Saturday Night Live is a 45-year-old comedic institution that has launched the careers of countless stars. But in 1980, the show was thought to be nearing its end. All of the members of the original cast, Bill Murray (who replaced Chevy Chase in season 3), and show creator Lorne Michaels all exited stage left before season six. With all of the change surrounding the show, SNL found itself in the midst of a tumultuous transition.
Season six of SNL was an utter disaster with one exception; the emergence of the second Black cast member on the show and one of only two castmates who survived to make it to the seventh season, a teenager from Roosevelt, Long Island named Eddie Murphy.
After his first and only professional audition, Eddie Murphy became a featured player on SNL in the fourth episode of season seven and commenced to save the show from its imminent death. From 1980-1984, Murphy put the franchise on his back, becoming the face of the show, and breathed new life into an enterprise that was on life-support.
With his comedic brilliance, unapologetic Blackness, smooth persona, spot-on impersonations, and memorable characters like Buckwheat, Gumby, and Velvet Jones, Murphy utilized the platform of SNL to deliver his version of Black comedy in a space previously dominated by whiteness. Coinciding with his growing superstardom as a movie star, Murphy's comedic exploits not only helped to save SNL, but catapulted him as the greatest talent that the show has ever produced.
With his return to SNL this weekend as host, BET.com presents this primer for the unfamiliar with Eddie Murphy’s classic SNL contributions.
Without question, Saturday Night Live was the holy grail for emerging comedians but it was not nearly big enough to contain the enormous star power of Eddie Murphy. From the moment he debuted on SNL, fresh outta high school, Murphy wielded a one-of-a-kind aurora that would eventually catapult him into the cultural stratosphere.
With the impending release of 48 Hours in 1982, Murphy co-star Nick Nolte was set to be the host of Saturday Night Live in episode nine of season eight. But according to Murphy’s explanation in his cold open, Nolte fell ill (or had a bad hangover). Murphy was more than happy to substitute for Nolte, becoming the only person to have hosted the show while still a cast member. He announced, "Live from New York, it's the Eddie Murphy Show,” closing out his cold open in iconic, Eddie Murphy style.
As the first Black cast member of SNL, Garret Morris was tragically underused and forced to delve into stereotypical humor just to stay afloat on the show with his white counterparts. This was not to be the case for young Eddie Murphy. From the moment he first arrived at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he insisted on showcasing his comedic talents for the world. With Eddie’s ascent as the biggest star on SNL, he brought veracious impersonations of Black superstars that were missing from previous incarnations of the show.
In “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub,” Eddie Murphy gave America a fresh look into the ultimate expression of Black culture, The Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown. While the premise of the sketch was simple, the execution by Murphy makes it a comedic classic. Without any other cast members involved, Murphy carries the sketch and the show for all intents and purposes. His impersonation of James Brown has gone down in the annals of SNL as one of the best sketches in the history of the show. Well, well, well, well!
The PBS children's program Mister Rogers Neighborhood featured Fred Rogers, a minister and advocate for educating children through the medium of public television. However, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” was the complete opposite. Murphy’s parody of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was another goldmine the SNL discovered in the genius of Eddie Murphy.
Each segment of "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" opened with a shot of his rundown crib in the hood with Murphy entering his apartment, singing the opening lines of the Mr. Rogers theme song, switching from his jacket into a cardigan, shoes into sneakers.
Eddie reworked Roger’s theme song saying, “I always wanted to live in a house like yours, my friend / Maybe when no one's home, I'll break in!" and sometimes putting in a few more lines that detailed more nefarious behavior: "So come out with some folks and a smoke / You bring the stash, ’cause Robinson’s broke."
Along with almost everyone else, Rogers thought that the parody was funny. In fact, Rogers sought out Murphy when he visited NBC and told him personally.
Eddie Murphy was so hot during his run on SNL that his sketches and everything else he did garnered him more screen time each week. Because of this, some of his recurring characters almost went into overkill, namely Buckwheat.
Premiering on October 10, 1981 episode, Murphy put a new spin on the classic character of Buckwheat from the Our Gang (Little Rascals) shows of the 30s and 40s. Ironically, Murphy debuted Buckwheat a year to the day of the death of Billie Thomas who played Buckwheat as a child.
Although Buckwheat was incredibly popular, Murphy felt that the character was overexposed. In January 1983, he went and discussed the matter with producer Dick Ebersol and said, "I want to kill Buckwheat. I can't stand it anymore. Everywhere I go people say, 'Do Buckwheat, do this, do that.' I want to kill him."
Ebersol understood and teamed him up with writers Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield who decided to not only kill off Buckwheat but to satirize the way television news outlets were covering events. Buckwheat’s last appearance was when he showed up to affirm he faked his death, once again proving Murphy was a legend in the making.
After starring in three blockbusters, 48 Hours, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie was well on his way to becoming an A-list movie star. When he first hosted SNL he was a cast member, but this time, Murphy was the hottest act in Hollywood. His appearance on SNL as a host in December of 1984 was a victory lap of sorts, to celebrate his growing fame in the very place that gave him his start.
