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Read Norm MacDonald’s Epic Behind-the-Scenes Story of SNL 40, Eddie Murphy, and Celebrity Jeopardy

Eddie Murphy’s brief return in SNL 40.

Still from YouTube

Norm MacDonald was one of countless alums to grace SNL on Sunday, when the show celebrated its 40th anniversary with an intermittently amusing, intensely nostalgic, and largely interminable special episode. His comic chops were on full display in the special’s Celebrity Jeopardy skit, but it turns out he was saving his best material for later. On Wednesday evening, he tweeted this:

That was the start of a sprawling, hours-long, behind-the-scenes narrative that unspooled in MacDonald’s delightful and digressive style. You can check out the full version on Twitter, but we’ve compiled the high points:

It was some week. I got in early, Monday, so I could write. It was a massive undertaking, a 3 hour show. People were exhausted. I worked with Lori Jo Hoekstra and Steve Higgins, who was always in a suit, because he had to go be Jimmy’s sidekick, every day, round 5. I saw Lorne, thanked him, congratulated him, and shook his hand as Canadians do. He accepted. Got that out of the way early.

Mood was too relaxed. I was confused as to who exactly was to be in charge of this thing. It was to be Lorne Michaels. Of course. It was to be Lorne.

Bow to the SNL overlord! After paying due obeisance to Michaels, MacDonald dished on the writing of “Celebrity Jeopardy,” which he admits was ripped wholesale from SCTV:

They wanted Celebrity Jeopardy. Higgins had two funny categories already figgered. I came up with the idea of Celebrity Jeopardy years ago by stealing it, note for note, from an SCTV classic, Half-Wits. Higgins and I co-wrote the first one years ago and I waited for Martin Short to host so I could ask permission to steal. He said that Eugene Levy had written the original.  

…The funniest character in Celebrity Jeopardy, by far, is Alex Trebek as played by Will. Without Will’s perfect take on Trebek, maddened by the outright hostility of Connery, the faraway uninterest of Burt, the sketch is nothing. Nothing but Rich Little nonsense. It was always the third podium that was hard to find a man to stand behind.  

…So we hunkered down to write it. 40th anniversary and all. Had to be the best one. Tough job. Very tough. Then I was told it was to have a lot of impressions, 10 or 12, so a lot of big stars could be seen impersonating other big stars. This was bad news. Celebrity Jeopardy was never about impressions.  

…Celebrity Jeopardy was about hope. It was about the hope of one man, Alex Trebek, the hope that never died. The audacious hope that never let the facts of the past interfere. It was a rhythm piece, as each disaster was signaled by the sound of a buzzer, and each new category signified more, new, hope. And the 3rd contestant was the tough one. The third attitude always just out of reach of Higgins and me. And now we were being told we would have to do a dozen impressions. The rhythm would be gone. It was what it was, though, and what it was to be. How could it be saved from becoming an episode of copycats? And then Higgins had an idea. An idea that would blow the show wide open.

That idea? Edward Regan Murphy:

Among many other things, this show was to be the return of Eddie Murphy. Eddie, the man who, in Lorne’s absence, kept the show alive. Singlehandedly. To every comedian who ever performed on SNL, what Eddie accomplished was unthinkable. Every Saturday Night at 11:30 Eddie Murphy, a kid, would fill 90 minutes with comedy. Impossible. The last anniversary was the 25th. Eddie did not attend due to a remark by David Spade. David is a very kind man, but his remark was not. So Eddie never came back. Until last week.

Higgins had the idea. A video daily double. The category would be Potent Potables, a common one on Jeopardy, but one we somehow had never done. And the idea was that it would be a bar set. And the idea was that Cosby would be mixing a drink in a video that was taped 6 months ago. It was perfect…The iconic doors would open and on to home base would step Eddie Murphy. The audience would know what to do. Why is Eddie wearing a multi-colored sweater? He steps behind the bar, begins mixing a drink. The audience covers the fact he has not spoken. When he speaks, he is Cosby. Eddie Murphy doing a perfect Cosby impression. The audience does not let him finish. The sketch ends. The show, for all intents, ends. All the impressions are forgiven.

This is true: Eddie Murphy returning to SNL after 30 years to make fun of Bill Cosby is automatically in the show’s top 10 moments of all time. So why didn’t it happen? MacDonald knows, but takes a quick break to do some more cast-praising:

Mike and Dana showed up. They were going to do Wayne’s World. I joined the writer’s room, which Mike helmed, and tried to help. Mike Myers has an incredible work ethic and no joke is ever good enough and must be beaten, must be beaten. This is what makes him so good. This is why he has created a half-dozen perfect comedies. Work ethic, remarkable taste, and never taking no for an answer.

Higgins would stick his head in the room from time to time, tell me another celeb had been cut and make me happy. I kept trying to help Mike. I didn’t get a single joke into Wayne’s World. It was a great sketch, and he did a top ten list, best things about SNL. When, on air, he announced, “number 1, the crew”, the studio audience, unprompted gave a standing ovation. I’d never seen this in 8H.

Very touching. Back to Murphy:

I’m standing with my son, Lori Jo, and Chris Rock. We see Eddie from 100 yards away. Rock says, “There he is. Like Ali in Zaire.” Eddie, Bomaye. It’s my job to talk him in to doing Jeopardy. We talk in his dressing room a good hour. When it’s over, I’m convinced he’ll do it. He doesn’t. He knew the laughs would bring the house down. Eddie Murphy knows what will work on SNL better than any one. Eddie decides the laughs are not worth it. He will not kick a man when he is down. Eddie Murphy, I realize, is not like the rest of us. Eddie does not need the laughs. Eddie Murphy is the coolest, a rockstar even in a room with actual rockstars.

And that’s that. If you watched the special, you know the rest: Kenan Thompson ended up playing Cosby, and Murphy came on stage for a baffling two-minute speech that was actually shorter than Chris Rock’s introduction. In other words, though Macdonald’s account is a tad grating in its hagiography—I’m not sure mocking a man who allegedly assaulted over 30 women is kicking “a man when he is down”—it’s definitely more intelligent, informative, and entertaining than SNL’s been in some time.