Eddie Murphy’s best story about his early success has been told in various forms, but this is my personal favorite.
Murphy, of course, became a sensation in the early ’80s as a cast member on Saturday Night Live and with his frenetically urban stand-up act. He then showed his power as a box-office draw with 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. In 1984, Murphy combined his two greatest assets — his viscerally funny stand-up act and his undeniable film presence — into his first concert movie, the well-received Delirious.
After the film’s release, Murphy got a call from Bill Cosby, one of his comedy idols, who chastised Murphy for his incessant use of foul language and cautioned him that his career would be short-lived if he continued to work “blue.” “Blue” as a comedy term reportedly dates to vaudeville’s Keith circuit and club managers’ practice of censoring comedians by informing them via blue envelopes of objectionable material that had to be removed from their acts (all of which dates further back to the Puritans’ Blue Laws, a moral code that was printed on blue-tinted paper).
Murphy was devastated by Cosby’s scolding and called his friend and raunchy comedy mentor Richard Pryor to get his take on the situation. After hearing Murphy’s tale, Pryor, referencing one of Cosby’s ubiquitous commercial endorsements of the time, responded, “Tell that motherfucker to have a Coke and a smile.”
Murphy’s act, Cosby’s reaction and Pryor’s response to Cosby’s reaction is a passion play that has been re-enacted in the comedy world since Lenny Bruce paved the way for shockingly honest humor with his obscenity conviction in 1964. In the nearly half century since then, comedians have found massive success by finding their niche on either end of the spectrum (Brian Regan, Greg Hahn on the clean side; Louis CK, Lisa Lampanelli on the dirty) or deftly straddling the boundary between family friendly and fucking filthy (the late George Carlin and Patton Oswalt spring to mind).
Two current examples of the clean/dirty paradigm are the wildly funny and relatively chaste Jim Gaffigan and the equally hilarious and breathtakingly profane Doug Stanhope.
On Gaffigan’s August-released eighth album, Mr. Universe (the concert video of which is currently available to view on Gaffigan's website for $5), the hue-challenged honcho of hilarity follows his standard operating procedure of turning a slightly jaundiced and definitely twisted eye toward life’s mundanities and finding the unlikeliest of laughs. He mines a natural vein of humor from the fact that he has four children, but in ways that Bill Cosby probably never imagined (“Four kids … if you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth, just imagine you’re drowning and then someone hands you a baby” or “I have more pictures of my children than my father ever looked at me”).
And Gaffigan is a genius at finding the funny in food; his love of bacon is renowned, as evidenced by his lengthy discourse on 2009’s uproarious King Baby, but on Mr. Universe, Gaffigan gets both McDonald’s and Subway in his crosshairs, with the former actually earning a measure of praise and the latter obtaining a fairly thorough thrashing — “I think the toppings are free to distract us from the fact that we shouldn’t be paying for the meat. They’re so stingy with that nasty ass meat at Subway, they peel it off like it’s from a wad of ones or something. ‘Here’s three slices of ham, get yourself something nice’ ” and “What level of delusion are we in where we view a meatball sub as a healthy alternative to a hamburger? How do you make a meatball sub? You roll five hamburgers into balls, cover them in cheese and put them on a bun that holds five hamburgers. Eat fresh.”
Like the best observational comics, Gaffigan’s genius lies in amplifying standard issue eccentricity to an unbearably odd level — like wondering how long one should retain a sock after losing its mate, then admitting he has 80 single socks. Gaffigan further caricaturizes his comedic persona by using a variety of vocal inflections and accents that range from hilarious to slightly grating; he has long used a whispered falsetto as a device to anticipate audience criticism and now he even works imagined criticism of the voice itself into his set.
While Gaffigan will often will drop a mild obscenity or two into the proceedings (“Scarlett Johanssen got a haircut, why do I give a shit?”), Mr. Universe, like the bulk of Gaffigan’s catalog, easily translates to midday or late night television talk shows.
Doug Stanhope is a completely different kettle of filthy fish. His just-released new CD/DVD package, Before Turning the Gun on Himself, is predictably rife with the abusively frank language for which Stanhope is famous. Before Turning the Gun is so caustically themed that one might consider donning a hazmat suit before pressing “play.” It also happens to be one of the drop-dead funniest comedy sets of the year.
