It’s hard to imagine the previous four-plus decades of television without Saturday Night Live, yet an entertainment landscape minus the NBC comedy sketch show was almost a reality at the beginning of the 1980s when show producer Lorne Michaels exited 30 Rock along with the show’s original on-screen and writing talents. Lucky for longtime fans, a young Eddie Murphy joined the cast, cementing his place in the comedy stratosphere and helped to save SNL.
Citing burnout after five years at the helm, Michaels departed the show at the end of the 1979-80 season with former associate producer Jean Doumanian promoted to the executive producer role. The few staff members who had chosen to remain were loyal to Michaels – who made it known he was unhappy with Doumanian’s move – and decided to leave in solidarity. Doumanian was faced with having to recast all of the players and writers.
Her onscreen hires included Charles Rocket, who the network believed was to be the next breakout SNL star, along with Joe Piscopo, Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, Yvonne Hudson, Gilbert Gottfried, Ann Risley, and then-unknown 19-year-old Eddie Murphy.
“We found [Murphy] at the Comedy Strip,” Doumanian told The Hollywood Reporter. “He came in to audition for me. The minute he walked in the door, he had star power.” Due to heavy budget cuts, Murphy was initially contracted as a featured player, but the network soon took notice of the rising comedian and he was promoted to a regular spot.
Before Murphy joined 'SNL,' critics called the show 'Saturday Night Dead'
Season six was not well received by fans or critics, with some of the latter calling the show “Saturday Night Dead.” Murphy did not appear in the first episode and was relegated to only a cameo in one sketch in the second. Viewers took notice of the comedian when he featured on “Weekend Update” as student basketball player Raheem Abdul Muhammed, who was protesting a ruling by a Cleveland judge that all high school teams must feature at least two white players.
“We ain’t got much. At least let us have basketball. Is nothing sacred?” Murphy, as Muhammed, said. “Whenever we have something going good you all have to move in on it. In the sixties we wore platform shoes, then you all had to wear platform shoes. In the early seventies, we braided our hair and in the late seventies, you had to braid your hair. Now it’s 1980 and we on welfare. By the end of next year, you are all going to be on welfare, too.”
Murphy’s star was rising and he was given more SNL appearances, but the show was still struggling. With ratings down, Doumanian and all the players except Murphy and Piscopo were dropped at the end of the season. Dick Ebersol – who was responsible for hiring Michaels in 1975 – stepped in as executive producer and by the time season seven rolled out Murphy was given even more air time. He would go on to create memorable characters such as Buckwheat, Gumby, Dion, Velvet Jones, and Mister Robinson, as well as hilarious impressions of James Brown (in “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party”), Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Mr. T, and Michael Jackson.
Murphy 'saved the franchise'
SNL ratings increased and Murphy was soon fielding offers to appear on the big screen. He completed 48 Hours, Trading Places and early production work on Beverly Hills Cop while still appearing on the late-night show. His comedy albums Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy: Comedian had each gone gold. Murphy had eclipsed the vehicle that made him a star and was now one of the most popular entertainers in the world.
“He saved the franchise,” James A. Miller, coauthor of Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests, told ThinkProgress in 2015. “I think there are a lot of arguments to be made over who may have been the best cast member or the funniest cast member, but I think 19-year-old Eddie Murphy hopped on Saturday Night Live at a time when its future was very uncertain. It was a time when it was without its godfather, Lorne Michaels. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of other standouts in the cast... Many others played critical roles in SNL reaching 40 years on the air. But Eddie was vital.”
Murphy had the ability to “carry a sketch,” added Miller, who noted that across decades of SNL very few skits have only one person in them. In Live From New York, Chris Rock singles out Murphy, saying, “Eddie was the biggest star. Anybody who says different is making a racist argument.”
After four seasons, Murphy couldn't wait to leave the show
Though it had introduced him to the general public, Murphy was happy to exit Studio 8H. “I can’t wait to leave,” he admitted to Rolling Stone in the lead up to his final appearance as an SNL regular in early 1984. “I don’t like the show, I don’t think the show is funny. I hate it.” He explained his unhappiness stemmed from approaching his final season as mere work to be dealt with ahead of embracing movie-making full time.
Murphy’s career would go on to have amazing highs (Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, Shrek) and equal lows (Meet Dave, I Spy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash), but the comedian never returned to SNL as guest host, and has rarely spoken publicly about his time on the show.
According to Rock in Live From New York, Murphy, who refused to be interviewed for the book, is not bitter about his time on the show. “He loves it… I think he gets pissed off when they make fun of him.” During a 1995 sketch, David Spade pointed to a picture of Murphy, saying, “Look: a falling star!”
Questioned in 2011 about any lingering animosity, Murphy said, “They were s****y to me on Saturday Night Live a couple of times after I left the show.” Citing the Spade slight, Murphy told Rolling Stone he had “made a stink about it, [and] it became part of the folklore. … I felt s****y about that for years, but now, I don’t have none of that. I wouldn’t go to retrospectives, but I don’t let it linger. I saw David Spade four years ago. Chris Rock was like, ‘Do you guys still hate each other?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t hate David Spade, I’m cool with him.’”
Since leaving, Murphy has only made one other appearance on the 'SNL'
One of the biggest stars to emerge from the show, Murphy’s only return to Studio 8H was for Saturday Night Live’s 40th-anniversary show in 2015. Refusing to take part in a comedy sketch in which he would be playing beleaguered comic Cosby, he drew criticism for being decidedly unfunny when he took the stage as himself.
Introduced by Rock, a low-key Murphy barely raised a giggle from the audience when he spoke for less than a minute. “This show is a big part of who I am and my life and I’m happy to be back here,” he said. “I actually feel like I’m going back to my high school.”
How high school is viewed in retrospect is entirely subjective, leaving Murphy’s statement open to interpretation. Which adds all the more weight to Rock’s earlier words of introduction for the breakout player: “If Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired Eddie Murphy, this show would have lasted about half as long as Baywatch.”