April 21, 2003 12:00 PM

Leave it to Eddie Griffin Jr. to crack wise in the middle of a heart attack. The tingling sensation started when the actor-comedian, then 30, was rehearsing a dance sequence for his sitcom Malcolm & Eddie in 1998. “We had the only Latina woman in California that can’t salsa, so I was doing it for the 18th time,” Griffin recalls wryly. Then a sharp pain shot through his body and left him fighting for breath. “The paramedics come and say, ‘You’re having a heart attack,'” he says, “and I’m saying, ‘I figured that much out by now. You want to get the meat wagon and put me in it?’ ” Assured he wasn’t yet a goner, Griffin says he saw the heart monitor flatline in the ambulance and was clinically dead for a minute before the “jumper cables” jolted his heart back to life—and his hair into “an instant ‘fro.”

Since having an angioplasty, Griffin, 34, has had a clean bill of health—and one more eyebrow-raising life experience to mine for laughs. In his new stand-up concert film, DysFunKtional Family, the motor-mouthed comic talks about his kooky kin—from a pimp uncle to his iron-willed mom—and lets them speak for themselves on-camera. “I see my family as a microcosm,” he says. “Yes, we have some wild, colorful characters, but what holds it all together is the love, and I think that’s what America is about.”

Griffin’s often X-rated and politically incorrect (Sikh groups have decried his calling a turbaned Sikh “bin Laden” in the movie) but ultimately bighearted comedy has earned him comparisons to Richard Pryor. Like Pryor, he’s also thriving in movies. Following last year’s hit spy spoof Undercover Brother, Griffin will appear in My Baby’s Mama, a comedy due this fall. He has also signed to play Sammy Davis Jr. in a movie bio. “We’ll break our backs to do it correctly,” he says, “because that’s an important story.”

Griffin has been practicing for the role since age 5, when the second of three brothers would imitate Davis to amuse his single mom, Doris Thomas, 59, a phone-company operator in Kansas City, Mo. “I always told everybody he’s a mama’s boy,” says Thomas. “He likes a lot of attention.” He got plenty as a cutup and a dancer, choreographing routines at age 15 for Kansas City Chiefs halftime shows.

His life didn’t lack drama either. At 16, Griffin married his sweetheart, Carla; became a dad to Eddie, now 17; and met his own father for the first time. Eddie Sr., who died in 1994, had been a fighter pilot in Vietnam and was haunted by flashbacks. He left the family because “he thought he would be a hindrance as a father,” says Griffin. “When I heard his side of the story, it was like, ‘All is forgiven.’ ”

Griffin enlisted in the Navy at 17 but was discharged within months for using marijuana. Back home, he got a divorce. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We haven’t lived life yet,'” says Griffin, who has since bought Carla and Eddie a house in L.A.

After six months in jail on an assault conviction following a fight, he made ends meet dancing and painting houses. Then, at a comedy club open-mike night in 1989, Griffin hopped onstage on a bet and earned a standing ovation with family stories. He talked his way into gigs around town and in L.A. One popular bit was his gay version of tough-guy comic Andrew Dice Clay, who later hired Griffin to open for him. “The material was beginner,” says Clay, “but his attitude onstage drew my attention.”

As his career took off, Griffin was rocked by the 1994 deaths of his father and of his mentally retarded older brother Luther, who committed suicide by dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire. “He was depressed because his brothers had married and had children, and he was never going to have that,” Griffin says. His mother had to talk the devastated Eddie out of leaving showbiz.

As for Griffin’s romantic life, “I’m no angel,” says the comic, who was recently ordered by a Canadian court to pay $5,000 a month child support to a Toronto-area woman following a paternity suit. Lately, things have taken a more traditional turn. Last Christmas he wed Rochelle, 27, a nurse; their daughter Elexa just turned 1. “The first time, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Griffin, who lives in Malibu, says of marriage. He cites family wisdom: “My grandfather told me a 40,000-year-old dummy could teach a 30-year-old genius something. Some things you only learn by living long enough.”

Samantha Miller

Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

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