While it’s not entirely true to say that Eddie Murphy singlehandedly saved Saturday Night Live, it’s not entirely that far off the mark, either. After the final dissolution of the first, classic cast by 1980 – lost to increasing fame, personal strife, and drugs – and the temporary loss of creator Lorne Michaels to contract disputes with NBC, the future of the groundbreaking comedy sketch show seemed tenuous. Hanging on by a thread for the 1980/81 season, new life and relevance was breathed into the show by the arrival and meteoric rise of Murphy.
Viewed from this end of a 30-year-plus career that has seen the once brash and raw Murphy descend from being a towering comedic box office king to the king of safe, inoffensive (or offensive in a different way if you consider Norbit) kiddy fare, it’s almost impossible now to imagine the excitement that Murphy brought to late night TV in the early-‘80s. Actually, it’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around just how very young and scrawny he was – just 19 when he joined the cast, and looking maybe about 16 or 17.
Yet for four years, he would loom over everyone else who was part of the second generation of SNL, his rising star drawing the show up along with him, and back to relevance. Despite his age and relative inexperience (early on, he often flubs lines and/or starts cracking up at his own hilariousness – how could he not?), his charisma and energy are so infectious that he was able to quickly overcome any latent amateurishness, eventually becoming the centerpiece of the show.
Though ostensibly a “new” collection, Saturday Night Live: The Best of Eddie Murphy doesn’t veer far from previous anthologies (and let me say how grateful I am to PopMatters for letting me review this, because my beat up VHS tape of the original release is so fragile that I’ve resorted to keeping it hermetically sealed under glass, and it hasn’t been played in over ten years) – almost every single skit from earlier releases is included, along with about 20 more minutes of other skits that have been included as “bonus” features. (Why they just weren’t inserted into the main feature I have no idea, since they reedited and reordered the skits, anyway.)
The skits selected have become so canonical to the point where they are almost startling to see again. To echo Murphy’s famous impersonation of Buckwheat hocking a greatest hits record of mush mouthed and garbled standards (the stone cold number best thing on here, but not by much), you’ll see ALL YOUR FAVORITE HITS!
So, what’s here?
Velvet Jones, pimping his… well, pimp services through a mail order book “How to Be a Ho”, in probably the best commercial parody SNL has ever done? Check.
Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood: a ghetto-ized reimagining of Mr. Rogers, in which Murphy channels Rogers soothing, sing song demeanor, via a foul-mouthed, unemployed cokehead? Check check!
The famous Stevie Wonder-Frank Sinatra (with Joe Piscopo doing his equally famous impersonation of the Chairman) duet of “Ebony and Ivory” (“life’s an Eskimo pie/ let’s take a bite!”)? Check!
And my especial favorite, the extremely silly, eerily precise “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party”, where Murphy nails Brown’s voice and mannerisms so precisely, that if it weren’t for the fact that Murphy looks a good 75 pounds lighter than Brown, you’d swear that it was the Godfather himself? CHECK!
As is per the usual with these collections, the skits selected tend to be the ones more divorced from topical issues of the day, anything with references that could date the show (well, besides the grain of the video feed) and go over modern viewers heads. But that’s not to say the collection (or Murphy) eschews serious, topical fare entirely. Though never as overtly politically or socially slanted as Chris Rock would be a decade later (or Dave Chappelle a decade after Rock), Murphy was able to inject enough social commentary on race relations into the show to make a strong case as an early pioneer in the show’s whip smart commentary on politics.
The best of these is a longish (by SNL standards) news magazine type segment called “White Like Me”, where Murphy goes “undercover” as a white man to see how white people interact with each other when black people aren’t around. Working as both a clever inversion of racially charged blackface performers, and as a hilarious send up and commentary on latent racism hiding just beneath the surface of everyday mundane social interactions, it’s as funny as it is in incisive.
In another famous sketch, Murphy claims to be Clarence Walker, the legendary “fifth” Beatle, who was unceremoniously dispatched from the band after Lennon and McCartney swiped all his songs. His protestations are met with mockery by the host of a music talk show (Piscopo again), as Clarence plays doctored tapes of Beatles songs with saxophone overlays, and Clarence adding the sexy, spoken word vocals over the main vocal tracks. While pretty hilarious already at face value, as Murphy becomes increasingly agitated and militant as his claims of injustice are rebuffed, the skit morphs into a clever (if perhaps inadvertent) commentary on the white appropriation of traditional black music that has propelled rock n’ roll since its inception.
Mostly, though, Murphy (or this collection, at least) plays its safe, sticking with the silly, crowd pleasing hits and impersonations, and avoiding the really incendiary, dangerous stuff (like Murphy fronting a reggae band playing a VFW hall, playing their big hit “Kill Da White People” – this was actually on the original VHS release, but is expunged here). The only hint of his more dangerous and profane stand-up comedy can be seen in his famous portrayal of an irascible, cigar smoking foul mouthed Gumby, and the now legendary poem by death row inmate Tyrone Greene (“kill my landlord”), which is fierce and troubling and uncomfortable and hilarious for too many reasons to unpack here.
If the collection seems to drag a bit in spots (the entirely unfunny and overlong special news bulletin of Buckwheat’s assassination continues to escape the editor’s cut, when I think everyone would be happy if it was returned to the vault and never seen again; and they always seem to pick the exact wrong Gumby clips for these things), one need only wait a few minutes for the next burst of genius to come rolling down the pike.