Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Within about a year of Saturday Night Live’s 1975 debut, the backlash had already begun. As the show rapidly grew in popularity, and the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players showed up on magazine covers and in Hollywood movies, some of SNL’s original fans started sniffing, “Well, things ain’t what they used to be.” Read at length from the stacks of books and articles about the history of SNL—including my two favorites, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night, and Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York—and the refrain repeats, no matter what era is under discussion. Once, Saturday Night Live was daring and dangerous, but then the writers and cast started leaning on catchphrases and one-joke characters, aping the lame old variety shows that they originally meant to upend. This phenomenon extends beyond Saturday Night Live, too. I was born in 1970, at a time when the Baby Boomers where gaining greater control over the mainstream media, and the message they transmitted to my generation, over and over, to the point of our mutual exasperation, was this: You missed it, kiddos. You were born too late.
I’m old enough to have seen some episodes from Saturday Night Live’s semi-sacrosanct early years when they originally aired, when I was too young to get most of the jokes. Only later, looking back to consider what set the early SNL apart, did I grasp one of the key reasons why Saturday Night Live became such a sensation: Previous TV shows with counterculture elements tended to be either sheepish or snotty, while Saturday Night Live was more matter-of-fact in its jokes about drugs, politics, and popular culture, rarely making any excuses for the material. Producer Lorne Michaels even said later that he always considered SNL to be meat-and-potatoes comedy, and that it was only because of the subject matter that it acquired a reputation for being edgy. He said this in part to counter the charge that he and the show had sold out—arguing in essence that it’s impossible get co-opted if you were always a part of “the system.”
Nevertheless, when Michaels and the remaining members of the original cast left Saturday Night Live in 1980, what happened over the next five years—before Michaels returned to the helm in 1985—defined SNL’s legacy almost as significantly as what happened when the show premièred in 1975. First, Jean Doumanian took over as producer, with a new group of actors and writers who were divided on what made Saturday Night Live special. The sketches during Doumanian’s regime tended to be pointlessly raunchy, while the cast was split between those who assumed the show would be a launching pad to Chevy Chase/John Belushi/Bill Murray-level movie fame, those who were trained in improv and thus committed to the craft of sketch comedy as an end in itself, and those who wanted to carry on the upstart legacy of the original SNL.
Doumanian’s stint at the top ended before her first season was completed, as the show tanked in the ratings, drew fire from the critics, and infuriated the network’s standards and practices department. A February 1981 episode that ended with cast member Charles Rocket saying “fuck” live on the air effectively gave NBC the justification it needed to fire Doumanian, and to replace her with Dick Ebersol, who had been involved with developing SNL in the ’70s with Michaels. Ebersol scrapped most of Doumanian’s cast, but retained 20-year-old stand-up comedian Eddie Murphy and brash character comic Joe Piscopo, the two performers who’d most consistently risen above the lousy material they were being fed, and who’d shown the most passion for preserving SNL’s reputation. Murphy, in fact, had to practically beg to be given a spot on the show, only to suffer the indignity of being sidelined by Doumanian week after week. (The low point came when another black actor was hired to play a speaking part in a sketch about black Republicans.) But once Murphy finally got his chance to appear on camera, with actual lines, he was so clearly the star attraction that before long, the studio audience would whoop at the mere mention of his name.
I hate to be one of those “you had to be there” people, but if you weren’t watching Saturday Night Live during the three-year period (from roughly the start of 1981 to the end of 1983) when Eddie Murphy was dominant, then it’s all but impossible to convey how exciting he was, and how he made the show essential viewing again. As someone in his early adolescence during the Murphy era, I can tell you that a major part of the thrill derived from the feeling that my generation had a Saturday Night Live to call our own—even though only a couple of years had passed since the show’s original heyday. This is how fast popular culture moves in the rock ’n’ roll age: The Chase/Belushi/Murray era was Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead; the Murphy era was Prince and The Clash. Yet some things remain constant. During the first SNL run, people would tune in every week to see performances and humor that couldn’t be found anywhere else, and so it went with Murphy. If people wanted to watch Murphy do Buckwheat, Gumby, James Brown, or Stevie Wonder, then they had to tune in to NBC on Saturday nights. Ebersol liked broad characters and disliked controversy, so in the early ’80s, SNL could be awfully bland at times. But when Murphy was on-screen, even an otherwise humdrum episode could become an event.
