The ’80s were the Dark Ages for Saturday Night Live. After showrunner Lorne Michaels left the show at the end of the ’70s, Jean Doumanian stepped in and replaced the entire cast and writing team, which ultimately caused the show to suffer and teeter on the brink of disappointment. When Doug Ebersol replaced Doumanian, the entire cast was let go again, save for two: Joe Piscopo, and the incomparable Eddie Murphy.
It’s argued that Eddie Murphy saved Saturday Night Live. The uptick in ratings that occurred after he became the show’s most used player was a testament to that. So today, as VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind: 2015-1975 Mega Marathon,” airs block of Eddie Murphy’s most memorable episodes, let’s take a look back and appreciate the comedian’s greatest characters. Without them, who knows if we’d still be talking about Saturday Night Live right now.
Murphy’s main skill was taking a lovable character and putting him into situations that would never arise anywhere else but on the SNL stage. Case in point: his impression of Buckwheat, the child in the 1930s Little Rascals short films, ended with a sketch that had a news anchor announcing, “Buckwheat dead: America mourns,” where it was revealed that Murphy as another character killed Buckwheat. It’s like SNL Inception. Original Little Rascal, George “Spanky” McFarland, hated Murphy’s impression, saying Murphy “made Buckwheat into a stereotype that he wasn’t” at the expense of the surviving relatives of Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas, who passed away in 1980.
The comedian again takes an innocent children’s show character and sheds some unflattering fluorescent light on him. Although the claymation character Gumby has no personality when the cameras are off, Murphy pictured him as a foul-mouthed, cigar smoking man (…is it a man or a stick of gum?) who had a killer mind for business. Some kids probably had their little hearts broken when the catchphrase “I’m Gumby, damnit!” caught on.
The actor’s James Brown impression is legendary for his insane dedication to the bit. Just watching him bounce around with Brown’s signature sporadic dance moves and pitch-perfect voice is exhausting.
Watch then-cast member Eddie Murphy take over hosting duties for Nick Nolte in this unforgettable season eight episode:
Little Richard Simmons
If, like any red-blooded American, you find yourself wondering what a man who has half the DNA of Little Richard and half of Richard Simmons would be like, Eddie Murphy has the answer for you. The character is a mashup of two eccentric personalities, the singer and the fitness guru, and the result is basically a hilarious and particularly terrifying acid trip. No one man should have that much charisma.
In 1993, Murphy had Michael Jackson appear on his third album, Love’s Alright, on the track, “Whatzupwitu,” but before that, Murphy played the singer himself on SNL. While Murphy and Jackson eventually became friends, Murphy’s stand-up routine is often criticized for being homophobic, as it’s marked by his effeminate actions and Jackson’s disinterest in women. However, his impression is chalked up to being “from another time,” and is considered spot-on by his fans.
Mr. Robinson was Murphy’s take on the family friendly host Mr. Rogers, and he lived in a whole different neighborhood. Murphy, with full on Mr. Roger sweaters and footwear change, asked viewers to be his neighbor, often after he stole groceries or climbed out his fire escape to avoid his landlord.
In 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin published a book titled, Black Like Me, detailing his journey through the racially segregated South, while he wore blackface. In the ‘80s, Murphy took it upon himself to walk a mile in the shoes of a white person. Mr. White talks and walks stiffly (in his words, “I gotta remember to keep my butt real tight”) to complete his impression, and he’s treated amazingly. Shocking.
Raheem Abdul Muhammed
As Weekend Update’s critic, Raheem attacked the Moral Majority. You know, those people who think there’s too much sex, drugs, and violence on TV. He’s the voice of the people, who kindly shouts, “Shut up! I’m mad!” at the audience and demands more of what makes television great. If only he was around for the magic that is Netflix.
Tyrone Green will make viewers almost feel guilty for laughing. In the sketch “Prose and Cons,” Murphy portrays the convict and recent poetry contest winner with a poem titled “Cill My Landlord.” His rhymes are seamless, his delivery is eloquent, and his candor is, well, he talks about killing his landlord, so he has no problem with the truth.
The Velvet Jones School of Technology will teach any woman (ages 16-25) how to become a high-paid ho in six short weeks. Murphy, as a, uh, new-age feminist, is Velvet Jones, and he is dedicated to the workplace advancement of women. However, the workplace is the corner. A sketch like this would never make the airwaves today, but in the ‘80s, being politically correct wasn’t a constant battle, and because of that Velvet Jones will forever be remembered. Be somebody! Be a ho!
[Photo Credit: NBC/Getty Images]