Why you should care

Specific, relatable, unpredictable humor never gets old.

Chris Rock is en route to one of the biggest years of his career with the release of his film Top Five, but it’s clear he never forgot where he came from. Rock remembers his start in his must-read Hollywood Reporter essay, when Eddie Murphy brought him out to Hollywood at age 19 to work on Beverly Hills Cop II. One of the greatest, most prescient comedians of the hip-hop generation was once Murphy’s no-name protégé.

Rock is a better stand-up, but was never a bigger star than Murphy. In fact, no comedian has been able to reach the apex he did from 1980 to 1988 — from his remarkable SNL performances (his skit with Stevie Wonder and Buh-Weet are pop culture staples) to Coming to America. Murphy was just 22 when Delirious was filmed at Washington, D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall in 1983. He came into the game with a rare concoction of talent, mimicry, stage presence and chemistry. You can’t teach people how to reach that degree of acclaim at an age when most are still trying to figure out their existence.

Even if that red leather outfit appalls you, you can’t help but laugh …

While Richard Pryor and Rock willfully confronted the nation’s racial politics, Murphy was the rare black entertainer who was able to transcend them. His prime isn’t just marked by critical exaltation; people loved Eddie Murphy — rich to poor, black to white. Murphy the person was aware of racial politics — as seen in an excellent 1990 Spin conversation with Spike Lee — but Murphy the persona was above it.

What makes his mainstream-permeating act more fascinating was how he wore black cultural hallmarks on his sleeve. His memorable “Ice Cream Man” bit captures Murphy’s unique abilities. Just prior in the act, Stevie Wonder takes the brunt of one bit (“You wanna impress me? Take the wheel for a little while, motherf**ker”), Michael Jackson gets riffed on and we get a racism joke. Then Murphy namedrops Mr. Softee, and touchstones of the black psyche — family, economic strife and corporal punishment — get flipped into something widely relatable.

The Robin Williams influence is clearly present here as he uses a controlled madness to switch from logical raconteur to manic child. Even if that red leather outfit appalls you, you can’t help but laugh once he turns to the crowd, revealing a face contorted with false panic: “MA! MA! THROW DOWN THE MONEY! THE ICE CREAM MAN IS COMING!”

Then there was the unpredictability that proved a point: children are terrible. Murphy’s singsong was instantly quotable: “You don’t have no iiicceee creeammm. You didn’t ggeeeettt none. You didn’t geeettt none …” Murphy drops his ice cream (his mic) into an imaginary pile of filth and then picks it up to kiss it, hips swaying side to side. Wild west, gunslingin’ Mama Murphy disciplines him with a shoe for being nasty. The crowd is won over and Murphy and his red leather suit become icons.

“I think maybe like 30 years ago there was this black lady that wanted to sing opera … And this place was segregated and they couldn’t sing here,” Murphy says at the end of Delirious, referring to Marian Anderson. “Here we are, not even 50 years later: a 22-year-old black man getting paid to hold his dick. God bless America.”

Buy the complete film on disc at Amazon, or stream the follow-up concert, Raw, on Google Play.

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