Inevitably, Murphy was drafted by Hollywood, and went on to become a bigger movie star than anyone from the original SNL cast. To secure one last season from Murphy, Ebersol made the unprecedented concession of allowing his cash cow to pre-tape several months’ worth of sketches to pad out a limited number of guaranteed live appearances in the 1983-84 season. Then, after his contract was fulfilled, Murphy was gone, unceremoniously. And unlike other SNL alums, he stayed gone, declining to participate in anniversary specials, do cameos in sketches, or come back and host.
Well, except for one time.
Eddie Murphy stepped onto the Saturday Night Live stage on Dec. 15, 1984 to deliver the opening monologue in a spangly coat, a thin-collared shirt, and a prominent cross—looking like the high priest of ’80s entertainment. Murphy claimed to be nervous, but also seemed to be speaking completely off the cuff, admitting that after he made the mega-hits 48 Hours and Trading Places, he’d left SNL with no plans to return. But then he accepted a bit part in Best Defense, a movie that in his monologue Murphy says “sucked real bad.” (Though he adds, “The money they gave me, you’d have done Best Defense too.”) So he agreed to come back to host this episode of Saturday Night Live, even though in the interim he made Beverly Hills Cop, which became another blockbuster. Murphy tells the audience all of this almost as a way of establishing his status in relation to where he finds himself on this particular night. He confides in the viewers, saying the show they’re about to watch will be mostly funny, but that some of it will be lousy. And he lets his fans know that he doesn’t really want—let alone need—to be here.
The year after Murphy and Piscopo left (along with Tim Kazurinsky, a John Belushi friend who’d been a reliable pro throughout the early ’80s), Ebersol took a relatively new approach to Saturday Night Live, replenishing the cast with veteran comedians who were already fairly famous rather than trying to break new talent. A few performers from the Murphy/Piscopo era stuck around—including Jim Belushi, and the vastly undervalued Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mary Gross—but the bulk of the comedy load was carried by versatile stand-up Billy Crystal, SCTV staple Martin Short, and Spinal Tap alums Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. After the pre-taped sketch experiment with Murphy the previous season, Ebersol felt freer to let Crystal, Short, Guest, and Shearer make their own pre-recorded segments, which played to the quartet’s strengths as actors and writers as well as comics, but which also meant that for about two years, a good chunk of Saturday Night Live wasn’t live at all.
The December 15 episode is fairly typical, both for the season and for the era. Murphy was right that some of the sketches don’t really work, such as the one-joke “Newsmakers,” in which Gross and Louis-Dreyfus play two strident communists who compulsively perform an elaborate “Jinx! Buy me a Coke!” dance routine every time they speak in unison. The episode also fumbles with the only mildly funny filmed piece “Lifestyles Of The Relatives Of The Rich & Famous” (the second and final appearance of that particular premise), in which Short does Jerry Lewis, Crystal does Yul Brynner, and Murphy does James Brown, all as filtered through those celebs’ ordinary, non-famous kin. And while the sketch “Climbing The Stairs” offers the admittedly hilarious sight of Short (as his inept recurring character Leonard) trying to master the art of using the stairs in order to help some wounded soldiers, even Short’s flailing slapstick wears thin after a few minutes.
The biggest difference in style between the Saturday Night Live of 1984 and the SNL of 2012 is that the show today is far more polished. These days, even when the cast breaks character or gets the giggles—or when the writing’s weak—nothing ever comes off as completely amateurish. By contrast, the Dec. 15, 1984 show includes a well-written, well-acted, reasonably clever sketch called “Milestones,” in which Guest plays the host of a public-affairs talk show, with Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie as his guests. The gag is that Tutu panics when he accidentally breaks Flutie’s Heisman, and he tries to patch the trophy back together with gum, a Nobel ribbon, and a soldering iron. Murphy does a good Tutu (though his accent frequently slips from South African to Jamaican), and Rich Hall is funny as the diminutive Boston College quarterback, who’s sick of looking at the clip of his famous Hail Mary pass against Miami. But the sound mix of the sketch is weird, as is the staging, which requires Guest and Murphy to argue quietly but audibly while Hall drones on in the background. The sketch just doesn’t seem thought-through, either in terms of how it will play to the studio audience or to the audience at home. It feels like it was conceived by writers and actors who were growing too accustomed to shooting on film.
