Stand-up comedy is a strange industry. One generation’s cutting-edge comic is another generation’s quaint curio, or even a candidate for cancellation. At a time when half a dozen new comedy specials are cranked out each month, and the industry is attempting to become more equitable, is there such a thing as a universally beloved comic? Or is comedy, by its very nature, tied to its era?
In this new series, I’m going to look at some of the most revered and/or notorious comedy specials of all time to see if they still hold up. Some I’ve seen and will be rewatching; others will be new to me. But they have to have survived to become classics.
I decided to start with Eddie Murphy’s 1983 special Delirious because it’s constantly on lists of the best comedy specials of all time. Murphy got awards buzz a few years ago for playing filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, and a new documentary about his return to stand-up is in the works. If you’ve always been curious about this special, now might be the time to watch it.
Keep in mind, some of Murphy’s language—which I describe and quote from—will offend. And if you’d like to recommend any specials for this series, contact me on Twitter @glennsumi.
Eddie Murphy: Delirious, the American comedy giant’s 1983 special taped for HBO in Washington, D.C. It’s not currently available on any streaming sites, but clips do exist on YouTube.
Best known for
Murphy’s tight-fitting red leather suit, his copious use of the word “faggot” and his extended bits about family cookouts and kids swarming an ice cream truck.
Murphy, who was 22 years old at the time, had been doing stand-up since he was a teenager, but he was best known as a sketch comic and impressionist on Saturday Night Live, where he became a superstar. The year before, he had co-starred in the buddy cop comedy 48 Hrs, and would go on to more blockbusters like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Coming To America (1988).
This special cemented his reputation as a stand-up and influenced generations of comics like Chris Rock and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
What doesn’t hold up: the homophobia
What I’d forgot about Delirious was how Murphy leans into the homophobic stuff right from the start.
“I’ve got some rules,” he tells the packed Washington audience as soon as he hits the stage. “Straight up, faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m onstage. That’s why I keep moving—you don’t know where the faggot section is, so you keep moving.”
He then launches into a series of impressions that double down on that homo hysteria, imagining if Mr. T were queer (“You look mighty cute in them jeans!” he says, gruffly) and then, in a bit that hasn’t aged as well, a sequence in which The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton get it on.
Murphy doesn’t just leave it there. He goes on to discuss how women frequently befriend gay men, and if they innocently kiss them they can contract “AIDS on their lips”. This, he implies, would prove dangerous to him, since he was in his “prime fuck years”, segueing into a whole segment about male stars (comics, musicians) being able to get lots of pussy, a routine that comes with its own set of problems.
The fact that Murphy chose to kick off the special with this material—to call these his rules—shows how important it was to him, to his brand. I wonder how many gay-bashings resulted from this hugely popular special. And to feed into anti-AIDS hysteria so early in the pandemic was irresponsible. (AIDS isn’t transmissible via kissing.)
Nearly 40 years after the special aired, there is still ignorance and misinformation around HIV and AIDS. In a recent NOW What? podcast, host Norman Wilner and TV writer and journalist JP Larocque discussed rapper DaBaby’s recent homophobic statements and actor Matt Damon’s confession about using the f-word.
A while back, Murphy apologized for Delirious’s homophobia. But it’s interesting to remember the infamous “herpes simplex 10” scene from Beverly Hills Cop, a scene Murphy improvised on the day of the shoot. Obviously, gay paranoia was top of mind for him—and many others—at the time. Which makes the bravery of those who were out and proud at the time—including AIDS activists and the queens in the burgeoning underground ball culture scene—so much more pronounced.
What still works: his physicality and understanding of family dynamics
What’s clear from Eddie Murphy: Delirious is that Murphy was a superstar. The red leather outfit—which he reportedly bought in D.C. on the day of the taping—announces something special. And the way he controls the stage is magnificent.
His routine about kids excitedly surrounding an ice cream truck is perfection. For one thing, there’s his physicality; by turning his back to us and looking up to call “Mom!” he immediately evokes the young Eddie. For another, he understands the complex psychology of kids as they hoard their treat and taunt others who might not be able to afford it because they’re on welfare or have an alcoholic father. The humour here is brutal, but there’s truth to it, and it’s done with affection. And the way he drops the microphone to mimic dropping his cone is, well, a genuine mic-drop moment.
The other standout sequence is a much longer bit set at a summer cookout. He’s on shakier ground here, but his parodies of Black male strutting (his uncle proud about his BBQ skills, his dad drunkenly marking his territory) almost make up for the misogyny around the depiction of his hirsute aunt falling down the stairs.
And throughout, the repeated image of his no-BS mother flinging her shoe at him like Clint Eastwood wielding a gun is a comic touchstone.
What’s so fascinating about watching Delirious today is how Murphy understood even then that certain behaviour was no longer acceptable. He discussed how you couldn’t beat women because, with women doing aerobics, “they’ll fuck you up” (huge applause). What’s odd is that he couldn’t apply the same reasoning to his gay material.
Murphy returned to stand-up recently. Maybe one day he’ll include a routine that skewers his early homophobia, too. The faggot section, including me, would love that.