It wasn’t exactly Muhammad Ali in the streets of Zaire in 1974, but hearing the Saturday Night Live crowd chant Eddie Murphy’s name was surreal. The greatest living comedian returned to the SNL stage he helped save for the first time in 35 years. And he understood the importance of the occasion.
“This is the last episode of 2019,” he said in the show’s opening monologue that included a shot at more-nemesis-than-mentor Bill Cosby. “But if you’re black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984.” The bit closed with a euphoric ensemble of legendary black comedians — Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Kenan Thompson — who showered Murphy with praise while looking honored to share the same stage with the Raw and Delirious wordsmith.
Saturday night proved that Murphy’s comedic timing is still in his bones. He reprised several classic characters from his early ’80s heyday, including the racially insensitive Gumby, literary guru Velvet Jones, the comically hard to understand Buckwheat, and Mister Robinson, who offered a hilariously modern take on gentrification. Likewise, Murphy starred in new sketches, notably the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-like “Home for the Holidays,” the emotionally distraught elf Kiddle Diddles, who witnessed a gruesome polar bear attack at Santa Claus’ workshop, and the internal bickering of the Trice Henderson Trio.
Calling Murphy’s return an instant classic or making any other rush to definitive judgment is unfair. It was proof that he’s still ridiculously funny and his style can evolve, a daunting task for comedians in a changing cultural climate.
More than anything, though, seeing him on stage felt good. And it felt good at exactly the right time. You smiled as much as you laughed. And if you’re of a certain age, seeing Murphy on the SNL stage for the first time since Dec. 15, 1984, was undoubtedly a deeply nostalgic moment. While some elements of our lives are better left in their own times, there are times we need to create new memories with a familiar source. And Murphy? The perfect chemist for an inexact science. It seems almost incomprehensible that Murphy’s long-awaited return to sketch comedy came at the end of a week that saw only the third president in U.S. history get impeached. Not how Murphy might have planned it, but this is how history will contextualize the moment: Laughter in a time of countrywide chaos.
Murphy is as important to comedy as Stevie Wonder is to the sound of music. His audience is diverse. Millions the world over cherish his work. But when it comes to the black experience in America, he is nearly demigod, necessary, irreplaceable and integral. In a comedic universe still reeling over the death of Murphy’s Boomerang co-star John Witherspoon, an aura of responsibility feels perched on his shoulders. There are only so many people alive who can touch people the way Murphy has. He knows this, or at least it sure seems like he does. It’s written all over his face, in his mannerisms and bleeds through his jokes. He doesn’t have to say a word.
Closing the decade out with both Murphy’s SNL revival and Dolemite Is My Name would have been enough to satisfy most fans. But when lightning appears, thunder soon follows. A reported massive deal with Netflix, Beverly Hills Cop 4 (also through Netflix) and the Coming To America sequel are all part of 2020 (and beyond). Who knows — perhaps one of these projects will net him his first Academy Award. Not that he needs it to validate his career. What matters is this, and this only. The Eddie Murphy Comeback Tour isn’t upon us. It’s already here.