That's a question constantly posed by readers, moviegoers, and half-soused nightclub audiences. What are the sources of an artist's art? What weird compulsion enables a performer to stand naked before the prying eye of a camera, an empty canvas, or a roomful of strangers who've all paid 30 bucks to get into the joint?
We don't get the complete answer from a new concert film-slash-documentary called DysFunKtional Family, but we do glimpse the dynamic interplay between one rising comedian's hilarious obsessions and the loving but screwed-up people who made him what he is. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wasn't what you'd call a laugh riot -- not with books that long -- but what he said about families still holds water: "All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
For young Eddie Griffin (the energetic centerpiece of TV's Malcolm & Eddie and the title character of Undercover Brother), an eventual career in stand-up comedy, dance, and music began in the streets of Kansas City, where his loving Moms once tried to run him down with the car, and his wayward Uncle Bucky was always getting busted for pimping, theft, or heroin possession. Many fatherless teenagers would have broken under the pressure; some would have done time in the penitentiary. Instead Eddie Griffin started using the pain to get laughs. His crucial inspiration? The same titan who has stirred an entire new wave of black comedians -- Richard Pryor.
In Family, director George Gallo (who first worked with Griffin on the mistaken-identity comedy Double Take) tries to show us how it happened. Frantically cross-cutting between a slick Griffin concert appearance in Chicago and a more rough-hewn look at the comic's family reunion in K.C., Gallo reveals just how literal and lifelike a lot of Griffin's material is. Like many other young black comedians -- Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley, to name just three -- he hits to all fields: race, sex, drugs, politics, religion, the follies and terrors of growing up. Like everyone else, Griffin can riff on, say, the contrast between a ghetto hustler's cool, spring-loaded street walk and a white guy's uptight lurch, and offer hyper-graphic bedroom bits stuffed with some awfully familiar misogyny and homophobia. As for verbal style points, Griffin never holds back. The final score in his linguistic battle royal: n-word 600, motherfucker 578.
Meanwhile we grab a little personal context -- if only a little. There's a fleeting videocam encounter with Eddie's mischievous Uncle Curtis, whose hobby was (and is) homemade pornography. We go for a ride with Uncle Bucky, who stopped getting into trouble only when his mother had a stroke. We get a recollection of Eddie's surrogate grandfather, a white man who gave him his first shot of Jack Daniel's at age thirteen, and a visit to Eddie's old junior high school, where an administrator gives him the same skeptical look she gave him in ninth grade. Think the Osbournes are strange? In the heavyweight championship of oddity, my money's on the Griffins.
Eddie Griffin's traumas, and the tough love he got from his family, are, of course, his precious raw material, with emphasis on the "raw." It's fascinating to speculate how he turned it into his act -- and into a defense against the old demons. Nietzsche's no funnier than Tolstoy, but the nasty old German, too, probably sheds some light on Griffin's artistic process: "A joke," he once wrote, "is an epitaph on an emotion."
A brilliant mimic with a gift for physical comedy -- the man can claw his way up the curtains and simulate an ass-whuppin' with the best of them -- Griffin has a couple of other things in common with his idol, Pryor, and with superb comics like Eddie Murphy. To wit: He has absolutely no fear of spilling his guts, offending his audience, or mocking his maker. Employing perfect pitch, he gives us Sammy Davis, Jr., selling Happy Meals at McDonald's, reinvents Bill Cosby as a pimp, and wryly comments on a momentary thaw in race relations occasioned by 9/11. He works up a shouting match between Jesus and Satan that might send fundamentalists running for the exits.
Hungry for more flash? Griffin is an accomplished pianist, so he plays the opening of Beethoven's Fifth (you know, dah-dah-dah-DUH) in the style of, say, Cecil Taylor, then imagines Alexander Graham Bell as a raving cokehead: "Hey. The man wants to talk to someone who's not even in the room!" As if the energy level weren't high enough, the whole rollicking psychodrama is encased in a surging wall of hip-hop. Suge Knight is producing the soundtrack on Tha Row, and it will likely prove as popular as this vivid snapshot of an artist and his history at work.