The Nutty Professor

Once upon a time in the eighties I was over a friend’s pool lounging in the sun and listening to an Eddie Murphy comedy album.  Why?  Well, this friend of mine had just worked on an Eddie Murphy movie and they had enough of a love-hate relationship that he had an advance copy and we figured, why not?  Then I heard it – the joke.

I don’t know whether to repeat the joke because that gives it more credence.  So I’ll paraphrase.  Mr. Murphy was on a comic roll and mentioned AIDS and how scary it was at the time.  Then he made this off-handed remark about not dropping your wallet in a gay neighborhood for fear that you’d have to bend over, pick it up, risk getting AIDS and basically dying.

I didn’t find the joke funny at all then and find it even less so now.  Especially since the friend whose pool I was lounging around at the time is now dead of AIDS and has been for, oh, about 15 years.   And Mr. Murphy, who I don’t know but somehow still resent, seems to be flourishing.

Eddie Murphy was announced as the host of this year’s Oscars and for the first time in, oh, 40 years, I doubt I’ll be watching.

Have you lost your damn mind?

Is this a hissy fit, or just typical Scorpio behavior (my astrological sign being the one that you supposedly never want to cross for fear of retribution), or an honest reaction.  Or all three?  I’m not sure.  I mean, life isn’t fair.   People get sick and die.  And the nature of comedy is that you have to put yourself on the edge and joke about things that a segment of people will in no way, shape or form feel is funny.

Nevertheless, I can tell you that I hadn’t seen an Eddie Murphy movie in more than 20 years (ask all of my friends) until “Dreamgirls,” which was directed by an openly gay writer-director and, as a film adaptation of an iconic musical, seemed gay enough in my mind to make an exception.  Not only that, but I actually leave the room whenever he or one of his films is on television.  And I avert my eyes whenever the coming attractions for his movies appear at my local theatre.

Meaning, I can’t stand the sight or sound of Mr. Murphy doing comedy.   Perhaps I’m the only one.  At the very least, I must be in the minority.

But I know a long line of women who do this with Woody Allen movies ever since he married his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.  I understand their anger but don’t have the same reaction.  Is that cause I’m insensitive to anyone’s plight but my own or a typical double standard-bearing man?  Or is it because we all have our own issues?  Probably the latter.  But again, I’m not sure.

What I do know is that the Motion Picture Academy could do better for a night of movie celebration.  But ask producer/director Brett Ratner to co-executive produce and you wind up with the star of one of his upcoming holiday films (whose name I won’t plug) hosting the show.  It reminds me of the time I was in a charity committee meeting years ago when a very high level gay Hollywood lawyer wanted to get his then client, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be keynote speaker at a huge L.A. gay fundraiser event.  This was not long after Mr. Murphy’s AIDS joke and right after Ah-nold (then years away from Governator) had publicly endorsed any number of top politicians of the day who were outwardly unsupportive and downright anti all of this group’s issues.   But he personally likes gay people, the attorney argued.

Really?

Well, this guy and I did get into a bit of a row when I called his client a snide (but not dirty) name and this lawyer scolded me for being “very unfair” to his client.  For the record, I stated I was actually being quite fair because the last thing this lawyer really wanted to do at the time was put said client in a room full of lesbians and gay men who, most everyone else in that room agreed, would feel no compunction at biting his head off or booing him off the podium for his public support of the very politicians (and in turn laws) their organization were fighting to circumvent.

Was this a missed opportunity?  Perhaps.  But nearly two decades and many fighting-for-civil-rights years later, I don’t think so.   Still, Pres. Obama preaches bi-partisanship and reaching out to the other side.  Building bridges.  And since that’s obviously working for him, well then, I guess perhaps I could have been wrong.

Yes, that’s a bit petty and cynical but that’s why he’s the president and I’m a mere blogger and not Martin Luther  Queen  King.

But back to Eddie Murphy and the Oscars.  Do we have to?  Oh yes, I think so.

Where are we going with this?

My arguments are admittedly personal.  But FYI, others that younger people have voiced to me in person and online about Mr. Murphy’s Oscar hire are: “uh, what a great choice – for 1985.”  Or – “are there going be fart jokes?”  Or – “huh, what was the last good movie he was even in?” I prefer the latter argument because it would have me believe more than a few of you in the upcoming generation believe Oscar night should still be about film quality and that does give me (or us?) hope.  In fairness though, those same people have said things like, “Bring Back Whoopi,” and when I try to think of the last good film she was in, my mind goes blank.  Though I do remember her famous Oscar line when she hosted one year and, looking at the array of young women so impossibly perfect-looking who were modeling that year’s costume designs, quipped to us all at home – “Don’t they ever smile?”  So there is that.

