Saturday Night’s Children: Eddie Murphy (1980-1984)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

When Eddie Murphy arrived at SNL in 1980, all odds were stacked against him: The magic of the original cast, writers, and producer was gone, public opinion of the show dwindled, and at only 19 years old, he was the youngest performer to join the cast. But thanks to a combination of undeniable talent, persistence, luck, and a streak of Hollywood blockbusters, Murphy transformed from one of the show’s most unlikely hires to the biggest star in SNL history, making him the perfect player to explore for the 100th installment of Saturday Night’s Children.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Murphy turned to comedy after several traumatic events between his father’s death (when Eddie was 8) and his time spent in foster care during his mother’s yearlong stay in the hospital. At 15 he hosted a talent show at a local youth center, and his reputation as a class clown and skilled impersonator inspired the young Murphy to work out acts in New York bars and comedy clubs. While he had to repeat the tenth grade, he graduated high school and attended community college. He held down a day job as a shoe store clerk while continuing to work the local club circuit, and at age 20 he heard that the revamped Saturday Night Live was on the lookout for a black cast member.

According to talent coordinator Neil Levy in Live from New York, Murphy began calling him daily in September 1980 begging for a shot on the show, but he was rejected on the grounds that the cast had already been hired (or “the black cast member had already been chosen” with Jean Doumanian’s pick Robert Townsend). Levy let Murphy audition to be an extra but was so impressed with his talent that he fought Doumanian for his hiring, even threatening to quit his job in the process. Doumanian eventually relented and agreed to bring Murphy on as the season’s only featured player.

Murphy’s talent was mostly stifled due to his downgraded status until the January 10, 1981 episode ran five minutes short, and he was asked to fill the time with some cleaned-up standup material from his audition. With no notice or rehearsal, Murphy stole the live air with a set about black people fighting via “yo mama” insults and established his place as a the show’s hottest new talent. He became a repertory player two episodes later, and, alongside his frequent scene partner Joe Piscopo, was the only cast member to survive into the following season. After Dick Ebersol took over as producer, he gave Piscopo and Murphy assured screentime dominance, and the two performed together many times, most memorably as their Frank Sinatra/Stevie Wonder duo performance in the “Ebony and Ivory” song parody: “Life is an Eskimo Pie / Why don’t we take a bite?”

Murphy impersonated a handful of celebrities during his stint including Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., Jesse Jackson (singing the soul classic “Hymie Town” in an effort to smooth things over with angry Jewish communities), Mr. T, and James Brown as the host of “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party” wherein he ingeniously fused Brown’s signature screaming with reacting to the water being too hot. He even did a celebrity impersonation mashup as the singing workout instructor Little Richard Simmons in 1981.

Murphy created a string of hit recurring characters, from the housing projects-style Mr. Rogers in “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” to Gumby (who Murphy played as a cranky old Jewish vaudevillian and Lishman’s Deli regular) to Buckwheat from The Little Rascals all grown up, a character he insisted on killing in a sketch after it became annoyingly popular with fans. He also made regular guest appearances on Weekend Update either as himself or in character as the tracksuit-wearing film critic Raheem Abdul Mohammed. Among his many notable one-off roles was in writer Andy Breckman’s short “White Like Me” where Murphy dons whiteface to go undercover as a white man and discover the shocking secret that white people never pay for anything, and as the illiterate inmate poet Tyrone Green of the “Prose and Cons” sketches, most memorably when he recites his winning poetry contest entry “Kill My Landlord.”

By the time he left SNL in 1984, Murphy had already become a superstar. The majority of his final season sketches had been pretaped due to his mainstream momentum: His live comedy album Eddie Murphy: Comedian went gold and earned a Grammy nomination, his HBO standup special Eddie Murphy Delirious aired and his film debut came with 1982’s 48 Hrs. opposite Nick Nolte followed by a breakout starring role in 1983’s Trading Places costarring SNL alum Dan Aykroyd. He even became the first and only cast member to host the show after his 48 Hrs. costar backed out of his hosting gig at the last minute in December 1982 and opened the episode by altering the classic line to “Live from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy Show!” much the chagrin of his fellow cast mates. He then went on to star in another acclaimed standup special Eddie Murphy Raw (the highest grossing live standup film of all time) and anchored a steady stream of 80s-90s hits, from comedy classics like Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America to the more recent hodgepodge of The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle. Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek the Halls, Shrek Forever After, Dreamgirls, and Norbit.

Despite the teetering critical reception of his more recent film choices, Murphy has long been immune to even the most potentially damaging publicity, from run-ins with transvestite hookers to reggae albums with Snoop Lion to backing out of Oscars hosting duties to his longstanding grudge against SNL. Only in the past few years has he claimed to have let go of ill feelings toward the show that held him back when he was there and lampooned him after he left. In 2011 told Rolling Stone:

They said some shitty things. There was that David Spade sketch [when Spade showed a picture of Murphy around the time of Vampire in Brooklyn and said, “Look, children, a falling star”]. I made a stink about it, it became part of the folklore. What really irritated me about it at the time was that it was a career shot. It was like, “Hey, come on, man, it’s one thing for you guys to do a joke about some movie of mine, but my career? I’m one of you guys. How many people have come off this show whose careers really are fucked up, and you guys are shitting on me?” And you know every joke has to go through all the producers, and ultimately, you know Lorne or whoever says, [Lorne Michaels voice] “OK, it’s OK to make this career crack…”

I felt shitty about that for years, but now, I don’t have none of that. I wouldn’t go to retrospectives, but I don’t let it linger. I saw David Spade four years ago. Chris Rock was like, “Do you guys still hate each other?” and I was like, “I don’t hate David Spade, I’m cool with him.”

While digs at his career make for perhaps a reasonable complaint seeing how heavy a role his stardom played in SNL‘s survival during those lost 80s years, Murphy owes at least part of his career to Levy for taking his calls and petitioning for his hiring in the early days. Maybe now that Beverly Hills Cop IV is in the works he’ll consider the idea of hosting again as an alum instead of cast member.

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