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David Letterman won the headlines as well as the "Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence" at the first annual US Comedy Awards on Saturday, when he quipped, "Giving me this award is the equivalent of NASA giving the Neil Armstrong Award to Balloon Boy." (The ceremony will air April 10 at 9 p.m. on the MTV Networks' Comedy Central, Spike TV, TV Land, VH1 and Nick At Nite.)

But another another comic superstar who exploded in the 1980s was also on the bill: Eddie Murphy, who accepted the "Comedy Icon" award. This comedy award has come just in time for Murphy, because I think his best prospects these days are increasingly in drama.

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He's more than earned his standing as "Comedy Icon." He's been equally imaginative and funny in many different modes. I've come to think of him as three different personae: Crazy Eddie, the unabashed wild comic of films like "The Nutty Professor"; Mr. Ed, the family-film comedian of his "Doctor. Dolittle" and the more appealing "Dr. Dolittle 2"; and Fast Eddie, the dynamic, ad-libbing movie star who helped power "48 HRS." and carried the "Beverly Hills Cop" series on his back.

But I think he's only fully inspired now when a gifted writer or director provokes him to produce a piercing, rounded picture of an actual human being, as he did in Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls." As R&B star James Thunder Early, Murphy was funny, heartrending, dynamic - downright dizzying. I don't know why he didn't win more awards for that performance. And it was not a one-shot deal. In Karey Kirkpatrick's woefully under-seen "Imagine That," playing a driven financial analyst who doesn't know how to connect with his 7-year-old daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi), he created a man who's always getting ahead of his emotions, or trying to catch up to them. Murphy's outbursts of hysteria became funny again, because they were so thoroughly rooted in a hidebound character stretched past his limits. And he and Shahidi played off each other beautifully.

Murphy can be a terrific costar. That's one reason I'm looking forward to the caper movie Tower Heist," in which he's part of an ensemble including Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch, Casey Affleck, Ben Stiller, Alan Alda, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Gabourey Sidibe, and Michael Pena. It's due out in the fall.

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