comedy to reflect the change. While he still made use of four-letter words, we see less emphasis on them and more on his comedic use of vocal, dialect and language cues. The audience shifts again in the 1990s to films like The Nutty Professor (1996 and 2000) a remake of Jerry Lewis’s film from 1963 with a primarily African American cast; Dr. Dolittle (1998, 2001), another remake of Rex Harrison’s film (1967)., and Daddy Daycare (2003). This allowed for PG ratings and a yet wider audience.
Success in these genre and media shifts came from his talent for vocal imitation (impressionism) and ability to play multiple characters in the same film. While he sometimes still does these impressions and plays multiple characters, the 21st century sees Murphy much more active in voice-over only children’s animated films such as the Shrek series of films, (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) and Norbit (2007).
Stand up comedy tends to be a young man’s game (and I do mean “man”, women’s stand up has an even shorter shelf life). Very few comedians can sustain a career in this medium. This is partly because of the physical strain of traveling to venues around the country, and partly because once a comedian finds an audience and theme, making the shift to other media or other thematic content becomes too difficult. The only stand up comic I can think of to sustain a forty year career is George Carlin, another Mark Twain Prize winner.
So, why did Eddie Murphy receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor last year, and why didn’t humor scholars complain this past year? He won the prize for his talent as a comedian, but even more so because of his talent, his ability to read the cultural weather, and the ability to adapt his comedic style to the immediate cultural moment. Eddie is still making films (Beverly Hills Cop 4, Triplets, and Mr. Church are announced for this coming year). It will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I may try the “Buckwheat” skits from SNL next time I teach the course…but of course that will necessitate explaining about the Little Rascals from the 1940s and how that differs from the 2014 film.