A few years ago Charlie Murphy did a gig at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville and I wanted to go. I don’t remember why I didn’t—it might have been that I was out of town, or it might have been that I only read about it after he’d come and gone. That still happens to me. I’ll pick up last week’s copy of The Nashville Scene and read about some event and think, hey, I’d like to go to that, oh, wait, it was yesterday, but that’s another story.
This was a few years after Chappelle’s Show and especially the Rick James episode made Charlie Murphy famous, and I wanted to see him do standup because as funny as I thought he was on the show I wanted to get past that. I wanted to know what else Charlie Murphy could do.
What else he could do included writing a memoir, The Making Of A Stand-Up Guy, that opens with this haunting statement:
Anyone who has given up will
never know just how close they
came to winning the game
And then in his introduction he talks about the challenges that came with his own fame, and says,
In order to steer clear of trouble in these new situations, I had to learn to ask myself, What would Rick James do? Then, if I knew what was good for me, I would just do the opposite.
Having a famous brother he must have also gotten some sense of both the benefits and pitfalls of fame, but he was determined to make his own way. And that’s what strikes me about Charlie Murphy: having a famous brother might have been a gateway to comedy, but he didn’t start doing stand-up until he was forty-two, and he was determined to make his own way. He was determined to find his own voice. In 2011, five years after the end of Chappelle’s Show and still working hard as a stand-up comic, Murphy did an interview for The Breakfast Club podcast. He talked about being booed recently at a small venue and said,
Every comedian does get booed and whenever it happens, you know, it’s your fault. Okay, you can never blame it on the audience. It’s your fault because as a comedian you’re supposed to be able to read what the situation is. And sometimes when you get booed even though it’s your fault that’s as far as it goes because you didn’t read it. It doesn’t mean that you wasn’t funny, it means that you didn’t read the situation and come with the right medication for the situation.
Unfortunately there was no medication that could beat back the leukemia that claimed his life at the age of fifty-seven, just fifteen years after he started in stand-up comedy, and I think about how I came so close to seeing him live.
Hail and farewell Charlie Murphy.