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Eddie Murphy’s long-awaited return to host “Saturday Night Live” last Saturday was more than hilarious. It likely will be remembered as one of the show’s best episodes. Even if you haven’t watched “SNL” in years, go online and watch it as soon as you finish reading this article, “dammit!” (That “dammit!” should of course be heard in your head as being delivered in the voice of Murphy’s “Gumby.”)
When I worked at “SNL” on the production staff from 1998 to 2007, there was always talk about why Murphy wouldn’t return to host. I recall working on the 25th anniversary special in 1999 and the question would constantly come up, “Where is Eddie Murphy?!”
At the time, the theories that abounded behind the scenes were that Murphy didn’t think executive producer Lorne Michaels liked or respected him. Michaels had left the show when Murphy was a cast member from 1980-1984, and didn’t return until 1985. The two had not worked together. Others thought it was something to do with a joke told on the show at Murphy’s expense in 1995 by David Spade, who was then a cast member.
Turns out it was likely a combination of both: Murphy explained for the first time in a 2011 interview that his beef with “SNL” arose from the Spade joke, which he viewed as an unfair shot at his career. On some level, it appeared Murphy held Michaels responsible for allowing that joke to air. (Michaels in 2013 publicly admitted the joke was a mistake since it came at the expense of one of their “own.”)
But here was Murphy finally back on the stage of NBC’s famed Studio 8H. For fans of Murphy’s years on “SNL,” Saturday’s show delivered in every way possible. He gave us a showcase of his recurring characters and comedy that addressed racial issues, plus he playfully evened the score with Michaels.
The first character Murphy reprised was in “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” a parody of “Mister Rogers” in which Murphy introduced America to inner-city issues.
For example, in 1981 Murphy comically addressed “white flight” by joking to white America, “When I move in, you move away.” On Saturday, Murphy updated this issue to show how times had changed over 35 years by announcing that the new word of the day was “gentrification,” which he jokingly explained, “It’s like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money and then poof! All the black people are gone.”
If you loved Murphy’s famous Buckwheat character and Murphy’s singing, you got both in a parody of the hit NBC show “Masked Singer.” And there was also the return of one of my personal favorites, “Gumby,” the green Claymation children’s character that Murphy had reinvented as a cranky, profanity spewing, cigar-smoking, showbiz agent, whose catch phrase was, “I’m Gumby, dammit!”
On Saturday’s show, “Gumby” even took a good-humored shot at Michaels as he yelled at the Weekend Update hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che, “I saved this damn show from the gutter! And this is the thanks I get? For saving the show?” Adding, “Shame on you, Lorne Michaels! Shame on you, NBC! Shame on you!”
There were truly so many memorable moments from Murphy’s triumphant return. But one that really will stick with me occurred at the end of the show, during what’s called the “Goodnights.” The host stands on stage surrounded by the cast and any special guests and says thank you as the credits begin to roll. But this one with Murphy was special, both for who surrounded him and for Murphy’s reaction.
There was Murphy, together with comedy legends Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock, who had all appeared in the show’s monologue paying homage to Murphy for blazing the trail for their own success. Of course, being comedians, they did it the typical comedian way of playful mocking. For example, Rock stated, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world – My kids love Lizzo!” (Lizzo was the episode’s musical guest.)
After Murphy thanked these comedians, as well as the other special guests flanking him on stage, including Alec Baldwin and Maya Rudolph, Murphy exuberantly screamed out, “I love you all!” And with his hands outstretched and his gaze back on the studio audience who were wildly cheering him, you knew that any hint of bad blood or the issues that kept Murphy from hosting “SNL” for 35 years was gone. Eddie Murphy was finally home.