Eddie Murphy brings his A-game to ‘Saturday Night Live’

After a prolonged absence, the man who saved the show came back to host — and revived it again

eddie-murphy-shrek-shankbone-2010-nyc-2

Eddie Murphy, pictured here in 2010, brought his decades-aged comedic knowledge and charisma to the December 21 "Saturday Night Live" stage.  

Courtesy David Shankbone

The history of “Saturday Night Live” is riddled with reviewers proclaiming the show dead. Following the departure of the show’s original cast in 1980, “SNL” suffered a rocky season with almost the entire cast turning over in ‘81. Five years later, producer Lorne Michaels returned after a prolonged absence, with established stars such as Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr. joining the cast and quickly departing after one much-maligned season. Now, the show finds itself in a different hole — it’s an American institution now, but one that seems to be meandering aimlessly into the abyss like so many others. Particularly since Donald Trump’s election, “SNL”’s seeming inability to invest in political sketches with the precision and detail they deserve has become a massive blind spot.

Enter Eddie Murphy. The man who almost single-handedly revived “Saturday Night Live” following the disastrous 1980-81 season at long last returned as host, bringing with him a wide array of characters not seen since his glory days. Gumby, Buckwheat and Mister Robinson all made appearances, and while not all of Murphy’s characters translate well to 2019, he brought an infectious energy to the show on Dec. 21 which is sorely lacking from today’s standard “SNL.” When Murphy wasn’t on-screen, the show was again mired in toothless political sketches, suggesting that the success of this episode is likely an aberration.

“Weekend Update,” the show’s longtime bedrock, was a perfect microcosm. It may be too much to expect a show like “Saturday Night Live” to do really hard-hitting political content, but given how much of its runtime is dedicated to “Update,” the tired formula that Michael Che and Colin Jost trot out week after week needs improvement. Luckily, Murphy soon took center stage with his “Gumby” character, a bizarre adaptation of the long-forgotten 1960s cartoon character who kvetches at Che and Jost for leaving him out of the show. After Murphy brought the house down, “Update” ran two more middling segments before ending on a high note with Che and Jost trading jokes designed to make the other look bad — Che emerging victorious by forcing Jost to “refuse” to tell a joke because an African-American man was holding his cue cards.

Racial sensitivity (or lack thereof) was a recurring theme on the episode. 2019’s version of Mister Robinson, perhaps Murphy’s most iconic contribution to “SNL” canon, is now dealing with gentrification. As Mister Rogers’ urban equivalent, Mister Robinson always combined streetwise charm with a more sinister side. Here, he’s no different, luring viewers into his home with a toothy grin before revealing that he stole a 72-inch TV from his neighbors — on which he proudly displays one of the words of the day, “racist.” In a pre-taped “Home for the Holidays” segment, Murphy’s patriarch gives a speech commemorating the holiday season, intercut with scenes of the family at each others’ throats — including one in which he answers his daughter’s “Why can’t I marry him? Because he’s white?” with an emphatic “Yes!”

The show’s monologue featured cameos by perhaps America’s three (other) greatest black comedians, but at the center of it all was Murphy. Bringing out Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock to pay homage was a wonderful tribute to his influence, and the episode’s very last moments showed just how much he deserves it. In an otherwise forgettable sketch revolving around an accident at a North Pole toy factory, Murphy took over, his shocked bystander delivering every line with undeniable comic energy. The other cast members didn’t have to do much other than stand around and deliver their lines — Murphy was just that much of a force. 

It’s a shame that the show can’t stay at this level, but such has always been the case for “Saturday Night Live,” a show that depends greatly on its guest host. It now seems that “SNL” needs a truly transcendent host to deliver a memorable episode — and while Murphy certainly delivered, there aren’t many who can bring what he brought to the table. But as long as the show continues in its current format, there will always be the opportunity for a comedically talented host to bring it up to their level. Hopefully, Murphy himself will take that opportunity again sooner rather than later.

related stories