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Eddie Murphy at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, cred: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.

Eddie Murphy at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, cred: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.

Eddie Murphy gets too big for his britches at the SNL 40 anniversary bash

By: JORDAN RAE LUCAS
Columnist
@JordanRae017

On Sunday, Feb. 15, late night institution Saturday Night Live celebrated 40 years of laughter. The three-and-a-half hour live event was a star-studded black tie affair and brought in 23.1 million viewers, according to variety.com, despite airing on the wrong night of the week.

SNL’s variety show format launched the careers of dozens of comedians and the main draw of this special was having all those familiar faces from the last 40 years in the same room. Practically everyone who is anyone in the world of comedy was in attendance, from legends like Billy Crystal to modern comedy icons like Andy Samberg.

One of SNL’s most notable alums is academy-award-nominated actor Eddie Murphy, whose return to the show after 32 years of absence was highly publicized. Murphy was only 19 when he joined the ensemble of the then-struggling show. Many credited the young comedian with rescuing the show from cancellation, including fellow comedian Chris Rock.

Rock introduced Murphy during the broadcast, saying he “saved” SNL. I don’t have the show’s ratings on hand, so I won’t dispute this. No one else seems to question it either. Quite the opposite, it seems to me that everyone is in agreement that Murphy delivered SNL from mediocrity. Including Murphy.

While countless past SNL cast members came to play and seemed to genuinely have fun, Murphy arrived burdened by a superiority complex and an air of publicity. Watching the anniversary special as only a casual viewer of the weekly program, it seemed glaringly obvious to me that Murphy did not want to be there. Starting with his red carpet interview with Al Roker before the show, Murphy seemed to feel he was too good for 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

When asked what it was like to come back, Murphy said, “It’s a lot like going back to your old high school and everything seems really tiny.” While this statement by itself is fairly innocuous, he went on to repeatedly refer to SNL as “small” in a tone that suggested he did not mean physical size, but rather, importance.

It has since come to light that Murphy was supposed to play currently embattled comedy legend Bill Cosby in the iconic Celebrity Jeopardy sketch and backed out at the last minute. Murphy claims that he declined to do the bit because he felt it was mean spirited to poke fun at Cosby’s legal troubles surrounding allegations of sexual assault.

If this is true, I have to give Mr. Murphy a hand for choosing human compassion over a cheap laugh. As an aside, current SNL cast member Kenan Thompson filled in for Murphy, and it was the cheapest laugh of the whole sketch. I just don’t think this was his (only) reason for backing out.

I think, no matter what sketch they put Murphy in, he would have decided not to play along. Murphy was among a handful of big names that were asked to deliver mini-monologues about what SNL meant to them throughout the broadcast.

Jimmy Fallon started the show with a musical number with pal Justin Timberlake. Steve Martin was heartfelt and funny. Jerry Seinfeld did an audience participation bit with help from Larry David.

Eddie Murphy gave a generic speech that, again, relegated the event to a high school reunion that he didn’t want to attend. Rock’s introduction was longer and more genuine than Murphy’s actual speech. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

Murphy has been incredibly successful. Has been. Past tense. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single film from the last five years where he received top billing. But I can name his SNL sketches. So perhaps he needs less people telling him he saved Saturday Night Live and more people reminding him that the show built the foundation for his career.

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