Today I went to the Armand Hammer Museum, in L.A. (for context, I’m in L.A. for the summer, for a research internship). The occasion? A screening of Eddie Murphy’s controversial stand-up film “Delirious”, followed by a discussion/deconstruction of the piece. As a certified cultural ignoramus, I had never seen this film before. So, perhaps I will provide you with some context before I dive into my opinions on the matter.
Delirious was a stand up show that Murphy performed in many parts of the country – including L.A. – before his D.C. performance was filmed and released as TV Special for HBO on August 30, 1983. The stand-up comedy in the act was part of an album titled “Eddie Murphy: Comedian“, which won an award for Best Comedy Album at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Along with his concert-film Eddie Murphy Raw (1987), Delirious has been cited as one of the most successful and influential comedy routines of the 20th century.
However, the event itself was not to celebrate the legacy of the film or its star, but to examine certain controversial and prominent elements of Murphy’s act. Among these, the overt homophobia and serophobia in the routine have garnered much attention. The very first thing he says after getting on stage is “I’ve got some rules while I’m doing stand-up. F*ggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m on stage. That’s why I keep moving while I’m up here, because you don’t know where the f*ggot section is… I’m afraid of gay people. Petrified. I have nightmares about gay people.” He then follows this up with a bit about why women love to hang out with gay men (because they don’t feel threatened by them) but how that’s very dangerous because “now they got AIDS, that just kills motherf*ckers. Kills people! It petrifies me ‘cause girls be hanging out with [gays]. One night they could be in the club having fun with their gay friend, give them a little kiss. And go home with AIDS on their lips!” Apart from stereotyping gay men, perpetuating and reinforcing the myth that every gay man is a ravening wolf lusting after straight men, and furthering an irrational fear of homosexuality (see definition of homophobia), Murphy does a lot of damage by validating the myths that surrounded AIDS transmission at the time, myths which were central to the hysteria surrounding the AIDS crisis and the ostracization of gay men.
But this was only the beginning. This skit was followed by others, which imposed on various stigmatized identities. For instance, he commodifies women with bits like, “women would be throwing pussy at me on the street like frisbee. Too much pussy, pussy would be falling outta my pocket. Walking out the street, you say: ‘Oh, watch your step, that’s mine.'” He touches on body image sensitivities by discussing his aunt Bunny who’s “got a moustache and shit! The shit is bigger than a man’s and shit! Aunt Bunny weighs like pounds. Like real heavy lady and shit. And the kids were scared of her.” The very last thing we hear about her is Murphy’s impersonation of his drunk dad going on a tirade about how Aunt Bunny is a Bigfoot. Murphy also talks about race, discussing how Chinese men have small appendages and speak a “f*cked up language (which he then goes on to parody).” Arabs aren’t free of his mockery either. He says, “I don’t like that shit that Arabic…That shit’s fucked for me. It sounds nasty and shit.”
Sitting in the audience, watching the film, I experienced several reactions to his humor. I spent most of the film wincing, shaking my head, and silently protesting his sheer bigotry. But there were times when I laughed along to spot-on impersonations of Elvis Presley and James Brown, or his sketch on the ice cream truck. These moments were followed by a sense of guilt – was I allowed to enjoy the (in my perspective) unproblematic jokes of a broadly problematic entertainer? It was a sense of déjà vu, for I was reminded of the time Jay Pharoah performed at Clark. It was interesting how two black male stand-up comedians, both part of SNL at some point in their career, were using the same scripts – of strict mothers, sexualized women, and other risqué jokes.
I wonder, what does it take for black men to become successful, especially in the entertainment industry? I think of RuPaul, who has become more of a mainstream name, and wonder, has mainstream white America embraced RuPaul because he is a drag queen? Do they think that no matter how successful he may be, that at the end of the day he is a drag queen, which poses no threat to the hegemonic white power? I do not mean to implicate the LGBTQ+ community or its allies for their support of a queer icon, but I do wonder why RuPaul (arguably one of the most iconic black stars today) has struck it so big. And then we have Eddie Murphy, flushed with the success of landing an SNL gig at the age of 19, looking to launch his career to greater heights. Was Murphy so popular because he fit into the black male stereotype? The hypermasculine, hypersexual macho man who spouted homophobia, misogyny, and expletives at every turn? Perhaps the price black men pay for fame in a deeply racialized industry is their own values and individuality, so that white power is never compromised. On the flip side, comedians like Dave Chapelle, who have strived to veer off the beaten path and introduce more nuance to their social commentary, have been forced off the screen by studio execs with ratings-motivated vision and booed off the stage by unwelcoming crowds in Detroit. I do not mean to play the part of the provocateur; I simply attempt to ascertain and unwrap yet another layer of racism that exists in our society.
My last few thoughts on this film and discussion are centered on the role of art. What do we expect of art, especially of comedy? While it is quite the norm to hear of artists and performers who are informed by a socially conscious vision, is the same true for comedy? This was particularly salient as Murphy spoke on race relations, saying that racism was no longer “as bad as it used to be” for African Americans, citing how the use of the N-word had all but disappeared in white America. It was sad to see a successful black man fail to use his position of privilege to address the issues faced by his own community. But this begs the question, what is his responsibility to his community, and to society at large? What is the nature of comedy? Can society strive for a truly politically correct humor, one that does not generate laughs at the expense of the suffering of the other? We could cite examples such as Ellen DeGeneres or Amy Poehler, but just how wide spread is their influence? Do they have mass appeal, or are they only a hit among liberal, socially conscious audiences? Does this mean that society should change in order for our artists to do so? What is society’s relationship with art? Are we to censor it? To hold artists to higher standards? I do not aim to impose my own opinion upon you, but I will leave you with this parting thought. The arts today would bear a radically different face if we as a society did not expect more of it.