Culture

The Forgotten, Subversive History Of Eddie Murphy On ‘SNL’

CREDIT: Screenshot/YouTube, NBC

Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat on "Saturday Night Live."

After a decades-long hiatus from Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy, the show’s savior in its early years and, in terms of box office receipts, the biggest star to ever emerge from the cast, will return for the series’ 40th anniversary. Even though SNL is what launched Murphy—and even though Murphy is, in many ways, what launched SNL—Murphy hasn’t participated in any of these nostalgia-fests before. It will be his first time back at the show in 30 years.

Chris Rock, interviewed in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests, said, “Eddie was the biggest star. Anybody was says different is making a racist argument.”

Murphy’s legacy has been obscured somewhat by his own doing: a run of lousy family flicks: all the Nutty Professor installments, Dr. Dolittle, The Haunted Mansion, the viciously-reviewed and barely-seen The Adventures of Pluto Nash. But before his movies took a turn for the mediocre-at-best, Murphy was a sensation.

Murphy, only 19 years old when he joined SNL, told the kinds of jokes that you just can’t imagine SNL daring to do today: his cutting, hilarious and insightful sketches like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and “White Like Me” made fodder of race, racism and white privilege. He was a smash hit, a superstar, but his fame didn’t insulate him from the realities of being a young, black guy in New York. Fellow cast members and writers at the time recall that, even when he was the biggest thing on the show, Murphy couldn’t hail himself a cab.

Even though Murphy “won’t talk to anybody about the show,” Rock said. “He’s not bitter about it, he loves it… I think he does get pissed when they make fun of him,” like in the infamous sketch from the ‘90s in which David Spade pointed to a picture of Murphy and said, “Look, a falling star!” “Only because the show would have gotten canceled if he hadn’t been there,” Rock said. “There would be no show. So he deserves a pass on that aspect. The show would absolutely have gotten canceled. There were really no stars.”

Except one. “Eddie Murphy’s a star, man,” Rock said. “He’s probably the only guy of the SNL posse to embrace stardom—its Elvis.”

I spoke with Live From New York co-author James Andrew Miller about Murphy’s incredible run on the show, his estrangement and his long-awaited return this Saturday.

If you were to meet a martian unfamiliar with Saturday Night Live and all the major players, how would you describe Eddie Murphy and his role? Where does he fall in the SNL pantheon?

I would put it this way. I would use four words: he saved the franchise. I think there are a lot of arguments to be made over who may have been the best cast member or the funniest cast member, but I think that 19-year-old Eddie Murphy hopped on Saturday Night Live at a time when its future was very uncertain. It was a time when it was without its godfather, Lorne Michaels. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of other standouts in the cast. I think some people had grown tired of it. There was no guarantees that this was going to go on… Many others played critical roles in SNL reaching 40 years on the air. But Eddie was vital.

Some of these old sketches address race in a way that is so direct and cutting. I know people say stuff like this all the time, but it’s the kind of humor I don’t think they’d ever do today: “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” the Black Like Me parody, this one Weekend Update bit where he talks about Lincoln’s birthday and how the Emancipation Proclamation was never signed, so “Tomorrow, if you happen to be out and see a black person that you like, by all means, take him home with you.” Could the show just be more daring because Lorne Michaels wasn’t at the helm? Was it just a matter of, times were different?

Think about it this way: the very famous Richard Pryor/Chevy Chase word association sketch, that occurred on Lorne’s watch. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a function of: Lorne wasn’t there. I think it’s more emblematic of the times back then. Do you think NBC would have done [those sketches] today? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with Lorne. Dick Ebersol [who developed SNL with Michaels and was the executive produer from 1981 to 1985] was giving a lot of freedom then, and I think the show was still very much trying to push boundaries.

For what it’s worth, the years that Eddie was on the show were years that Lorne Michaels was not at the show. And why was that relevant? It’s because Lorne is the creator of SNL and the guiding force behind it at the beginning, had a lot more impact on what happened with the show than anybody else, and that includes Ebersol, who hired Lorne to develop the show… I think that, in terms of the show being protected, I think that Ebersol didn’t have the security, and the show didn’t have the security, during those years that they did during the first five years with Lorne.