But obviously Mr. Ratner and folks want some new blood and, after the debacle of trying to “hip it up” with James Franco and Anne Hathaway last year to somewhat disastrous results, they’re going with a film comedian whose movies, they tell you, have grossed  $7 billion worldwide (HOW is this possible??). In the end, I guess you have to bow to and accept and even love the overriding rule of show business and all industries (and in fact, the world) – survival of the fittest.  This is not necessarily the same as what you, the audience member, blogger or pundit see as those who are the most deserving.  Which is why boycotts, hissy fits and any combination thereof actually do matter.  It’s irrelevant if you’re Martin Luther Queen or well,  Ellen (who has also hosted the Oscars).  The only way to get your voice heard and have any effect at all (even for the next time and because you never know who is listening, or is listening and will tell someone who is listening) is to voice it.  And loudly.  Yes, I’m talking to you Motion Picture Academy — In honor of my then poolside friend Rafe who very much loved the Oscars, the movies and pretty much all of the business.

No, it’s not fair to play on your sympathies, but as they say on the battlefield, “by any means necessary.”   I suppose that’s one way those who will be judged the fittest among us, will survive.  By any stretch of the imagination, Mr. Murphy is a survivor, and a damned resilient one at it.  But he’s not the only one.  Is he?

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7 thoughts on “The Nutty Professor

  1. When Eddie Murphy made that joke, the audience laughed. When Tracy Morgan made that awful crack in Nashville, the audience laughed. Comedians will do or say anything for a laugh, and when called on it, they’ll play the First Amendment Card. It’s only when the audiences stop laughing at that kind of crude and malicious material, will there be hope.

  2. Well, I’M not laughing. And you’re not laughing. Maybe a few others will jump onboard.

  3. I cringe at some of the things Sarah Silverman says like her “chink” comment on Conan O’Brien and her joking about rape in the Aristocrats. So one point at issue is — can comedy cross the line of good taste? Well, obviously it often does. At the end of the day, I’ll side with “free speech” at the cost of pain. I’d rather live someplace where Sarah Silverman can make jokes that I cringe at — like this one.

    SARAH SILVERMAN: The pedophile is walking into the woods with a little kid. The kid says, “I’m scared, Mister!” The pedophile says, “You’re scared—I have to walk home alone!”

    Now, that’s a pretty terrible joke, especially if you or a family member has been the victim of that sort of thing, but somehow we’d be even worse off it there was some federal law that said we couldn’t joke about it.

    As to Mr. Eddie Murphy — I don’t think Eddie Murphy has been very funny in a long career. A career that reveals (if anything) pent-up desire for non-white male comedic leads and enduring racism by studios. There have been 100 stupid comedies released every year since 1975 with white guys as the lead — Belushi, Ackroyd, Chase, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Martin Short, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, etc. Eddie Murphy has had no real competition (Feh — Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx?). Murphy is the black male comedy go-to star, just like Whoopi Goldberg is the go-to female black comedy star. This is not an excuse, it just explains why he has made a lot of money with an anemic talent — though I dare anyone to watch “Meet Dave” and say he has any talent left. But while a movie like Meet Dave would be a career-killer for a white comedian, Eddie Murphy can survive it because he is the only funny black male lead that can open a movie. Unfortunate.

    Joe Franklin was considering suing Sarah Silverman over her jokes at his expense but ultimately dropped it and said, “the best thing I could do is get Sarah better writers so she’d have funnier material.”

    Sadly, the same thing applies to Eddie Murphy. The thing that bothers me about his joke about dropping a wallet in gay neighborhood and getting AIDS is not the lack of sensitivity. What bothers me is that it’s not a good joke. Not clever. Not witty. No wordplay. No reversals. It’s just a poorly written joke. From a professional comedian. The best we have. And this is why Eddie Murphy will be a terrible host for the Oscars. Because he’s had no competition for so long that he won’t work or try very hard. He’ll have mediocre writers hand him mediocre jokes to deliver. And it will be pathetic. But who really cares — the Oscars is no longer about quality (if it ever was.) It’s just a marketing blitz to pump box-office and anoint new “oscar winning” actors to prop up grade Z movies. I rage at night before sleep! How dare they use “oscar winner”Anthony Hopkins AKA “Odin” to try to legitimize THOR (directed by “oscar nominated” Kenneth Branagh. Is nothing sacred?

    • I’d never say Mr. Murphy should be censored or not free to say whatever he wants. But it is fair to say if he’s going to “go there” then words create a range of reactions, and anything short of a censorship reaction is fair game. Meaning he’s free to get hired for the Oscars and many people are free to not want to watch him and object to him (which is really just disagreeing vehemently with the choice of him).
      MY big issue with him is two fold. One was the colossal bad taste to tell that joke in a time when people were dropping dead everywhere (esp in his community, show business) with no end in sight.
      Two — and perhaps harder to argue empirically – Sarah Silverman might cross the line of taste but given the fact that a. she’s a. a woman and b. her politics in general are quite supportive of minorities, one can easily make the assumption she’s guilty of going too far (bad taste) in her jokes – not in actually believing what she’s saying. In Mr. Murphy’s case, and even if I’m being generous, I can’t make any such assumption. In fact, I’d probably err on the opposite assumption, most especially at the time he made that admittedly very unfunny remark.

  4. First let me say that I totally understand where you are coming from, and I totally empathize with and respect your view 100%. That said though…

    I think in a way inappropriate jokes are pretty important for our society. I also think, though, that the intent and whether they actually “mean it” or not can matter to a certain extent. I have friends trying to make it as comedy writers who, in the right group of people who will “get it”, will crack the most sexist or racist or gay bashing or inappropriate taboo touching of jokes you can think of, just to get a rise out of their friends and get that “awkward silence” or awkward inappropriate laughter. It’s clear they don’t mean it at all; it is the reaction that is important.

