First off, congratulations! You know we all love you and have followed your every hint and intimation that you might return to stand-up after three decades away from that very particular game, and have kept our hopes up, even though you haven’t followed through with a comeback. Until now, that is.
By the way, how crazy is it that you essentially broadcast your comeback on a podcast three weeks ago, and we’re only just getting around to noticing it now?!?
I don’t blame you for that. That’s Netflix and Krista Smith dropping the ball on their hot scoop they put out way back in mid-August, knowing they had you on the record intending to host Saturday Night Live (before SNL even announced it, even) and then hitting the road for an actual, honest-to-goodness stand-up comedy tour. But now that we know this is all happening — it’s all happening! — let’s take a moment to make sure this goes as well as it can.
After all, I did note on Decider just last year that you have “lived an entire second life since his stand-up career culminated in Raw. He may be an entirely different performer now, or perhaps the time has merely passed him by. Either way, we’re better left with the memories of his youth. For better and for worse.”
Of course, I’ll happily divorce myself from that notion. Just so long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. And judging from your recent interviews, you do.
You told Jerry Seinfeld: “Everything just has to be right.” That episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee premiered in July, but only you and his crew know how long ago that conversation took place. Even then, though, you understood that no stand-up comedian can come back from an extended hiatus and deliver a new hour of comedy gold immediately. “You have to get up there and start working out,” you told Seinfeld, and suggested he buy The Comic Strip. That’s where you both started, and Seinfeld already did sink a bunch of money into renovating the joint when he recorded his Netflix special there in 2017.
I don’t know what Seinfeld told you about telling jokes in 2019, but times have changed, and so have you.
You’re not the Delirious 22-year-old superstar you once were. You’re 58. You have grown children. You don’t need me to tell you that some of the topics you joked about so casually in the 1980s won’t fly today. Heck, as you told Smith on her podcast, you knew that then, too: “I had people picketing and talking shit. I went through all that shit back then, you know. It was always like that. I know you have to pick your shots now, about what you say.”
You’ve always had a genius ear for impersonations. By the time you hit SNL and made Delirious, you’d already perfected your musical takes on Michael Jackson, Elvis, James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Not to mention other comedians, such as Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby.
Some three decades later, after a head-fake at the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, where you decided not to say much of anything, you reminded us all that you still had the gift for gab that earned you the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2016.
Which, of course, made us think you were ready for your comeback then.
But no. Not yet.
Now we know you were waiting for more momentum, for divine inspiration. As you told Smith about that Mark Twain Prize moment: “That’s when I started thinking, maybe I should get onstage and do some stand-up again. But I was like, I don’t want to just pop out there, just come off the couch and be out there doing stand-up. I wanted to have a movie that, something that was really really funny.”
And you weren’t doing that in 2016. You’d just finished your first film in several years, but it was a drama, Mr. Church. Turns out you were waiting this whole time to make your Dolemite movie. Dolemite Is My Name comes out this fall in theaters and on Netflix, telling the true story of the late comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. You recalled seeing Moore perform some 15 years ago (Moore died in 2008) and pitching him on the idea of a biopic, only to have Moore try to sell you on joining him on tour. You demurred then, claiming you had no act.
But now you’ve made the movie, and enjoyed it so much that it’s inspired you to get off of the sofa. “And this, the way this came together, was like ‘Oh, I can tour off that movie. I can show up out there being funny after that. Cause this movie is, it’s inspirational and it’s all of those things, but more than anything, it’s really really funny.”
“Since I got off the couch, I was like, let me do some things that they want to see. So I’m going to do (Coming 2 America). I haven’t been back to SNL in 35 years, I think, I’m going to go host Saturday Night Live this year, and then next year, I’m going to tour. Do some stand-up. And then back to the couch.”
I’m not surprised that inhabiting the persona of Dolemite did the trick for you. As you knew as a lifelong fan of his from childhood, turned onto him by your own late brother, Charlie Murphy, “Rudy’s movies are horrible. His stand-up is horrible. ANd it’s like all his stuff is horrible. But his spirit, and he believes in it so much, that he makes it not horri— we just look at what he’s doing. If you looked at it on paper, you’d be like, ‘What the fuck?!’ But because it’s him, and how much he believes in it, he sells it to you.” The message you took away from Dolemite was what, now? “It’s a great story that if you believe in yourself, that’s the most important ingredient, in doing anything.”
We both know, too, that so many stand-up careers have begun after they saw horrible comedians and realized they could do so much better.
Maybe you needed Dolemite to remind you of that. Of course, it also helps to see so many not-so-special comedians getting their own comedy specials by the end of the 2010s. So why not now? Particularly if Netflix, or some other platform, is willing to dump several or 70 million dollars into your account for your troubles. But especially if you’re already in the mood to keep making people laugh.
You’ve done it all your life. Just not in this format, alone with a microphone in the spotlight, for a long while. That’s OK. Every stand-up comedian who has been away from the stage for a only a month feels the same trepidation getting back onstage again, no matter how famous they’ve become or how long they’ve been in the game. The process remains the same. And you know that, too.
As you said: “When I think about doing stand-up, this is the perfect analogy: It’s like if you go to the pool, and the water’s cold. You go, ‘Is the water cold? ‘Ohhhh, it’s freezing!’ Then you go, ‘hohohoho’ then you go ‘ugh’ before you jump in, then you go, ‘oh, that water’s fucking cold.’ That’s how I feel with stand-up. It’s like, I knew. Oh, that feeling of oooooh it’s going to be freezing when I first get in, but then, you know, that feeling just before you jump in the pool. That’s not nervous. Or scared. That’s just, you know, I know the water’s cold.”
Jump back into stand-up.
Find a comedy club you can use as a gym to get your new jokes into touring shape. A club that’ll have audience members put their phones away into pouches so you don’t have to worry about any premature criticism except for the feedback you get in those moments you tell the jokes and hear the laughs.
Whether Seinfeld buys that club for you or not, whether the leather suits come back in style or not, none of that really matters in the end. Only the laughs matter. Only that unmistakably sincere laugh of yours matters. Because you know that when you’re excited about something, so are we. We always have been.