Wouldn’t that insecurity mean that the show was less likely to take those comedic risks under Ebersol’s tenure, when Eddie Murphy was in the cast?

You might think so, but the oxygen for SNL has always been funny and noteworthy and getting things into the zeitgeist. So if you play it safe, I think you get in trouble. And I also think there was something quite powerful going on then, which Lorne established very strongly in the first five years and Ebersol continued to do to a certain degree. SNL decided it was going to do what it thought was funny and what it thought was cool, and if you didn’t like it, too bad. It didn’t pander… It wasn’t wetting its finger, holding it up to the wind and seeing what people laughed about… I think SNL in later years sometimes got into trouble when it shifted, a significant paradigm shift, when it decided “I think people want to make fun of this person” or “let’s try and do a sketch about that.”

Was SNL unique in its willingness to take on racial humor in this way back in the early ‘80s?

Other people in the culture were doing that, but not on broadcast television. So I think you have to give Saturday Night Live a lot of credit for going into places, whether it be race, sex, political satire, that not too many people were doing at the time.

Talk me through Eddie Murphy’s work on the show. What made him so exceptional?

The running start is, remember, Eddie is 19. Remember that when he first came on, I don’t think, quite frankly, there were too many people in the executive halls who understood what they had with him. I do think you’ve got to give Ebersol and a lot of the writers a lot of credit because they went heavy with Eddie. He carried the show. This is not, he would appear once and you’d never see him again. He took that show on his back and ran with it. I think that, when you think about, not only his versatility but so many sketches that became iconic in the SNL world: James Brown’s hot tub, Mr. Robinson, they were sensational. I think a lot of people were tuning in to see him. And because SNL is such a collaborative group, [this was the only time in] history of the show where a specific cast member has had that kind of wattage around him, where there was such a disparity between the star quality with one cast member and the rest of the cast. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman, they were all really great cast members, but they had other great cast members with them.

Also, just looking through the highlights reel of his work on the show, he is in so many sketches by himself. And I don’t know how often you see that with anybody else, except for extenuating circumstances, like when Seth Meyers had the Update desk to himself.

That’s another thing, too. Eddie had the ability to carry a sketch. He did a lot of solo sketches. And when you think about all the sketches over 40 years of SNL, there are very, very few to have just one person in them. It’s almost like a given, in the DNA of an SNL sketch, [to be a group]. Yet Eddie was able to do many of them.

In your book, Neil Levy, the talent coordinator, is quoted as saying that at the time Eddie was auditioning to join the cast, Robert Townsend was already in the show and Jean Doumanian [who served as executive producer for less than a year, from 1980 to 1981] only wanted one black cast member and she already had “the black guy.” “She only wanted to hire one black actor and Townsend hadn’t signed his contract yet, so she signed Eddie.” Murphy had to start as a featured player, instead of as a regular. Was the motivation behind that personal for her, or was she trying to cater to a mostly-white audience, or to higher-ups at NBC, or what?

That’s a really great question and I wish I had a better answer than: I’m not sure. I can’t figure out why exactly she did what she did. I know plenty of people were begging for Eddie to be a regular part of the cast. And let’s just say, for whatever reason, it’s clear that she didn’t want that.

The way that Murphy’s old sketches take on race is so in-your-face and unapologetic. Today’s SNL deals with race in a way that’s much more meta and indirect: it’s a lot of self-aware commentary on the show’s own issues with casting, like that sketch with Kerry Washington last year, instead of jokes that really focus in on real racial issues. What do you think is going on there?

I think that’s probably a little unfair to the Kerry Washington thing; I thought that was a pretty clever way of dealing with the pressure that they were under for not having a black female cast member. It’s interesting now that they went from a period of being criticized to, now they have Leslie [Jones] and Sasheer [Zamata] and it’s certainly not an issue anymore. They’ve dealt with that.