That’s partly why the Ebersol seasons banked so much on repeat characters: The studio audience was excited to see costumes and faces they recognized, and their enthusiasm tended to translate well on television. Plus, the actors and crew already knew how to make these bits work. In this episode, Murphy revisits a few of his old favorites, including mush-mouthed Little Rascal Buckwheat and the PBS-approved petty criminal Mr. Robinson, who here wears a Santa Claus suit and tells the little boys and girls that like Santa, he sneaks into houses late at night. (He also explains how he crams stolen baby dolls into stolen produce to make knockoff Cabbage Patch Kids.) When he was in the cast, Murphy was occasionally accused of playing to racist stereotypes with these two characters, but he performed them both with such gusto that he seemed to be exploding the stereotypes as much as exploiting them. In Shales and Miller’s book, comedian Tracy Morgan talks about what Murphy meant to the black community in the early ’80s, saying, “He was like the blackest thing on TV then.” And being confrontationally clownish was a big part of that vibe Murphy had. He wasn’t deferential to anyone else’s idea of what was appropriate.
That said, in this episode, Murphy balances the buffoonery of Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson with two much more pointed sketches about race relations in America. In the film piece “White Like Eddie,” Murphy dons pale makeup and a “Harry Reems-ish” mustache and heads out into the world to see how white people are treated. The sketch is to some degree just an excuse for Murphy to spoof how tight-assed white people can be, but what he ultimately discovers—that white people are throwing wild parties and handing out free money whenever black folks aren’t around—makes for some fine satire, especially coming from a comic who early in his career had to get help from Saturday Night Live’s white writers whenever he wanted to catch a cab after the show. (One of those writers, Jim Downey, plays a generous newsstand clerk in “White Like Eddie.”)
Later in the show, Murphy riffs on the angry, conspiratorial black intellectual in “Black History Minute,” playing Shabazz K. Morton, who tells the story of how George Washington Carver had the recipe for peanut butter stolen from him by Edward “Skippy” Williamson and Frederick “Jif” Armstrong, while Dr. Carver went insane trying to compress peanuts into phonograph needles. “Black History Minute” is a prime example of what made Murphy such a boon to SNL. He had a loose, natural, playful way of reading lines, exemplified here by the way he recalls Skippy and Jif saying, “’Scuse me, George… what’s that you puttin’ on your bread?” And even when Murphy stumbles a couple of times in the sketch, he recovers by snapping at the audience in character. (“So I messed up… SHUT UP! Stop clappin’ ’fore y’all make me smile!”)
That quality of Murphy’s—to be directly engaged with the crowd—comes across even more strongly in his segment on this episode’s “Saturday Night News.” The news sketches had been Murphy’s breakout forum back in the Doumanian years; while Rocket was leaving audiences stony with his smug, Chevy Chase-like take on the SNL news anchor, Murphy would change the whole mood of the room with his commentaries on the black experience. After Doumanian left, Ebersol experimented with different news anchors and formats. Short-timer Brad Hall—then-boyfriend and now husband of Louis-Dreyfus—pushed for more barbed political material, but Ebersol wasn’t interested. After the unhappy Hall was fired at the end of the 1983-84 season, Guest took over as anchor, reading weak, punchless jokes with a tone so dry that it was impossible to tell whether he thought they were funny or not. On the Dec. 15, 1984 show, the Guest bits are broken up by Rich Hall doing a spot-on impression of jovial, sponsor-heavy, long-pausing radio announcer Paul Harvey, and by Pamela Stephenson donning an ugly wig and false teeth to play an incomprehensible British commentator.
Then Murphy arrives, bringing a pile of Christmas toys, mostly based on real people and movie characters. Never once does Murphy appear to be reading off a cue card. Instead he just goofs around, making the Mr. T doll kiss the Brooke Shields doll, and imagining them having sex and giving birth to a Gremlin, which he says looks like a mix of “Miles Davis and Sammy Davis.” Murphy also talks at length about how gay Ken of Ken-and-Barbie fame looks, urging parents not to let their little boys play with Ken, unless they want him “to live in the Village and skip to work.” Murphy would eventually catch heat for the thick homophobic streak in his stand-up routines, and no wonder, given how gleefully and unabashedly anti-fey he is here, as he mocks how effeminate the Michael Jackson doll looks, and pulls down Jackson’s pants to note the absent penis. The bit comes off much meaner now than it did back in ’84, though Murphy’s complete command of the material and the crowd remains impressive.
Aside from some rough patches and the inevitable dud episodes, Saturday Night Live has been pretty consistently entertaining over its 37-year run, though rarely electrifying. Those moments when an inspired sketch idea or a gonzo performance catches the audience unaware don’t come around that often; instead, the show tends to fill out each episode with familiar, formulaic pieces. James Franco’s 2010 documentary Saturday Night (which played some festivals a few years ago but hasn’t been seen much beyond that) reveals some of how the writers and cast grind out a show each week by generating far more material than they’re going to use, which inevitably leads to shedding the stranger or more daring sketches before airtime. During his reign, Ebersol would often defer those final decisions on what to air to SNL’s longtime director Dave Wilson, who tended to default to sketches that were easy to mount. That may partly explain why Ebersol never had the kind of looming presence that Michaels has had during his two stints as producer. In the early ’80s, the cast didn’t make affectionate jokes about “Dick” the way the way they do now about “Lorne.”
