Eddie Murphy was a miracle.
Today, there is an industry around the show that is designed to be a sort of star-making assembly line, and I think many of the people who have used the show as a springboard to other things deserve that success completely.
But when Eddie Murphy made his debut on the show in 1980, “Saturday Night Live” wasn't even guaranteed a spot on TV for much longer. After all, the original cast was gone by that point. The new cast, including Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Charles Rocket, Ann Risley, and Joe Piscopo, seemed like a poor replacement for the likes of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray. I was a ten year old nascent comedy nerd, and for me, it was mystifying to see something that had been the absolute center of the comedy universe suddenly drop completely out of relevance. Everything about that season of SNL felt wrong to me, and I was getting ready to drop it as a habit completely.
And then Eddie Murphy showed up. And pretty much as soon as he made that first Weekend Update appearance as Raheem Abdul Muhammad, it was clear that something new was happening on the show. Murphy's voice was one that had not been in the mix on “Saturday Night Live” up to that point, and right away, there was an element of danger that made him thrilling.
I look at Murphy now, and I see a guy whose sense of “danger” came from repackaging the comics that had inspired him, like Richard Pryor, through the filter of a kid growing up in a fairly middle-class existence in Brooklyn. He knew full well, though, how white “Saturday Night Live” was and how white TV in general was, and Murphy tweaked the culture that embraced him even as he made a play for super-stardom. And week in, week out, Murphy turned the fading variety show into appointment television for comedy fans because it was obvious that the show could barely contain all of his remarkable comic energy.
For the next few years, Murphy did the impossible; he single-handedly kept the show in the cultural conversation. I don't care what you say about the other performers he worked with on the show… it was Murphy that had people tuning in. If you weren't an active “Saturday Night Live” fan when Eddie Murphy was introducing new characters every week, you can't imagine what it was like. I've never seen anything like it in all the years the show has been on the air. When he made his entrance to a scene, it was pandemonium. If people recognized the character already, it was double pandemonium. Everyone had an impression of at least one of his characters, and for the first time, it was a black comic who was the driving creative force on the show.
When Murphy first made the jump to movies, it looked like he was going to be even more electrifying. Again… you can't imagine what it was like sitting in a theater for “48 HRS.” the first time an audience laid eyes on the scene where Reggie Hammond takes his borrowed badge into a country and western bar. There was an uneasy wrestling match for pop culture happening at that time, and with Prince and Michael Jackson establishing that the pop charts were no longer allowed to be lilly white, it was thrilling to see someone doing the same thing for movies. Eddie Murphy made my parents nervous, which was all the endorsement I needed to know that he was doing something right. Both “48 HRS.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” played with the friction caused by Eddie's characters treading into what was typically thought of as “white space,” and that friction was both hilarious and genuinely edgy.
When Eddie Murphy took the stage during the 40th anniversary “Saturday Night Live” celebration, it was an oddly quiet moment, joke-free and brief. I didn't think it was particularly problematic, but I also didn't think there was anything special about it, and it bummed me out as a fan to see how little energy Eddie brought to a celebration of what was, after all, his breakthrough. For several years, that place was his home, and he was the king there. Forget some shitty throwaway joke David Spade made years later, and forget whether or not Lorne Michaels fully appreciates what Eddie did for the show. I was saddened by his appearance for the same reason I am always saddened by Eddie Murphy these days: because he is done.
All the evidence I need came from the account that Norm MacDonald shared a few days after the fact of how they had tried to get Murphy to play Bill Cosby for the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch. I've heard many theories about why Murphy didn't do it, the most popular of which is that Murphy probably didn't want to give Cosby any reason to dredge up Murphy's own tabloid history, and maybe that played a part in it. But the truth is that Eddie Murphy's comedy hasn't had an edge in a long time, and once you give that up as a comic, that's not something you can just return to ay time you want. Richard Pryor may have made more than his fair share of terrible sell-out movies like “Superman III” or “The Toy,” but his stand-up always remained blisteringly honest and uncompromising. Murphy hasn't done any real stand-up in decades now, and he certainly doesn't seem interested in being honest about himself or about where America is right now in terms of race. Murphy's been making primarily family-oriented films for the better part of the last fifteen years, and the guy who shows up in films like “A Thousand Words” and “Daddy Day Care” wouldn't even recognize the kid who made us laugh every week on “Saturday Night Live.”
Watching Murphy react to Cosby's scolding of him over language in “Eddie Murphy Raw” is thrilling because it was released right at the height of Cosby's super-stardom. At that point, Cosby was America's Sitcom Dad, a moral authority, and Murphy's defiant finger in the face of that scolding was genuinely subversive at the time. Now we see an Eddie Murphy who is worried about seeming too mean, who didn't want to say anything about Cosby that might be controversial later. You cannot be careful and be a great comedy voice. You cannot be concerned about looking cool and also be creatively free. I've said for years now that the only way to get a great performance out of Murphy these days is to put him under Rick Baker make-up, because the moment you don't recognize him, Murphy seems to suddenly be funny again. He no longer has anything to protect, so he can be free to make the jokes that “cool” Eddie Murphy can't.
When I went to an early screening of “Dreamgirls,” I stepped outside and ran into Bill Condon, the director of the film, and as I started talking to him about Eddie, I found myself getting very emotional. It is hard for me to fully describe how possessive I was of Murphy as a star when I was young. I felt like his success was something that my friends and I were part of, that we were the ones Murphy was speaking to. And watching him slowly transform into this humorless weirdo has been upsetting precisely because of how much he meant to us. When I saw “Dreamgirls,” what moved me most about it was seeing signs of life behind those eyes of his. It was a real performance, and it was a promise that maybe he wasn't done after all.
But I no longer believe that. I think Eddie Murphy is afraid to offend, and if that's the case, then I don't think we ever see a return to form for him. He has learned the caution of old men, and that has killed the thing that made him so great originally. He was fearless when he was young, and that total lack of fear is what drew us to him. Eddie knew full well that anything he did was going to get a response each week, and he used that to challenge us and to challenge the celebrities that he mocked. Eddie punched holes in the ridiculousness of fame, and now he's given himself over to it completely. Young Eddie Murphy wasn't afraid of Bill Cosby, and he wasn't afraid to tell anyone who wanted to force him to be “nice” to “have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.” The Eddie Murphy who stood awkwardly on that stage last weekend and who had nothing to say is not the person whose work meant so much to me. There is plenty of righteous anger that can be summoned about Bill Cosby now. If anything, he is a more important target now than he's ever been. After all, this is a man who now stands accused of almost three dozen rapes, and yet he's able to get a crowd to turn out to listen to him tell jokes. One of the things comedy can do so well is puncture those who deserve to be punctured, and right now, that's Bill Cosby in a big way.
Obviously, Eddie didn't have to do Norm's sketch, and he obviously didn't have to make fun of Bill Cosby. But I think it's safe to say that his choices speak volumes about who he is and where he is, and whatever else Eddie makes in the future, he is no longer the artist whose work mattered to me. He may well make another “Beverly Hills Cop,” but I guarantee it won't be anything like “Beverly Hills Cop.” He is no longer the outsider at all. He is no longer the fish out of water. He is a rich man, a careful man, and a businessman, and no one will ever be afraid of him or his wit again.
And that is a damn shame, indeed.