But it’s not just the casting stuff: last year they had a pretty sharp sketch about Ferguson that was reportedly cut for time. Did they just not want to have a Ferguson sketch air during the regular broadcast and would rather disseminate it online where a younger, more liberal-leaning audience would find it instead?

I think early on SNL, there was a rawness. I think things seemed quite bold back then because not a lot of places were doing it. Weekend Update used to be such a big deal. Now you’ve got Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver: they’re in a thicket of competition of doing the same kind of thing. So sometimes, it’s very, very hard for SNL to make that statement like they used to.

Do you see anyone in the cast today, or in casts since Murphy left the show, who has filled Murphy’s role? Has there been anyone like him, in terms of talent or success or visibility?

Eddie was a singular talent on SNL. I think it’s funny because when I interviewed Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson and other African-American male cast members, I think [Murphy] casts a big shadow. Thirty-five years later, he’s still, he’s so dominant. He’s so clearly up there on Mount Rushmore, you just can’t help but think about him. It’s very hard for somebody to emulate him or replace him. And the other thing about Eddie was, this wasn’t a guy from a sitcom. He was so young, he just came out of nowhere. It just was startling. It was dramatic. I don’t think SNL needs to do that with every single cast member, every single season. The 40 years of SNL read like an EKG. There are these incredible years and then there are recovery years and transition years, like a great ball team, you lose players. Kristen Wiig leaves, wait a minute, you’ve got Kate McKinnon. That’s what happens in the ecosystem called Saturday Night Live.

What is the story behind Murphy’s estrangement from the show? This weekend marks a long-awaited return to SNL, but it’s hard to get a clear read on what, exactly, occurred that made Murphy not want to talk about or really associate in any way with the show that launched his career (and the show that, alternatively, he launched).

I was at the 25th anniversary show, and the fact that he wasn’t there wasn’t lost on a single soul. And now, with two SNL books, I’ve interviewed 540 people and Eddie was the only one to say no… I threw all my Jewish guilt on the floor, I begged, pleaded and borrowed, and he said that it wasn’t personal; he just didn’t want to talk about it. And it broke my heart, only because, I was such a fan of his work on the show, and trying to write the definitive history of Saturday Night Live. I still wish he had been a part of it.

So the bottom line is, I think it’s incredibly noteworthy, powerful and I daresay will be quite emotional, the fact that he’s coming back, and that’s great. I had a 10 page section in the book about the theories why Eddie didn’t come to the 25th reunion or wouldn’t talk to me, it was like, “something Billy Crystal said” or “It was a Playboy interview,” and of course he would never speak to exactly what it was. And everybody had their own theory. But it wasn’t like there was a huge fistfight. I really, to tell you the truth, I think there’s many explanations out there, probably a dozen, about why it all happened.

Do you know what changed that made him say yes this time around?

I don’t know, unfortunately, I haven’t talked to him. But I would say, maybe everything has mellowed through the years. Maybe enough people have made him realize just how important he was to the franchise. But I do hope that he talks about it.

How do you think people would react to some of his sketches—I’m thinking particularly of Mr. Robinson, but any of the sketches about race, really—if they aired today?

If Eddie Murphy was on the show now, it would be tweeted out the second after. I think a lot of people who even think they love Eddie Murphy need to realize there’s a body of work there that’s much more complex and deeper than they’d imagine. It’s incredible! Some of his sketches about race would be fodder for serious conversations, or at least, provocative conversations about race now.

And the one thing I [learned], through interviews with writers and cast members, they always remember this kid who did amazing work on the show, but he couldn’t get a cab. That kind of juxtaposition is, I think, it’s just wild.

Did they say anything about how he handled that contrast: being a star on set, then walking outside and not being able to hail a cab?

There were times when he was really pissed off. And then there were times when he’d make a joke of it. He was a young black man in the early ‘80s. It was a different new York, and it also speaks to, even though he was becoming this huge celebrity, the way that we manufactured celebrities back then was, for lack of a better word, at a courtly pace. Now his face would be plastered everywhere. One of his sketches might be playing on the little TV inside the cab.