Eddie Murphy really loves kicking back on his sofa — it’s one reason he’s made just two films in the past eight years. “I was tired,” says Murphy, who consistently churned out blockbusters in the ’80s and ’90s. But in 2015, the 58-year-old stand-up icon was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and knowing that a slew of contemporaries would be honoring him at the ceremony, he sat down and wrote new material for the first time since stepping back from the comedy scene. The reaction blew him away. “When you get that Mark Twain Prize, you get to meet the president, and I met Obama and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘When are you doing stand-up again?’ I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Murphy says with a laugh. “Between that and the award, I was ready to get back.”
It’s not the first time Hollywood’s been primed for an Eddiessance. His turn in 2006’s Dreamgirls earned him an Oscar nod, and he made another awards bid with the 2016 drama Mr. Church, which, despite praise for his performance, fizzled at the box office. “I didn’t want to end on Mr. Church,” he says. “I wanted to do something where, if I decided to never get off the couch again and just go do stand-up, it would be a nice way to go out.”
And that something came courtesy of another comedy pioneer. Murphy had long wanted to develop the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a trailblazing comedian who created one of the more bizarre personas of the blaxploitation era: Dolemite, an expletive-spewing pimp character Moore invented as a comic and brought to the big screen in 1975. Dolemite, the movie, was made for peanuts, starred many of Moore’s pals, and was written off as a total mess by critics — but it somehow spawned sequels and became a cult phenomenon for its raunchy ghetto humor and brazen tackiness. “Richard Pryor is the ceiling of the art of being funny, and this [guy] is the whole other side of the spectrum,” says Murphy, who blames the 2002 misfire The Adventures of Pluto Nash (“or some s— like that”) for keeping his plans to make a Moore biopic in 15 years of development hell. Netflix eventually came to Murphy’s rescue, and the result, Dolemite Is My Name, is available to stream Oct. 25. “He f—ing believes in himself, and that’s why his stuff works,” Murphy says of Moore, whom the actor got to meet with about the project before his death in 2008. “I thought the whole idea of ‘You don’t have to be brilliant to get your s— off, you just have to believe in it’ was a universal and timeless story.”
Like Moore, Murphy believes. “I’m still me,” he proclaims. “I know I’m still funny. When I first got up on the mic for Dolemite, there were a couple scenes with an audience and I was improvising and they were laughing and I had flickers of ‘Oh yeah, I remember that sound.’” Already the subject of Oscar buzz for his performance (“It never sucks to be in those conversations,” he says with a laugh), Murphy was so thrilled with the Dolemite experience that he’s moving up his returns to stand-up and Saturday Night Live, which gave him his big break in 1980. “This is a good thing to pop back up with, and while I’m at it, I might as well go back to SNL,” Murphy recalls of deciding to host for the first time in 35 years. “When I was back there for the 40th anniversary, I started having the kind of feelings you would have when you go back to your old high school. The show is a big part of my personal legacy and I was like, ‘Let me go back to where I came from, and be funny there and have some fun.”
And, happy as he was on his couch, what’s even better is being back in the game. “It’s great to be in a movie that works and that’s funny,” says Murphy, who is currently working on sequels to Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop. “That’s the only reason why I’m making movies. I want to be in one that people like, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had one. [Dolemite] is a well-made movie and it’s f—ing funny — and that’s a good feeling.”
And an even better one: You can watch from your own couch.