It’s 90 minutes before showtime, and Eddie Griffin is sick as a dog. He’s also funny as hell, even with a 100-degree-plus fever and even in front of an audience of just one. With the tape recorder rolling, the actor/comedian spends a half-hour riffing on everything from his relationship with Richard Pryor to his near-death experience to the time he wrecked a rare Ferrari while practicing for a celebrity car race to his first marriage … at the age of 16. “We were childhood sweethearts who grew up next door to each other. Got my first piece and put a ring on it, as my mother said. She was like, ‘Boy, you didn’t even go test the waters!’”
Griffin, 43, moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles nine months ago, and since April he’s had an ongoing residency in the King’s Room, an intimate venue at the Rio where he performs Monday-Wednesday (KingsRoomLV.com) before taking his show on the road for weekend gigs. If you’ve never seen Griffin’s stand-up act, consider this your warning: His sets are raw, ruthless and always off-the-cuff. “I’ve never had a script. For the last 27 years, it’s all off the top of the dome.”
When did you know you could make a career out of comedy?
I still don’t know if I can make a career out of it! [Laughs.] I thought I was successful when I could pay rent and pay my bills. Then all the movies and television stuff, that’s gravy. It’s still just a blur. And it all started on a dare—my cousin dared me to get onstage, bet me $50 that I wouldn’t do it. And I had a couple of drinks, and I took his money and have not looked back.
What led him to dare you?
I was like 18, we were out barhopping in Kansas City, Mo.—you know, fake IDs—so we stopped at Stanford & Sons Comedy Club. We’re sitting there, and it’s one dry comedian after another on open-mic night. So my cousin goes, “I’ll bet you $50 you won’t get up there.” I said, “I sure won’t.” I had been onstage dancing, but I had never been onstage talking. So I took a couple more drinks, looked in my wallet, and it was empty. That’ll motivate you! He’s like, “Man, you’re funnier than these fools when we’re just hanging out in the neighborhood!” So I went up and asked the manager, “Do you mind if I do a couple of minutes?” He’s like, “Nah, it’s open-mic night; let’s see what you can do.” He handed me the mic, and I did 45 minutes and got a standing ovation.
You played Richard Pryor in a 2004 TV movie. What was the experience like?
That was the toughest acting job I’ve ever had, because Richard was right there. I remember asking him, “How am I doing?” And he said [impersonates Pryor’s voice], “You’re me, motherfucker! Do it!” It meant a lot to me, because that’s my comic hero, my daily inspiration. It was a tearjerker. We had a father-son relationship for 17 years. He swore up and down I was his son—he might be right! When he first met me, he started calling me Junior. And I called him Pop.
How did you two meet?
I was performing at the Comedy Store [in Los Angeles] in 1990, and Richard came in. I was doing stand-up and working at the door. Now imagine being a doorman and your comedy hero walks up the stairs. I lost my mind. I didn’t know how to talk. I started [stuttering], and he’s like, “Boy, you got Tourette’s? What’s wrong with you?” I said, “Ah, Mr. Pryor, I’ll be going onstage soon. Will you watch me?” And he said, “I don’t know; shit, if I’m here,” because he probably heard that shit all the time. So I went on, did my shit, got off and felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rich, and he said, “Where you from, boy? You remind me of myself when I was 25!”
In 1998, you suffered a heart attack while taping an episode of Malcolm & Eddie. What kind of impact did that have on your life going forward?
Well, I gave up eating pork, changed the diet. You know, I was dead for about a minute and 10 seconds. I outdid Jesus. It took him three days; I came back in 1:10—I got the record.
I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack. One side was going numb, it was at lunch and I was eating beef. I spit it out, and I said, “Oprah Winfrey’s right: Beef ain’t good for you.” Then everything just locked up. My friends were sitting in the dressing room, and finally one of them noticed that I’m dying over here. He said, “Let me go get the paramedic,” and I said, “You might [deep breath] wanna [deep breath] run [deep breath]! Because if the money is dead, how you gonna get paid?”
