SNL brings out everyone to welcome back long-lost legend Eddie Murphy

SNL brings out everyone to welcome back long-lost legend Eddie Murphy

Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy Chris Rock
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

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“This is the last episode of 2019. But, if you’re black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984.”

“I’m Eddie Murphy, dammit.”

Chris Rock, who appeared onstage alongside Eddie Murphy and other black male comic legends Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, and all-time Saturday Night Live veteran Kenan Thompson, once said that anyone who claims that Eddie Murphy wasn’t the biggest star in the show’s history is making a racist argument. He’s right.

I’m younger than Eddie Murphy, but not by that much. I was just the right age when Murphy saved Saturday Night Live to hitch my love of this show irrevocably to Eddie, as much as I’d worshipped the original cast. And make no mistake—there would be no 45th season of SNL without Eddie. It’s likely there wouldn’t have been a 10th. Hired as an afterthought by infamously unsuccessful producer Jean Doumanian after Lorne Michaels and the remaining founders left before the 1980 season, the 19-year-old Murphy’s presence alone kept the show afloat during the next unsteady years under Dick Ebersol, Doumanian’s successor, and middlebrow control freak who pitched that the whole “live” part of Saturday Night Live didn’t really matter. By the time Eddie left in 1984, he was a superstar, and—after Michael’s initial shaky return to the series almost squandered all the Murphy goodwill (and ratings)—the show’s settled comfortably into the institution its become.

As to what Eddie Murphy brought to Saturday Night Live, the short answer is—Eddie Murphy. There’s never been a more charismatic, confident, defiantly funny presence on SNL, before or since. If that’s a bold statement, well, you weren’t there to see this unknown black teenager pick up a dying TV show and single-handedly power it with his own irrepressible energy, whether America was ready for him or not. There was an unending parade of hit characters (a few of whom Eddie brought out of mothballs tonight after 35 years), but, more than that, Eddie was unquestionably the star—of Saturday Night Live and, concurrently and then subsequently, American entertainment. SNL hired him almost by mistake, and the notoriously white show became the Eddie Murphy show simply by dint of talent. Trouper Tim Kazurkinsky, in the SNL-produced documentary about the show during the ’80s, was effusive in praising his co-star, saying that, in constantly pushing for Kazurinsky and the others in that cast to get more screen time, Murphy was “a mensch.” But Ebersol knew business much better than he ever knew comedy, and he knew what people wanted. They wanted Eddie, and they got him, as much as they could handle.

After launching himself from SNL to a movie career that soared, then inexplicably declined (all the while maintaining a reliable bankability), Murphy’s reputation as a comic genius, and an irresistible comic force, dulled under mounds of latex and bad decisions. (Peppered with the occasional character role where he—like later star Adam Sandler—showed glimpses of what he could still do when he gave a shit.) For a lot of people who know only the Norbit/Meet Dave/Pluto Nash/Klumps/A Thousand Words Murphy, it might be inexplicable how much enthusiasm greeted the announcement that Eddie would be hosting Saturday Night Live for 2019’s holiday show. I guess I understand. They weren’t there.

And I’d like to say that Eddie’s return was triumphant, a show-redefining rocket-boost of the old, show-saving magic. It wasn’t, but that’s to be expected, I suppose. SNL doesn’t need to be rescued any more, at least in the ratings. I still love Saturday Night Life, as I’ve done since I was allowed to stay up far too late to watch its first incarnation, but Saturday Night Live isn’t here to be reinvented, or changed, not even by someone so instrumental in getting it to where it is. I get sucked in, despite myself, every once in a while, to thinking a truly transcendent comic talent (Rock, Chappelle) will come in to host and bend the show to new shapes, and I’m always mad at myself for being reminded that SNL isn’t really in that business anymore, if it ever was. Eddie’s return was just another season 45 episode of Saturday Night Live. A more than decent one, but just another episode, despite Eddie still—in flashes of the old live TV luminescence—being Eddie.