As Eddie was ascending, on his way to becoming the biggest movie star in 1984, he was always aware of the reality of racism in Hollywood. Instead of shying away from the issue of race, he tackled white normativity when he returned to host SNL in season 10, episode nine, analyzing the nature of white male privilege is his sketch “White Like Me.”
Murphy, dressed in whiteface, goes undercover to understand what it's like to be white. The short follows Murphy throughout this experiment and chronicles his everyday experiences as a white man. He is stunned to see the many privileges and benefits he receives from white people, from a party in a city bus to free money at the bank.
Using his uncanny comedic insight, “White Like Me” opened the door for comics coming behind him such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and others to address the racism in the entertainment industry. No one could have guessed that this would be the last time that Murphy would be featured on SNL, as he didn’t return for 35 years.
In a candid interview on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Murphy goes into detail about the development of some of his most renowned characters on SNL. He recalled that Gumby (a personal favorite of mine) was inspired by some of the rude white people he came across while growing up on Long Island.
Gumby was a nice, polite, green, claymation figure that was the star of television shows and a feature film. Murphy remixed Gumby into a mean, jaded, washed-up actor who berates everyone with a cigar in his mouth.
Murphy introduced the catch-phrase "I'm Gumby, dammit!,” which has been called one of the show's best catchphrases.
No one, and I mean no one, was as fabulous as Velvet Jones. Always dressed to the nines rocking a fresh, dark brown press and curl, Murphy created the character, capitalizing on the growing trend of infomercials that were sweeping through the television landscape. But Velvet Jones wasn’t selling kitchen appliances: As the President of Velvet Jones School of Technology, he was selling the secrets of success that he discovered in the oldest occupation known to humankind--prostititon.
Premiering on October 17, 1981, Velvet pitched his audience saying, “Hello. Are you a female high-school dropout between the ages of 16 and 25? Are you tired of doors being slammed in your face when you apply for a job? Are you tired of lying around in bed all day with nothing to do? Well, you never need get up again, because, in six short weeks, I can train you to be a high-payin’ ho." Jones promised riches to women in his book, I Wanna Be a Ho. Jones also sold his Exercises of Love to help those who needed to take their sex life up a few notches.
The Velvet Jones character (Who inspired Tim Meadows’ Leon “The Ladies Man” Phelps character) was just another hilarious example of the versatility and comedic prowess of young Eddie Murphy.
One of Eddie Murphy’s go-to characters on SNL was his impersonation of the legendary Stevie Wonder. In this sketch, Murphy teams up with Joe Piscopo, who’s playing Frank Sinatra, as he attempts to reach a younger audience with his latest album. The duo sang a hilarious parody of Wonder’s duet with Paul McCartney, “Ebony and Ivory.”
Although Murphy would reprise his impersonation of Wonder, he admitted in his classic stand-up special Delirious that not everyone thought it was funny. Murphy recalled Black people literally cussing him out in public. “Stevie Wonder's a musical genius. That's terrible, man. Your mother brought you up wrong. That's what it is. Your mother brought you up wrong, motherf**er."
By 1982, Lou Gossett Jr. was fresh off his Academy-award winning performance in An Officer and a Gentleman while Eddie Murphy had established himself as the face of Saturday Night Live. Both were experiencing success for their acting and comedic prowess. When Gossett Jr. was tapped to host SNL, he and Murphy would collaborate on a funny and truthful sketch, “Father and Son.”
Gossett Jr., and Murphy in “Father and Son” critique the Black stereotypical roles for Black actors and also the lack of Black writers on the SNL team. Poking fun at the stereotypes they were forced to play, they broke character and admitted that neither came from fatherless, broken homes. Taking it a step further, Murphy acknowledged his love for his real dad who was in the audience.
Although Damon Wayans had a short and controversial tenure on SNL in the mid-80s, Chris Rock was the heir apparent to Eddie Murphy’s comedic legacy as a Black, stand-up comedian who forged his career on SNL. To say that Murphy is Rock’s idol would be a gross understatement. Murphy even put Rock in one of his most beloved films, Boomerang. When the time came for Murphy to be honored at the 40th Anniversary of SNL after staying away from SNL for 35 years because of how he felt he was treated by some of the cast (Namely David Spade), Chris Rock was the best candidate to pay homage to his mentor.
Rock delivered a touching, inspirational tribute to Murphy saying, “How do I begin to talk about Eddie Murphy? When I was young I didn’t think comedy was a job. I thought a job involved lifting things and wearing a uniform. Comedy wasn’t work. Comedy was something that got you sent to the principal’s office. And then I saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and it changed everything. Not only could comedy be a job, it could be a career. Not only a career but the coolest career ever. Right then I discovered what I wanted to do. I wanted to be Eddie Murphy.” That alone says it all.
Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images