Stanhope wastes little time setting up the first portion of Gun, which is essentially a rolling rant about the industry of treating addiction, his primary targets being Dr. Drew Pinsky and AA. The album’s second piece is titled “Dr. Drew is to Medicine What David Blaine is to Science.”
Being agnostic, Stanhope finds the God-based 12-step programs associated with AA and many rehab programs to be less than satisfactory. On the album he rants, “Even your religious friends do not want to hear about God during a medical diagnosis. That’s the last word you ever want to hear from a doctor — ‘Doc, my fucking lymph nodes are swollen out of my neck, I look like a bullfrog, I’m shitting blood with clumps in it, I can’t keep food down.’ ‘Ooh, sounds like someone needs a higher power.’ ‘Can’t we do some blood work first? A series of antibiotics? A CAT scan?’ ‘Nope, get on your knees and pray, faggot.’ ‘You’re a doctor?’ ‘Yup, and I’m on TV, too.’ AA makes Scientology look credible.”
Stanhope even insists at one point that “there’s no such thing as addiction, on the most minor levels … there’s only things that you enjoy doing more than life.”
Stanhope really gets going on the subject of people bitching about the economy or their simple dissatisfaction with the place they live. On “Just Move,” he rightly notes that it only requires a bus ticket to change your surroundings and recounts hearing an autoworker in Flint, Mich., complaining about Obamanomics making it impossible to earn a living.
“You make cars and you still don’t leave,” Stanhope observes. “That’s like being a prisoner forced to make keys to your own cell for a living and you never put two and two together. Just move to where there’s work.”
He continues that line of thought on “Simple Man,” where he compares having children to a bad bet and hacks on the Flint autoworker by again rightly noting, “I don’t think the economy is a new problem here; I think Roger and Me came out in like 1986, yet you’re bitching about Obamanomics exporting jobs.”
Stanhope gets hellbound rough on “Keynesian Economic Theory as Applied to Private Sector Independent Contractors,” where he advances the idea that prostitutes fare the worst in tough times since they’re already doing degrading things for money, and that a hooker’s concession to recession would be to offer anal services to her clientele.
What follows is a nauseating and heart-stoppingly hilarious roller coaster ride of sexual references from Stanhope and his fictional streetwalker, featuring such phrases as “sour milk-smelling cock,” “gravelly good morning Starbucks shit” and “ass kegels.” In alluding to anal sex, Stanhope (through his whore character) uses the euphemism “shit pussy” or “ass pussy” no less than six times in two minutes before breaking into an erudite refutation of Keynesian economic theory. It’s breathtaking, really.
Elsewhere, Stanhope advocates registering as a sex offender to avoid having your friends bring their children to your parties, describes his favorite medicinal past-time (“Sometimes I’ll take two Xanax and two laxatives at bedtime and I’ll play chicken in my sleep. It’s like three highs at once, because it starts out as a downer, turns into gambling, wakes up as a huge amphetamine”) and gives a brilliant example of his perception of the laziness of songwriters, describing some self-righteous artistic types as “a bucket of cunts.”
If you’ve got a sturdy callous built up on your indignation bone, Stanhope is one of the funniest and most incisive stand-ups around. And if you are easily offended, Stanhope has a ready answer for your thin skin.
Well before admitting that “the most terrifying part, when you realize I’m not even a bright person, but I’m still probably in the top three percent of the smartest people on this planet, and I’m pretty fucking dumb,” he defends his use of any and all offensive language by describing it simply (and accurately) as “a sound you make with your mouth” and further posits “if you’re offended by any word in any language, it’s probably because your parents were unfit to raise a child.”
This explanation, which gets even better, by the way, is placed in the context of a bit Stanhope titled “Giant Black Cock.” This is one funny motherfucker.
So what conclusion can we draw from the above compare/contrast critique? Perhaps it’s that people who are easily offended would be advised to stick to the likes of Jim Gaffigan and avoid Doug Stanhope like an atomically mutated STD. But it might also be that funny is funny, regardless of how many prurient phrases and ideas are peppered throughout its presentation. People who like dirty as well as clean humor are laughing twice as much as you straight-backed chucklefucks with rancid pickles jammed sideways up your twats.
I think maybe that’s the point.