His monologue was lovely, really, the sort of affectionately funny showcase the returning Murphy could have hoped for. With Rock, Morgan, Chappelle, and Kenan (get out of here, Beck) all chiming in with their own uniquely terrible rejected sketch pitches, it was, actual jokes aside, a thrillingly eloquent testimonial to Eddie’s comic legacy. That said, the jokes were fine, with Rock reminiscing about how Lorne had told him he’d be “the next Eddie Murphy” on SNL—until he stopped. And Chappelle noted how he’d followed in Eddie’s footsteps by becoming the biggest star on TV, and then quitting.

Eddie himself was, at a trim and youthful 58 (“Money don’t crack,” he explained), a little guarded, as has become his way over the years. He’s still Eddie—just, here, a bit more controlled, and wary. He dutifully plugged his movies (like a Coming To America sequel, and the unjustly slighted Dolemite Is My Name) like any host, and noted the unlikelihood that father of 10 Murphy’s become “America’s dad” while other 1980s black superstar Bill Cosby is in prison. (“I would have taken that bet,” he joked.) But for much of the monologue, he played straight man to his younger peers, including a hilariously transgressive moment when he asked the lighting-up Chappelle if people are allowed to smoke in Studio 8H these days. (“You’re not!,” puffed Chappelle, happily.) Eddie once stepped in to host SNL while he was still a cast member (and 48 Hours co-star Nick Nolte was too out of it to host as planned), brashly opening the show by announcing, “Live from New York, it’s The Eddie Murphy Show!” This wasn’t that. This was Eddie Murphy hosting a season 45 episode of Saturday Night Live. But that’s still an event, and, in practice, mostly a delight.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

For all the fun of seeing Eddie do old characters he clearly enjoyed playing again, it was the very last sketch of the night that I’ll remember most, simply because it’s exactly the type of sketch that I remember the old Eddie destroying in. Eddie was the ultimate “raise all boats” sort of sketch comedian during his SNL days, a period where the writing—by almost uniformly white writers—wasn’t necessarily in his voice, until he made it so. Here, the sketch about Santa’s elves reeling from a bloody polar bear attack is nothing special in itself—I could see it taking a fourth sketch of the night spot and, without Eddie, getting a few chuckles. Here, however, it was a glimpse of the old, loose, fully engaged, electric Eddie, as his brash, pissed-off elf rails against the substandard precautions (against global warming-starved bears) Santa’s provided for his workforce, Eddie’s Kiddle Diddles (hey, he’s an elf) overcoming the staid caution of the all-elf news team (and the sketch itself), and letting loose. It’s fucking glorious watching Eddie Murphy just lay into a sketch with everything he’s got, and, here, Eddie was pure Eddie, punching his lines with motormouthed righteous anger, punctuated with screams of frustrated rage (and few unintended giggles) that brought the house down. There were some funny conceits in the sketch—Diddles proved how dangerous it was in the bloody workshop by revealing that Chloe Fineman’s white teenage elf ran directly to him (“a black elf in sweatpants!”) for protection. But it was one of the only times on the night that vindicated all us old farts who still point to Eddie Murphy as the greatest performer in SNL history.

Another example was the return of Gumby, the now-nearly forgotten bendable 1950s children’s TV character that child of TV Murphy turned inexplicably into one of his most justly enduring characters during his time on the show. The conceit of Murphy playing the squeaky-clean, squeaky-voiced clay figure as a cigar-chomping, crotchety old Jewish comedian is the sort of idea whose loopy incongruity only really works because it gives Murphy an opportunity to exhibit his force of personality. Interrupting Che and Jost during Update, Gumby was the most successful of all Eddie’s returning characters tonight, mainly because he’s less of a museum piece than an opportunity for Murphy to play around and have fun. Murphy’s Gumby is all bitterness and hostility at an entertainment world that’s forgotten him, still harboring resentment against old horse sidekick Pokey (“a can of dog food!”), and insulting the anchors’ comedy. (“You know why you sit behind a desk? Because your jokes don’t have legs, you schmucks!”) Repeatedly insulting Che as “you black bastard” just kept getting funnier in Murphy’s insult comic curmudgeon shtick, and when Murphy seemingly ad-libbed the threat, “I’m staying here!” at the end of the bit, the energy was palpable.