    Moments like that I think matter. Being able to laugh at the most inappropriate and terrible of jokes matters, because it shows, I don’t know how to explain it…that we can laugh at ourselves and the ridiculousness of our society, at the ridiculousness of our taboos, and just step outside of all the conflict nonsense? It’s important for us to not be so damn serious all the time, and get in fistfights over a scheduling conflict between Obama’s national address and the Republican debate. It’s like the joke of The Aristocrats…But again, it matters that they don’t mean it. People who tell The Aristocrats joke don’t really support rape and incest and smearing fecal matter on people and everything else that goes into that joke. What matters is the reaction, and how that joke makes you laugh at the most horrible and taboo of subjects. The taboo element is the entire point, the lack of sensitivity is the point, and it’s also why jokes like that matter.

    Now did Eddie mean this joke? Was he homophobic, or just playing to the audience and trying to get a laugh over a controversial and taboo topical subject like the awfulness of AIDS? Eh, probably a bit of both, honestly. He probably was a bit (or very) homophobic. But it was also the 1980s, when AIDS was just beginning, and heck so was acceptance of homosexuals. I think it’s a bit unfair to judge the content of one’s character by a crack he made 25-30 years ago (but again, I understand wholly why you do, given the personal nature you described) when the public was only first becoming aware of AIDS and how it was spread. It was common back then to blame AIDS solely on homosexuals, and I’m sure many of my family members believed the same stereotypes and cracked the same jokes. It wasn’t right by any means, but it is understandable given how society reacts to the “new” and the “different.” But as society has evolved over the past 25-30 years, so have those same family member’s views as well. And they are now more understanding of homosexuals, even if some of them still have some growing to do.

    But hey, could Eddie still be a bigot of sorts? Sure. But Tom Cruise is a raving lune spreading one of the most dangerous cults in recent history. I’m still going to watch his movies, because I appreciate his work. I separate the private man from the work he does. I also really enjoy Mel Gibson’s past films and think he’s a damn talented director and actor, but I despise his antisemitism and alcoholism (and alcoholism and how it can destroy a man and destroy his family is pretty personal for my family). Or to be “less wildly controversial”…I still enjoy Polanski’s films even though he date raped an underage girl, when this is a subject that really personally touches me as well. Heck, lots of people tend to overlook that one these days (and to be clear, I don’t overlook it or excuse it)…These are pretty despicable actions. But I still will enjoy the artistic work they put out.

    And Eddie Murphy, to me, is funny. He may be a despicable bigot even, but he’s funny. And inappropriate jokes, if you understand their inappropriateness, and if hopefully the comedian does too, have their own level of humor that I think can be important, especially in our hypercharged over serious and over polarized society. That said, I hope that Eddie has grown as a person though. Who knows if he has or not.

    And again, hopefully none of this angers you too much…I understand that this joke touched you in a personal way (especially given your friend), and in a way it could never touch me.

    • Your response is very well-reasoned and I appreciate it. I also agree with a lot of it. The main thing is intent. And context. And, as Walt points out in his above reply, whether the joke is funny at all. (We can forgive a lot of line crossing if a joke is funny 🙂 To give context — when Mr. Murphy made this remark in 1987, AIDS had not really just started – it had already been around for about 5-7 years and was very much in the public consciousness. Especially in the world Mr. Murphy traveled in. The show business world. He worked around gay people all the time (and this is not to even mention the number of drug users and African Americans who were being affected). The truth is — people were dying left and right and it was quite usual to open the obit page and see a majority of deaths related to AIDS, many of those deaths people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Comedy certainly is partly joking about our fears and playing on what’s out there at the moment. But the art of it is also about a lot of other things like timing and taking the audience to the funny place with you. I love “The Artistocrats” and actually very much like offensive jokes. But that’s where intent comes in. As I mentioned above – we know Sarah Silverman doesn’t condone rape (she’s a woman) and from her persona and political actions we certainly know she doesn’t hate Asian people. We always knew the same about Don Rickles. We didn’t know it about Andrew Dice Clay. There’s a difference that is hard to quantify and it’s not about whether the joke or the performer is funny. That’s where intent comes in. Andy Kaufman was a performance artist and just so bizarre he could get away with anything. Lenny Bruce was a brilliant, plain talking analyst of society. So was George Carlin. Mr. Murphy’s standup was none of those at the time. He was in Andrew Dice Clay territory – or really the Tracy Morgan rant school. And very close to the Michael Richards faux rant response. None of it s clever or funny. I’m not one for any kind of censorship at all and I think it’d be difficult to find someone more politically or socially liberal than myself. So I don’t advocate Mr. Murphy be censored or blacklisted. Just exposed.

      And — It is certainly the right of Warner Bros. or Mel Gibson tp make a film about the Jewish hero Judah Macabee but at the same time, given context and intent, I can’t help asking them this one question — Is this a joke??? 🙂

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