So you’re making a joke even as you’re dying?
I’m a comedian, everything’s funny to me. Luckily, Brotman Hospital is a couple of blocks from Sony Studios where we were filming. So I get there and their jumper cables worked. I don’t know if you’ve ever been hit by lightning, but I had an instant Afro. Undercover Brother was born! And I jumped up off the gurney, I’m trying to beat the shit out of the paramedics, my momma’s crying in the corner—and the nurse hit me in the ass with some morphine. That shit is good! I mean, I was a pile of brother on the floor!
I don’t know if you’re aware, but the local Speedway offers exotic-car driving experiences. Want take another turn behind a Ferrari?
Ha!! If they’re willing to have their cars wrecked, I’m willing to wreck ’em! As long as the air bags work.
Do you recall the first time you made someone laugh?
I had to have been about 6 or 7. It was at a family reunion, and my grandmother asked me to get up on a picnic table and do James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. She knew that I knew how to do it, emulating what I saw on TV. That was my first hit at entertaining, and when you get a standing ovation from the family, you’re hooked. I had the bug, and I’ve been performing ever since. I think whatever you get adulation for as a child you end up pursuing.
What do you think it was about you that appealed to Pryor?
The truth. That’s what he said. [Impersonates Pryor’s voice] “Ain’t nobody doing it like you! You’re just buck-naked and raw. Don’t change!”
So Pryor was your hero, but were there other comedians you looked up to?
Oh yeah. The mainstay is Pop, then there’s Dr. Cosby and Dick Gregory. And George Carlin, whom I had the pleasure of hanging out with for a few nights, and Lenny Bruce. I like the truth-sayers and the storytellers.
What’s the roughest gig you’ve ever had—be it an unruly crowd or an audience that simply didn’t get you?
I was just starting out, this was before I moved to L.A., and me and this comedian named Huey D drove in his hatchback to Iowa from Kansas City. Huey had been doing comedy for five or six years, and I’m as green as they come, and we get to this one-horse town, and they had chicken wire around the stage. You talk about a redneck spot! I got up on that mic, and they started to throw beer bottles, and I understood why the chicken wire was there. I think that’s the night I came up with Michael Jackson on crack. And when I got done, them rednecks stood up, and I remember going out the backdoor, getting my little $150 and telling Huey, “Hurry up, start the car, let’s get out of here!”
What’s the difference between performing in a mainly black room vs. mainstream room?
I don’t know. Laughter is laughter. The only difference is black people are going to make you earn your money, because you know the money is hard to come by. So you better be funny, or they become interactive [laughs]. That’s the only difference. My audiences are eclectic, from Asian to Jewish, Anglo-Saxon, Africa, Australia.
So your favorite room is a full room?
I wouldn’t give a damn if there were two people in there. Some nights at the Comedy Store, I performed for the waitress staff. Whether it’s one or 20,000 when I was opening up for Andrew Dice Clay, doesn’t make a difference to me. It takes the same amount of energy. You don’t know what anybody sacrificed to buy a ticket to come see your show, and you’re going to take a lazy attitude? No. I had a temperature of 102 Saturday night at the show in Denver, and after the show the audience was like, “Man, I can’t believe you were sick.”
Why launch a residency in Vegas, why the King’s Room and why now?
Why not? I like the room. It reminds me of where I started out, in the original Comedy Store on Sunset [Boulevard]. Since I live here now, it allows me to spend more time with the family. I come here, work an hour, hour and a half, and then it’s right back to the house.
What’s your go-to move for dealing with a heckler?
I don’t have a go-to move. Each is different. I have this ability to look in their eyes and pretty much tell what their whole life story is, and then I just go in on them. It’s using the high power of perception, body language, what’s behind the eyes. Exactly what they say and the tone in which they say it comes out musically to my ears, then I just put the right note to it. And then they shut the fuck up, because they get scared. “How do you know all this about me?”