The recent SNL tradition of filmed sketches juxtaposing family holiday platitudes and actual family holiday chaos continued in fine form, as Murphy and wife Maya Rudolph’s heartfelt Christmas dinner toast is intercut with them freaking out about their overrun house, shrieking grandkids, farting grandpa, and daughter Ego Nwodim’s white fiancé (Mikey Day), who’s just a little too comfortable calling Murphy “Dad.” Maya (already on hand as her Kamala Harris for the cold open) makes a perfect match for Murphy (I’d watch a movie about that onscreen pairing any day) as the outwardly placid parents’ calm is revealed to be the wine-aided performance of two people who’ve somehow made it through the holiday gauntlet. There’s an energy to watching how Murphy’s father puts on a baseline neutral persona to perform his holiday dinner duties that contrasts with his more lived-in real personality, as when he admits brashly that, yes, of course it’s because he’s white that he doesn’t want Nwodim to marry her husband. There’s a cozy vibe to these sketches—the end legend reads, “To our families—we love you even when we don’t”—that tends to neuter them somewhat, but Murphy jolted this one into undeniable, irresistible life.

In interviews, Murphy claimed he’d really been hoping to bring back stilted entrepreneur Velvet Jones (he’s a pimp with a series of how-to books for women), and so Jones turned up as a contestant in the ordinarily bracing Black Jeopardy. There are some characters from Murphy’s SNL tenure that haven’t aged particularly well, and Jones is one of them. (We were spared a resurrection of his lisping gay hairdresser stereotype Dion.) The sketch—with Jones hijacking the game show to pitch his books, including his updated I Wanna Be An Instagram Ho—did address Jones’ low-rent origins in the days when saying “ho” and “big ol’ greasy ass” on TV was a shock laugh, with Kenan’s host repeatedly reprimanding Jones for trying that schtick in the Me Too era. But Black Jeopardy has been one of the most reliably insightful and bold sketches about race in recent years, and shoehorning Velvet Jones in here robs it of any enjoyment but questionable nostalgia. (Even Eddie seemed unsure of himself—as did the audience.)

Another big nostalgia sketch tonight was similarly enervated both by the audience’s muted reaction. Like Gumby, Buckwheat is a product of Murphy’s childhood spent in front of the TV, and the now-big Little Rascal’s unintelligible song lyrics being thrown into a Masked Singer sketch at least kept the joke of an aging child star adapting to the changing entertainment scene alive. The premise is silly, with Murphy’s toothy enthusiasm as the mumble-mouthed Buckwheat making the oddball riff on another long-ago childhood favorite (albeit a problematic one in this case) improbably endearing. Sure, nobody can understand the lyrics of “Dine, Teal, Dawibba,” but Buckwheat sings it (in Murphy’s always impeccable Stevie Wonder impression) as if nobody’s saying, “Huh?” I dunno—the whole Buckwheat thing never should have gone on past its initial, hilariously silly outing (although the legendary “Buckwheat shot” runner was inspired), but it’s pretty impossible to criticize for what it is. Eddie clearly having fun.

Speaking of problematic favorites, Mister Robinson. Coming right out of the gate after the monologue, this all-time sure-fire crowdpleaser continues to suggest that a black, inner city Mister Rogers would be a shifty, no-account petty crook and deadbeat. It’s clearly still a favorite of Murphy’s (and the crowd’s), and the way Robinson’s serene singsong to-camera patter veers abruptly into Murphy’s brash, confrontational “Who is it!?” at every knock on his rundown apartment’s door is plain funny. Whole sociological works could be written about the Reagan-era climate that spawned this sketch, complete with its queasy mix of rebellious, bucking-the-system outrageousness and stereotype-reinforcing shenanigans (Robinson here plays on his gentrified white neighbors’ white guilt to conceal that fact that he, indeed, stole their TV), and we don’t have that kind of time. (Like Velvet, Robinson’s signature bursts of standards-pushing language often accounted for the era-specific big laughs.) I will say that Murphy didn’t really seem all that into it on a performance level at times, but admit, in spite of everything, it was nice to see Mister R. again.

