American Pop 33


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As a matter of observable fact, comedy exists as a component of popular culture in general, and part of our shared human experience specifically. In its broadest  form comedy can serve as an emotional ballast. Physical comedy can elicit laughter and keeps us in touch with our human fallibility, and predilection for silliness. Satirical comedy can promote existential thought, or more simply, it provides important forms of perspective through clever irony and the pointedly absurd. Situational comedy however, is far and away the most influential. It provides all of the aforementioned, with the all important addition of context. 

Almost assuredly this is the principle reason why we love to go to the movies and take in a good comedy. It’s a good comedy if we laugh. It’s great comedy if we laugh our asses off. It becomes a legendary comedy, the moment our culture unilaterally adopts the funniest and/or most memorable lines of dialogue … into our discourse, becoming an addendum to our cultural lexicon. This reality is not insignificant. In fact, it’s rather remarkable. It’s important to reserve some part of your soul for the blessings that humor provides. Laughter is an interpersonal lubricant, and occasionally a societal analgesic. Comedy also has the added benefit of existential umbrella, the kind that keeps our soul dry during some of life’s unpleasant precipitation.

For all of the aforementioned and more, perhaps we should acknowledge societies best and brightest comedians and comic entertainers, as cultural royalty. However, this acknowledgement should be given judiciously, to those deserving, staying vigilant and being careful to avoid arbitrary notions of ‘famous for being famous’. That uniquely American pop culture phenomenon whose time has passed.  Hopefully. Thankfully.

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For our money, Eddie Murphy is one of the funniest comics that America has ever produced, and by extension, he’s one of the funniest men to ever walk the earth.  Sycophancy aside, Eddie Murphy is an American pop culture icon. As such, American Pop has compiled a thoughtful list of Eddie Murphy’s five best films from the 1980’s, a decade in which he dominated the world of entertainment. In addition to being a part of Saturday Night Live’s resurgence, The acerbic tenor of Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy was insightful, irreverent, and had audiences rolling in the aisles  nationwide. His comedy albums and subsequent cable television specials only added hydrogen to his growing star. However, it was the popularity and astronomic box office success of  the films he starred in, that instigated the nuclear fusion which made Murphy hotter than the surface of the sun. Earning him a decades long-term as Hollywood’s king of comedy. 

American Pop Presents

‘Eddie Murphy:  Fabulous Five Classic Comedies  (1980 – 1990)  

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In the years between 1980 and 1990 (aka a decade) Eddie Murphy starred in eight (8) feature films. Six (6) of which were extraordinary box office successes, and five (5) are featured on American Pop’sFab 5‘ list. It would be difficult to overstate Eddie Murphy’s outsized success during the first 10 years in the business of show. To wit, baseline accounting of his 1980’s film box office receipts reflect combined gross totals that exceed $900 million ($944 million), as in nearly a billion dollars. A fact that can be described in  any number of ways, as long as people come away with notions that equal or exceed ‘remarkable’. Overall, Eddie Murphy’s 1980’s film catalog produced box office averages just north of $100 million per film. If there was any question as to Murphy’s box office bona fides, that fact should more than suffice as the answer. 

Eddie Murphy’s highest grossing film of the decade, is also widely considered an all time comedy great. Indeed, ‘Beverly Hills Cop (1984), took in an astronomical $235 million at the box office. The John Landis directed mega hit was Murphy’s 4th career major feature film. It was preceded by ’48 Hrs’ (1982) with Nick Nolte, the #4 film in our ‘Fab 5’, ‘Trading Places’ (1983) with Dan Akroyd, and ‘Best Defense’ (1984). The remaining three films following ‘BHC’ are ‘The Golden Child’ (1986), ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ (1987), ‘Coming To America’ (1988) with Arsenio Hall, and ‘Harlem Nights’ (1989) with Ricard Pryor. As a matter of record, ‘Best Defense’ holds up the rear as the least grossing film of Murphy’s decade of dominance,. The military comedy teamed Murphy up with  comedian Dudley Moore, but only managed to pull in a paltry by comparison $19 million at the box office. However, that was enough for the film to enter the back door into the proverbial ‘black’, since technically it turned a $1 million dollar profit.  

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Released on June 8th of 1983, Director John Landis’s ‘Trading Places’ is Eddie Murphy’s second career major film. With the fortune of hindsight, it’s no wonder that a John Landis film starring the outsized young talents of Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Eddie Murphy, paired with the likes of veteran funnyman Don Ameche, was an easy as oatmeal lock to strike gold. 

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The quirky plot revolves an obnoxious homeless man (Eddie Murphy) who spends his days engaging in scams where he fakes disabilities, and feigns blindness for sympathy and of course … money.

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(L to R)  Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd 

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(L to R) Don Ameche, Eddie Murphy, and Ralph Bellamy in discussion. 

The street hustler behavior comes to an end, and his life quickly changes in what will turn out to be irrevocably ways, when he unwittingly becomes involved in an elaborate bet between two wealthy Philadelphia commodities investors.

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This bet involves forcibly ‘trading places’ with a pampered and wealthy young associate (Dan Aykroyd) of the commodities brokers. Hilarity ensues as Akroyd’s character loses his mind and tries everything and anything to get his hands on Murphy and retrieve his ‘stolen’ life.   

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Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy celebrate a stock market windfall 

With a production budget of $15 million, the Paramount Pictures distributed project ‘Trading Places’ went on to earn in excess of $90 million in the United States.  

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Eddie Murphy in his 1st HBO stand up comedy film/special ‘DELIRIOUS’  (1983) 

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It could be argued, and I suspect to great effect, that Director Walter Hill’s smash hit 1982 film ’48 Hrs’ starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, is the original film of the modern ‘buddy cop’ genre. This Action-Comedy-Drama is full of raunchy realism, and grit. The pairing of Eddie Murphy as a loquasious convict with hopes on adding ‘ex’ to his convict moniker, with Nick Nolte as the acerbic, ill mannered, and  brash detective who needs Murphy’s help, is wonderful to behold. In terms of historical legacy, the success of 48 Hrs has grandfathered an impressive lineage of ‘buddy cop’ films such as the ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Rush Hour’ series respectfully.  

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The excessive use of off-color language comes off as colorful when uttered in by these characters using this dialogue. Frankly speaking, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a better cast to inhabit the celluloid in what would be wunderkind Hollywood producer Joel Silver’s first theatrical feature.

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As a film, 48 Hrs enjoyed wide critical praise. It was nominated for more than a few awards for its excellence. Included in these nominations was Eddie Murphy’s first Golden Globe Nomination, for ‘Best Acting Debut – Male’which was not a bad showing for Murphy’s freshman film effort. Director Walter Hill was awarded a ‘Grand Prix Award’ from the  ‘Cognac Festival du Film Policier’, and the screenplay for 48 Hrs was nominated by the Edgar Allan Poe Award for ‘Best Motion Picture Screenplay’

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Indeed, Murphy and Nolte adopted the true strengths of the collaboratively created script written by Roger Spottiswoode, Larry GrossSteven E. de Souza, and Jeb Stuart, which was the characters and the location (San Francisco). They not only made this film their own, they also set the bar for how these kinds of films could and should be played.

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48 Hrs. is certainly among the more entertaining films in American pop culture history. In 1982, it ranked as the  #7 highest-grossing film of the year. It was produced for the modest sum of $12 million and returned an opening weekend gross that exceeded $4 million, followed by overall box office grosses that nearly eclipsed $80 million. By any reasonable measure, 48 Hrs was a huge commercial success. 

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Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte about to exchange pleasantries. 

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Eddie Murphy in his smash hit stand-up comedy movie ‘RAW’   (1987) 

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Not many observers knew quite what to expect from Eddie Murphy’s 1986 Action-Fantasy-Comedy vehicle ‘The Golden Child’. Which in its own way was a benefit for both Murphy as well as the film. Audiences went in armed only with muted expectations and with minds a bit more open than your average ‘Golden Child’, as it were. This Michael Ritchie directed film turned out to be a mid-1980’s ‘sleeper hit’ that has since risen to cult classic status. 

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Eddie Murphy returns a charming performance as private investigator Chandler Jarrell, who has dedicated his professional life to finding lost and kidnapped children. This role displayed a slightly softer side to Murphy, without going pink ‘Izod Lacoste’ shirt type of overboard. 

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Indeed, the unwitting Eddie Murphy (Chandler Jarell) life changes in unforeseen ways with mystical consequence. Immediately following regaining his emotional footing after being hit with the gravity that he is in fact, ‘The Chosen One’, charged with saving the world by saving ‘The Golden Child’. Typically, burrito digestion becomes strained after learning things of this nature.  

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Produced for $25 million and distributed by Paramount Pictures,The Golden Child’ went on to earn just shy of $80 million in domestic box office receipts. It was the #8 ranked film in terms of grosses for 1986. Normally, returns like these would have made most Hollywood studios beside themselves with joy, and ‘popping bubbly’. However, this was an Eddie Murphy film and they expected returns more along the lines of the $230 million that his previous film ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ (1984) had earned. Crazy talk, I know, but this was is life in 1980’s Hollywood, Ca.   

