Brow Beat

Eddie Murphy Returns to Saturday Night Live for the First Time in 35 Years

Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Kenan Thompson on the SNL main stage in a still from Eddie Murphy's monologue.
Five very funny people. NBC

Eddie Murphy returned to Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years this week—not counting a brief appearance to accept a round of applause during the 40th anniversary show—for a hosting gig that saw the legendary comedian revisit some of his best-known characters from his years working at Studio 8H. Murphy, who was on SNL between 1980 and 1984, joined the show at the age of 19 as part of the ensemble put together by producer Jean Doumanian after Lorne Michaels’ departure led to a mass exodus of cast and writing staff. Murphy was the breakout star from that disastrous season and is often credited with saving Saturday Night Live, so when David Spade told a joke about Murphy’s then-faltering career on the show in 1990, Murphy took it personally and stayed away for nearly three decades. This Saturday he was finally back, and he made up for lost time.

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Murphy hit the ground running with the opening monologue, which saw him joined onstage by comedy royalty: Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Kenan Thompson, or, as Chappelle put it, “half of Netflix’s budget.” Except for Dave Chappelle, they were all SNL cast members at one point or another; Chappelle hosted the first episode after Donald Trump was elected president, which counts for about six seasons. Speaking of comedy royalty (deposed and sent to prison division), Murphy also brought his best Bill Cosby impression, which he’d declined to do in a Celebrity Jeopardy sketch for the 40th anniversary show. (Kenan Thompson ultimately took the part.) “If you would have told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring, stay-at-home house dad, and Bill Cosby would be in jail, even I would have taken that bet,” Murphy said, before asking “Who is America’s dad now?” in his best Jell-O Pudding Pops voice. Here’s Eddie Murphy’s triumphant return to Saturday Night Live:

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Next, Murphy revisited “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood parody set in a bad part of town. Or at least a formerly bad part of town; as Mr. Robinson explains, his neighborhood’s been gentrifying since the last time we visited. Of all of the recurring characters Murphy brought back from the 1980s this week, Mr. Robinson probably made the smoothest transition to 2019:

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If you somehow never saw “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” when it was on the air (or on one of the many SNL specials or greatest hits compilations that featured it), here’s Murphy in 1981, the second time he played the role. He’s not yet old enough to drink here:

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The next character Murphy brought back from the dead was Buckwheat, his take on the marble-mouthed racial caricature played by Billie Thomas in Our Gang shorts in the 1930s and 1940s. Murphy first introduced Buckwheat in 1981 with a sketch advertising a “Buh-Wheat Sings” record; this go-round saw Buckwheat as the least mysterious contestant in the history of The Masked Singer:

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Buckwheat’s return to Saturday Night Live is as good a reason as any to revisit the first two parts of one of Murphy’s best running gags: When he got bored with the Buckwheat character, Murphy killed him off on the show, then used that framework to make glorious fun of the way the news covered the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, week after week. Here’s the first segment, announcing the death of Buckwheat:

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And here is the second part, “Buckwheat Dead and America Mourns,” an absolute masterpiece, brought to you by Mutual Life:

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Unfortunately, the rest of Murphy’s Buckwheat saga is not available online, but it culminated in a sketch in which Alfalfa discovers that Buckwheat had faked his own death, then tracks him down and murders him. And it wouldn’t be Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live without Gumby, dammit, so Murphy brought back his green alter ego during “Weekend Update.” By the end of Gumby’s appearance, Colin Jost and Michael Che, visibly delighted to be sharing a stage with Gumby, were not just unable to keep straight faces; they were throwing their heads back in peals of laughter:

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For a taste of classic Eddie-Murphy-as-Gumby, here’s “Broadway Gumby Rose,” a parody of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose featuring Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Martin Short. As Peter Avellino pointed out on Twitter, Larry David, then on the writing staff, is sitting in the background. David played Bernie Sanders in this week’s cold open, so they’ve once again appeared on the same SNL episode, 35 years later.

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And as long as we’re assembling all of the video clips you could possibly need to watch to understand the full context of Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live appearance this week, here is “Moon Trip,” the first Gumby adventure, from 1956:

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Murphy’s least successful trip into the past was his revival of Velvet Jones, the inept pimp-turned-author-turned-sole-proprietor-of-the-Velvet-Jones-School-of-Technology he played back in the day. Here’s Velvet Jones’ first appearance, from 1981:

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Jones’ original appearances were parodies of infomercials, where half the joke was the low production values and unconvincing cue card delivery. But Murphy brought him back this week in a Black Jeopardy sketch in which he keeps launching into his various sales pitches instead of playing the game. That structure lets Kenan Thompson comment about how much times have changed since Jones’ heyday, which is probably the only way a Velvet Jones sketch airs in 2019, but it also creates the impression that Velvet Jones always talks like he’s in a commercial, which makes the whole thing just a little bit creepier. Here’s Velvet Jones 2.0:

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But Murphy’s funniest appearance was not a revival of anything he did on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s; it was a revival of something Don Cheadle did on Saturday Night Live in February of this year. Here’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” beat-for-beat identical to Cheadle’s “Extreme Baking Championship,” except Murphy’s cake is much more disturbing than Cheadle’s.

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Those teeth! It’s great to see Murphy is still in top form as a sketch performer, and genuinely heartwarming to see him bury the hatchet and return to the place where his career began. It’ll be even funnier and more heartwarming when he returns again in 2054, 35 years from now. Who knows what Velvet Jones will be up to by then? (Something disreputable. He’ll be up to something disreputable.)

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