Apart from the elf sketch, the returning holiday baking competition was the only standard live SNL sketch Murphy took part in. As ever, the joke is that these folks aren’t very good at baking, their grand designs unveiled to reveal incompetent and/or inappropriate grotesqueries of sugar and flour. But the kicker that one baker is so bad at baking that he’s inadvertently created a living monstrosity is such a silly, prop-heavy idea that I always grudgingly smile whenever the show brings it back. Here, Murphy’s attempt at a a Sonic the Hedgehog cake turns out to be a Lovecraftian horror, complete with human teeth and a demonic voice summoning forth the apocalypse. Seeing Eddie in such a pedestrian sketch was a little jarring but, as expected, he brought the funny, his humble baker intermittently losing his cool when confronted by the frosting-slathered creature he’s wrought. (“Why is anything brown!?,” he shouts in response to one judge’s question about his cake’s color.) Murphy made the most of the bit, at one point confessing meekly, “I opened up a portal and I’m so bad at baking,” and finishing things off with an inadvertent profanity when berating his cake-enstein (which has burst into flames before trying crawl away). (“Come back here, you coward! We can win this shit!”) Not exactly an ambitious choice for such a high-profile guest, but everyone made the most of it.

Weekend Update update

Gumby stole the segment, but we did get the annual treat of watching Colin Jost and Michael Che trying to make each other break by cold-reading jokes the other has written, so that’s pretty great. The winner’s always Che, as his running bit about his co-anchor’s preppy whiteness leaves Jost wide open to pie himself in the face with Che’s words. Jost reminded Che that this is all supposed to be in good fun “and not to try to ruin anyones career or get them stabbed,” but he knew what he was in for. Jost, indeed, got the worst of it, as Che penned a joke that Jost supposedly refused to finish because there was a black stagehand holding the cue card. Although Jost’s burn concerning a supposed cancer cure involving herpes gave Che as good as he got. Funny stuff.

The actual Update was the usual exercise in trying to make Donald Trump seem more ridiculous than Donald Trump does on his own, but at least Update continues to serve the purpose of rehashing some of Trump’s most egregious actions on a national stage for people to jeer at. It’s the little things—like Trump’s current obsession with low-flow toilets, and, oh, joking about a beloved, recently deceased U.S. Congressman being in hell because he occasionally tweeted mean stuff about Donald Trump. Which is good, because neither Che nor Jost dig particularly deeply into the biggest issues (kids in cages, white supremacists setting policy, impeachment) with much insight or commitment. Bring on the Star Wars and Cats jokes.

Cecily Strong’s turn as Fox News hate-megaphone Jeanine Pirro continues not to run out of gas, even if SNL felt it necessary to bring out the barf-rig this time out. (Honestly, Strong’s leg-flinging spasms of joy/shock have been funny enough on their own.) Still, I didn’t see it coming, and while the wine-spewing took over for much of the usual satire of right-wing scaremongering and propagandizing, there’s a long tradition, so go for it, I guess.

Pete Davidson’s return to the desk as himself has plenty of people talking, as Davidson’s joke about his upcoming vacation sounding suspiciously like voluntary commitment and/or rehab rocked the audience back. Davidson’s openness about his ongoing fight against substance and mental health issues makes his absence for much of this season all the more affecting as, here, he and Jost bet on whether the first tweet about Davidson they see on their phones will be mean or not. (Sort of a mixed bag, as it turns out in the bit.) Joking that his appearance serves to remind people turning in for the first time in ages to see Eddie why they stopped watching SNL in the first place is the sort of self-deprecating stuff that lends Davidson’s appearances their queasy relatability. While Eddie’s cast remained largely free from high-profile meltdowns, Saturday Night Live’s history is littered with actual bodies, and here the sincerest wish that Pete’s on-air confessional comedy is somehow therapeutic. Seriously—be well, Pete.