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Without question, if an observer is inclined to witness and consider the true scope of versatility and transcendent talent that Eddie Murphy possessed during his 1980’s prime, then look no further than 1988’s ‘Coming to America’. This is because Murphy plays not one but four wildly divergent, albeit wonderful, characters in the film.

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This John Landis directed movie is based on a story that Murphy had been working on as a starring vehicle. It should be noted that there has been some controversy surrounding exactly how much of this story was Murphy’s self-conceived idea, and how much was ‘borrowed’ from humorist writer Art Buchwald, who subsequently sued Murphy and the film’s producers in the  Buchwald v. Paramount civil suit, in 1990 to get that sorted out. 

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‘Coming to America’ is perfectly cast with notable performances from the talented likes of  Arsenio Hall, Eric LaSalle, James Earl JonesShari Headley, and John Amos.

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Eddie Murphy is straight up hilarious playing the main character role of Akeem Joffer, the Crown Prince of ‘Zamunda, who has ‘Come to America’ looking for a wife. It can be argued that any one of his three additional characters Murphy played were equally as hilarious. Specifically, preacher ‘Randy Watson’.

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Paramount Pictures distributed this tremendous worldwide box-office hit. ‘Coming To America’ enjoyed an opening weekend in which it debuted at #1 with grosses that exceeded $21 million. ‘Coming To America’ returned an overall domestic box office gross that exceeded $125 million, making it the #1 grossing film of 1988, as well as one of the most successful of Eddie Murphy’s 1980s run.  

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What can you say about ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, the all-time classic action-comedy-drama that is also one of the most commercially successful films in the history of filmmaking, that hasn’t already been said? As it turns out, there are a few notable things. Including the fact that Eddie Murphy’s career gem was the highest grossing film of 1984. It is also the highest grossing, most successful comedy films of all-time. It is also held the record for  highest grossing, most successful Rated ‘R’ movie of all-time, for 19 years. 

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Directed by legendary comedy auteur Martin Brest, Eddie Murphy plays the wisecracking but talented, instinctual but reckless, streetwise but headstrong, young Detroit PD detective, Axel Foley. He does so in compelling fashion, wildly entertaining with amazing deftness of performance skill. The aesthetic contrast of having this Detroit cop entering the austere confines of Beverly Hills California to engage in an investigation using methods that are completely alien to the local police … is the stuff of film legend. 

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The performances put forth by the actors in the supporting roles are outstanding. Including but not limited to performances from the likes of  Judge Reinhold, John AshtonRonny Cox, and Lisa Eilbacher.

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This first film in the Beverly Hills Cop film series propelled Eddie Murphy to the recesses of worldwide notoriety that he hadn’t already conquered. ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ earned a Golden Globe Nomination for ‘Best Motion Picture – Comedy’ as well as an Academy Award Nomination for ‘Best Original Screenplay’. With box office grosses that exceeded $225 miliion, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’  was easily the highest grossing film of 1985, and as alluded to above, is also held the record for highest grossing Rated ‘R’ film … for 19 years. 

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‘Beverly Hills Cop’ earned a mind-boggling $15 million in under a week … specifically, it’s first week of theatrical release. It held the #1 spot in America for 14 weeks consecutive weeks in 1985.  In other words, for over a 1/4 of the entire year.   

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How great was Eddie Murphy’s 1980s dominance? The short answer is ‘really great’. When taken into the context of a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, its nothing short of amazing. Eddie Murphy continued on well past the 1980s, and enjoyed incredible success to be sure, however it wouldn’t be intellectually honest to assert that post 1980s Eddie Murphy entertainment, in any way compares to the transcendent quality and raw comedy gangster funny of 1980s Eddie Murphy. Gangster funny that came to define during his otherworldly 1980s entertainment dominance. 

As of 2014, Eddie Murphy can boast of feature film grosses that total nearly $4 billion domestically, and nearly $7 billion worldwide. By any reasonable estimate, this is a truly remarkable feat. Especially, in an entertainment business that is legendary for it’s ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ wheel of strange fortunes environment.

Perhaps it can be effectively argued that it was legendary late funnyman Richard Pryor whom had blazed a trail before Eddie Murphy. That it was Pryor whom had built the comedy Ferrari, that Eddie Murphy was afforded the opportunity to redline all the way up to comedic superstardom. Eddie Murphy it seems, was the right man, in the right decade, armed with the right brand of transcendent talent.  Eddie Murphy not only broke all kinds of box-office records, but he also influenced an entire generation of creatives, artists and entertainers. I am proud to count myself among that generation.   comics the world over. In all observable measures, Eddie Murphy is the archetype of generational show business talent.






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