The Canceling and Uncanceling of Eddie Murphy

The legendary comedian made jokes about homosexuals and AIDS in the 1980s. More than 20 years ago, he apologized. So why are we still talking about it?

Last week, Eddie Murphy gave an interview to The New York Times to discuss his return to stand-up and promote his new film, Dolemite Is My Name. Murphy said he now “cringes” watching his 1980s comedy specials, referring to his old jokes about AIDS as “ignorant.” Murphy had already previously apologized for his earlier material, but decades later, the memory of the offending incident lingers on.

Back in July, actor and serial Emmy snubee Tituss Burgess called out talk-show host and Bravo chief homosexual Andy Cohen for being a “messy queen” after an appearance on Watch What Happens Live during which Cohen asked him about working with Murphy on Dolemite Is My Name and recalled the comedian’s homophobic stand-up from the ’80s.

“I was just wondering if you got close at all, because he was very problematic for the gays at one point,” Cohen said to Burgess, who claimed that Murphy “wasn’t problematic” for him. Burgess then followed up the interview with some Insta-shade, blasting Cohen for treating his talk show like an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta in order to “rehash old rumors or bring a star negative press.”

But honestly, Cohen kind of had a point. In the larger gay imagination, Murphy is problematic. His two iconic stand-up specials, 1983’s Delirious and 1987’s Raw, may have been comedic and cultural touchstones, but he also used them as platforms to ridicule gay people.

In Delirious, sporting a tight red leather suit, Murphy warns against “faggots” staring at his ass and does a couple of (admittedly hilarious) bits about Mr. T and The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton being gay.
 

He also discusses the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis, which largely affected gay men, saying that he’s “petrified” of women who love to hang out with gay men because “they could be in the club having fun with their little gay friend and give them a kiss and go home with that AIDS on their lips.”

Yikes. That makes Kevin Hart look like Hannah Fucking Gadsby.

Later, in Raw, Murphy addresses the controversy that followed him after the comments he made in Delirious, joking that “there’s nothing like a nation of fags looking for you.”
 

Murphy capped his fag bit in Delirious by saying that he “kids the homosexuals a lot… ’cause they’re homosexuals.”

I fuck with everybody. I don’t give a fuck. It’s like, I don’t mean anything by it. You can hang out with a gay person. Guys, don’t feel alienated [from] gay people because they’re gay. Because you can play tennis with a gay person. Really, just after the game, you say, “I’m gonna get a beer. What you gon’ do?” “I think I’m gonna go suck somebody’s dick.” “Well then, I’ll see you later. You go suck that dick, I’m gonna have a beer.”

Now in all fairness, a lot of my interactions with homosexuals have ended that way. And started that way. But while Murphy claimed it was all in good fun, for his gay fans it was hurtful.

“Every other word out of his mouth was ‘faggot.’ And with each and every gay joke, the crowd went wild. They loved it. My friends loved it,” Cohen wrote in his 2012 memoir, Most Talkative, recalling watching Murphy’s specials as a teen. “I was surrounded by thousands of people in hysterics, and they were all laughing at ‘faggots.’ And ipso facto, laughing at me.”

However, Murphy apologized for his past homophobic remarks in 1996 after gay rights activists in San Francisco mounted a protest during one of his film shoots. In a public statement, Murphy said that he was “not homophobic” or “anti-gay” and that he deeply regretted “any and all pain” that he caused, adding:

Just like the rest of the world, I am more educated about AIDS in 1996 than I was in 1981. I think it is unfair to take the words of a misinformed 21-year-old and apply them to an informed 35-year-old man. I know how serious an issue AIDS is the world over. I know that AIDS isn’t funny. It’s 1996 and I’m a lot smarter about AIDS now.

Though the activists accepted Murphy’s apology and the Human Rights Campaign applauded his about-face, as Cohen’s interaction with Burgess suggests, the public often finds it difficult to forgive or forget, particularly when it comes to comedians—and particularly when it comes to black male comedians. The prevailing myth being that the black community, especially black men, are more homophobic than the rest of society, which completely neglects the power structures in place and who keeps them in place. It’s even worse now in the age of cynicism and “cancel culture,” when the public’s belief in the permanence of one’s cancelation precludes any belief in one’s evolution.

A year later, Murphy garnered some more unwanted attention when he picked up Shalimar Seiuli, a trans woman working as a prostitute. Rumors had long dogged Murphy over his sexual orientation—some intoning that perhaps he doth protest too much—and the incident only added fuel to the speculative fire. Murphy claimed he was simply giving her a ride, and while he wasn’t found guilty of any improper behavior, Seiuli managed to parlay her infamy into brief, minor fame as a dancer before dying tragically at age 21 from what seemed to be an accidental fall.

So having gone through his fair share of cancelations and scandals over his career, Murphy seems unfazed by backlashes, such as the recent one that led to the firing of the freshly hired Shane Gillis from Murphy’s old stomping ground Saturday Night Live.

But even if the times have changed, and Eddie Murphy says he has changed, do we live in a time when belief in change is even possible? I guess that depends on which messy queen you’re asking.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat