The comedy world has unexpectedly lost one of its greatest, most underrated storytellers this week. Charlie Murphy was an unsung hero, one that not many even knew about until his star-making turn on Chappelle’s Show in the mid-2000’s, when he cranked out classic sketch after sketch of autobiographical anecdotes. His actual history in comedy stretches well beyond the Comedy Central hit show, however. As a writer, stand-up comedian, and actor, Murphy was able to step beyond his brother Eddie’s shadow, and become the cypher for some of comedy’s most significant moments.
Charlie Murphy made a name for himself as a bit player in movies like CB4 and Harlem Nights (alongside his brother) early in his career, stealing the show in pretty much every role he took on. His turn as the wrongfully swagger jacked gangsta Gusto in CB4 was one of the many bright spots in that movie, as he brought a threatening yet amusing attitude to a character made out to be the comic relief. That’s the magic of Charlie’s approach to comedy—he makes the stories written for him feel relatable to a point where he wasn’t defined by small roles; he made them his own. Much like the sixth man on a NBA team, Murphy slid right into any role needed for him effortlessly and buoyed projects that would have otherwise tanked without his sense of levity. Sure, Norbit (which he co-wrote) and The Lottery Ticket may have been ill-advised, but Charlie was without a doubt a standout part in both of those.
When he wasn’t making sugar out of shit on the big and small screen, Charlie Murphy was making his name alongside Dave Chappelle on Chappelle’s Show. The sketch comedy juggernaut was one of the only places in the mainstream where Charlie truly got his due, as he received a huge amount of on-camera time and the creative bandwidth to execute his own sketches. As a writer and a featured cast member on the series, he displayed his many talents alongside Chappelle in a number of sketches, many of which rank as some of the best in the short run of the show. It was a revelation, and likely a relief that he was finally given a chance to finesse the smaller moments that had made up his career into something larger and gain the respect he deserved.
I’d be remiss to ignore the legendary "Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories" sketches, but the true magic of Charlie on Chappelle’s Show was elevating sketches that needed a tougher edge. His role as Tyree on “Mad Real World” was menacing to the point of ridiculousness, much like his turn as Gusto, highlighting the brutally honest (and hilarious) reality of an ex-con stuck in a house full of strangers. He was the big brother of the Chappelle’s Show, a looming shadow over many of the sketches—and viewers didn’t know if he’d throw a punch or a punchline to lighten the mood. It worked 100 percent of the time because he slid into each role as effortlessly as he did when he was himself during the iconic Rick James and Prince sketches.
Whether he was a notorious hater dressed as a pimp or doing work behind the scenes, Charlie became more than just Eddie Murphy’s brother on Chappelle’s Show. Fans like myself grew to appreciate who he was—a street smart, unforgiving master of keeping it real at all times. When he told us that he and his friends “whipped [Rick James’ legs],” we believed it. We had no reason not to because the way he carried himself, from his seemingly tough exterior to his blunt way of speaking, demanded a level of respect that endeared and sobered the audience to believe shit like Prince being a phenomenal basketball player. Charlie Murphy didn’t just make the impossible believable—he made it truly relatable.
As we say goodbye to one of comedy’s most underrated writers and actors—I’ll choose to remember the stories Charlie Murphy shared than focus on the ones that we didn’t. His run on “Chappelle’s Show” only solidified his status as a legend, someone who could stand next to some of the most popular comedians around. His wisdom, timing, and wit will live on—and so will the laughs.