Saturday Night Live
Eddie Murphy & Lizzo
December 22, 2019
I’m going to try to avoid overthinking this episode because comedy never benefits from thinking about it too hard. (It’s one of the reasons I never recap comedies.) But, Eddie Murphy returning to Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years is not just a historically notable TV event, it’s one that required a little contemplation on both our part and the writers’.
Here’s the thing: Eddie Murphy blazed into superstardom on Saturday Night Live in 1980 when he was only 19 years old with characters like Mr. Robinson and Buckwheat — characters that made fun of racist stereotypes in a way that was so close to the chest that some viewers may not have understood they were supposed to be laughing with Murphy, not at him. Murphy was never putting on a minstrel show, he was pointing out how racist the minstrel show was. The problem is some viewers, particularly white ones, might have missed that nuance. (Honestly, maybe the greatest SNL sketch of all time is the one in which he went undercover as a white man — genuinely brilliant and tackling race in a way that remains as stinging and poignant 40 years later.)
So because a great deal has changed in the past 40 years, it was always going to be a delicate dance bringing some of these characters back to the show in a way that not only would be relevant but culturally palatable. But God damn, if they didn’t pull it off. Murphy’s 80s characters found themselves up against 21st-century issues like gentrification and the #MeToo movement — and that tension is where the comedy blossomed.
Then when you add to all of that the fact that Eddie Murphy waited long enough to come back to the show so that there were no more hard feelings, that he had shed enough of his movie star ego and aloofness that he could really enjoy himself on that stage in an uninhibited, genuine way … well, it made for the best episode of the year, certainly, and one of the best episodes of Saturday Night Live I’ve ever seen.