Inside the Improv Green Room: Charlie Murphy

“Where the heck are they?” I nervously asked the manager of the Improv last Thursday night.  The 250 people who came out to see Charlie Murphy at the 8:00 show were becoming restless as the clock moved closer to 9:00.  I’d have to spend the first half of my set apologizing for the delay.

“They said they’re on Washington road,” the manager replied.  “Still probably about 15 minutes away.”

At this early stage of the weekend, my opinion of Charlie Murphy was becoming more and more solidified.  He didn’t take stand-up seriously.  He was just one of the many television personalities that figured he could make a few bucks touring comedy clubs, standing on stage and doling out one-liners from his past TV escapades.  To me, showing up late means you couldn’t care less.

The clock reached 9:00 and someone said to me, “They’re here.  And they want to talk to you about your material before you go up on stage.”  Great.  Add control freak to the pile of adjectives.

As I walked through the doors to the Green Room, I found a very agitated Charlie Murphy pacing back and forth.  “I’ve never, EVER, been late to a stand-up show in 10 years!” he said.  “It’s unacceptable.  It’s embarrassing.”  For some idiotic reason, the car service picking up Charlie had sent a driver from Butler, PA into downtown Pittsburgh with no GPS and expected the man to competently navigate from Downtown to Homestead.  Ok, so the late thing wasn’t Charlie’s fault.

As I shuffled my way into the room, feature comedian Paul Farmer (aka Freez Luv) introduced himself to me.  I asked how he liked to be introduced and then started inquiring about my material.  Freez got Charlies attention.  “Hey Charlie, I’m Jeff, the MC.”  I then went through my setlist: Casinos, Rufies, Prisons, etc.

“That’s fine man,”  Charlie said.  “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on your topics or anything.  Have a great show.”  OK.  So the micro-manager stuff was just a professional courtesy.

Basically the moral of this story is going to be, right when you think you have someone pegged, they usually do a 180 and make you feel like an absolute jerk.

Charlie did take stand-up seriously and as the weekend wore on I got some insight into his journey.  “Most people have the benefit of anonymity when they start out,” he explained.  “The first time I tried comedy in the early 2000’s, I was already a name.  People wanted me to headline and I didn’t even have 5 minutes yet.  So the failures that you always have in stand-up weren’t glossed over.  They were put on YouTube and passed around.  Here’s Charlie Murphy doing a joke that doesn’t work.  Well, I’ve only been doing comedy for 8 months man!”    He was probably referring to a relatively popular video of him being boo’d off stage at Grambling University.  “I did three shows right before that and they all went great.  But no one posts about that stuff.”

"Darkness" and Lightness

After that discussion, I started to truly appreciate the ability I have to slink out of clubs after a bad set with no repercussions.  No one is taking cell phone videos at open mics.  There’s no Huffington Post article about the backlash from my “Black Eyed Pea’s Are Robots” joke.  Thank God for that.  I would think it makes comedy a lot less fun.

I also got a chance to talk to Charlie about hecklers.  He has a relatively intimidating stage presence.  Most of the stories that he’s famous for involve him beating the snot out of Rick James, so he’s got a lot of built-in physical respect.  “That’s how I used to come at people who would yell out.  I’d go straight street on their ass.”  One time in San Fransisco a heckler began yelling out incessantly during his set.  The way the room was set up, the stage was level with the audiences heads.  The man was in the first row.   “I told him that if he didn’t shut up, I was going to use his mouth like a staircase.  And I was going all the way to the basement.”

That’s the type of thing that would get me to shut up.  “But I’ve stopped taking that approach now.  Chappelle pulled me aside after a show and said, ‘You can’t be doing that.  Because one day you’re going to run into yourself out in that audience and it’s going to be on.’  I had never thought about it like that.  So I try to be more patient with hecklers now.”

Overall, the weekend was a ridiculous success.  He sold 4 out of the 6 shows out entirely, which is difficult to do.  Both he and Freez Luv were extremely cool to me and even gave me some good compliments while they were doing radio.  On WDVE they said I had a bright future.

“He’s got that look, you know,” Freez said.  “It’s like…he’s kinda like…”

Charlie jumped in.  “He’s like Napoleon Dynamite.”