“What do you call that act?” “‘The Californians!’”—Recurring sketch report

Velvet Jones, Mister Robinson, Buckwheat, and Gumby all returned after what’s probably the longest hiatus in SNL history. Holiday baking show’s been on a lot more recently, as has Black Jeopardy.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

We got a Democratic Debate cold open, complete with Alec Baldwin Trump cameo, and other return visits from old pals Rachel Dratch (Amy Klobuchar), Maya Rudolph (a martini-sipping Kamala Harris, reminding America they could have had “a bad bitch”), Jason Sudeikis’ Biden, Fred Armisen’s Michael Bloomberg (ensuring his participation by essentially buying PBS), and Larry David’s Bernie Sanders (he’s still really old and cranky). Bowen Yang (Andrew Yang), Cecily Strong (a debate-crashing, evil Tulsi Gabbard), Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren (and quick-changed Nancy Pelosi), and Jost’s Pete Buttigieg managed to squeeze in there from the actual current cast, too. This sort of thing is more a hit-or-miss cavalcade of low-hanging fruit and so-so impressions, but there were a few smarter highlights. Moderator Heidi Gardner summed up the winnowing Democratic debate field, saying, like The Bachelor, “The further we go the less diverse it gets.” And the joke that “PBS” is Warren’s safe word, coming from McKinnon, is a huge laugh.

Again, Larry David’s cantankerous Bernie is more old jokes than anything of substance, but any time Sudeikis wants to come back as Biden (and it looks like he’s going to have plenty of opportunity) is more than okay with me. Sudeikis has always done the smarter move of capturing Biden’s essence rather than concentrating on the voice, creating a lightly embroidered portrait of a bluff, well-meaning, hopelessly out-of-touch gaffe machine who just can’t help but step in messes of his own making. Biden’s anecdote here about his “nineteen whoopsie-daisy” encounter with a doo-wop singing guy named “Old Black Charlie” emerges, in Sudeikis’ glazed confidence, like the purest form of impersonation. Even Baldwin’s Trump, coming out in reality talk show style to pick a fight couldn’t derail things too badly, especially as his off-the-cuff insulting nicknames for the Dems included the perfectly calibrated racism of “‘Andrew Yang’—works as it is.”

I am hip to the musics of today

Like recent musical guest DaBaby, Lizzo tore the place down with an exuberant, playfully choreographed double set of songs that showed off just why she’s the breakout star she is. With a kickass all-woman band and coterie of killer backup dancers (of all shapes), Lizzo just killed. I love Lizzo.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Eddie. Look, the regular cast—as is too often the case these past few years—got ditched in favor of big guests. Plus, it’s Eddie. He rebuilt this joint. It’s still his.

(I’m not saying the almost completely absent Aidy would have bumped Eddie if this sketch had aired, but I’m not not saying it.)

Season’s blessings, Kiddle Diddles. You made America believe in the ten-to-one spot again.

Stray observations

  • Chappelle says that the monologue guest lineup represents “half of Netflix’s budget.”
  • After Kenan shoos Bennet offstage, Rock asks who the hell he was. “Joe Piscopo,” guesses Tracy.
  • Yang’s Ken Jeong opens The Masked Singer sketch by announcing he’s “already at a 10.”
  • Che compares Trump’s repeated slight of Mike Pence (by complaining that removing Trump from office would be a disaster) is like Che telling Lorne Michaels, “You can’t fire me. Then some racist would be doing Update by himself.” “Merry Christmas, Michael,” ad-libbed Jost.
  • Gumby digs Lizzo, a.k.a. “What’s-her-tush.”
  • Che makes fun of Merriam-Webster for making the gender-neutral “they” its word of the year, smirking, “As in, ‘They don’t want me to make a joke about this.’” Just a thought—whoever “they” are, they probably wouldn’t mind a joke about the evolution of language and the fight for inclusive language if you were better at it.
  • Davidson complains that people think it’s great when Jost dates someone famous, while “when I do it, the world wants to punch me in the throat.”
  • Speaking of Dion, some of Delirious-era Eddie’s material remains regrettable concerning the LGBTQ community, something Murphy’s apologized for since. The teenage me—desperately parroting everything Eddie said in a vain attempt to be popular—also has some regrets on that score.
  • And that’s the last Saturday Night Live of 2019, everyone. See you on January 25, when we get Adam Driver and Halsey. Happy New Year, you.

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