Murphy certainly doesn’t show any love for Ebersol in this episode. Both the books Live From New York and Saturday Night note that Murphy resented the way that Ebersol initially acted like he was doing Murphy a favor by putting him on the air, and then shamelessly sucked up to Murphy after the success of 48 Hours and Trading Places. Murphy reportedly had a similar falling-out with Piscopo, who was his closest ally and champion at the start, and then tried a little too hard to ride Murphy’s coattails at the end. Castmates from that era, like Brad Hall, say that while they may have been jealous of the attention Murphy received, they always understood why he was such a favorite, and they say that Murphy himself was pretty friendly and easy to work with until the later days, when he’d show up late, surrounded by an entourage. But they also say that from the start, Murphy was operating in a different sphere. Brian Doyle-Murray says that Murphy blew off the chance to learn improv techniques from the legendary Del Close because he didn’t think he needed to be taught how to be funny. And when original SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue returned and started terrifying the staff with his furious speeches about how they all needed to destroy the show and go out in a blaze of glory, Murphy laughed right in the face of the infamous “Mr. Mike.”
Outside of the monologue, about the only acknowledgment Murphy pays to his SNL past on this episode comes in the closing, when he gives a retiring crew-member a nod of appreciation and then hugs and kisses Louis-Dreyfus, one of the few people remaining from his era. Otherwise, Murphy continues to set himself apart. When the show runs short, he comes out and plays piano for a minute to kill time. When he introduces the musical guest, he looks into the camera and tells the home viewers that they just missed a dirty joke he told the studio audience during the break. This is not Murphy returning to help the team. This is Murphy taking a victory lap before peeling out for good and leaving SNL in his dust.
And that musical guest, by the way? That would be The Honeydrippers, the makeshift oldies/R&B band that former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant threw together for a few live performances and a platinum-selling EP back in the mid-’80s. There may be no truer representation of how the counterculture era had softened than Plant’s presence on SNL here. In the ’70s, Plant was a dark god, delivering mystical pronouncements from gothic European castles. Granted, a good number of those pronouncements were geekily cribbed from The Lord Of The Rings, but Plant and Led Zeppelin still seemed remote and unknowable. And now we find ourselves in ’84, and Plant is singing about Santa Claus, flanked by Brian Setzer and Paul Shaffer.
There’s an old theory that television was both the best and worst thing to happen to some parts of the entertainment industry. Overnight, comedians and magicians who’d been slugging their way through small venues across the country received instantaneous national exposure, and could subsequently start playing bigger rooms, for higher fees. The problem? Everyone in their new audiences had seen the tricks and heard the jokes. So it went too with rock ’n’ roll, and with the edgy comedy of the early SNL. Once, it was almost impossible to see these kinds of acts on TV. Then they were on every week, and the mystique faded. If anything, the performers they’d elbowed out of the way became more beloved by their sudden absence.
Maybe Murphy got out just in time, then, when he could still be remembered as something rare and amazing, and not something overexposed. After all, the history of SNL is filled with talented people who merely breezed through on their way to something else, such as Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock, Robert Downey, Jr., and many more. The ’84-’85 season was a one-and-done for Rich Hall, Crystal, Guest, Shearer (who actually quit midseason), and Short, as well as for writer Larry David, who barely got any of his sketches on the air during his one year on the show, though some of his unaired ideas and real-life experiences later made their way into Seinfeld.
David can be seen in the background of the best sketch in the Dec. 15, 1984 episode: “Lishman’s Deli,” which features Murphy’s version of the ’50s claymation character Gumby. Murphy’s imagining of Gumby as a cranky, demanding old Jewish entertainer is one of the most brilliant and funny ideas of his whole SNL run, and meshes well here with the sensibilities of Crystal, Guest, and Short, who also liked to pretend to be quirky showbiz vets. In “Lishman’s Deli,” Short plays songwriter Irving Cohen, who’s always entreating the band to give him a “bouncy C” while he free-associates a few lyrics and ends with, “Da-da-da, dee-dee-dee, whatever the hell else you want to put into it.” Crystal plays the phlegmatic Lew Goldman, and Guest plays the senile ex-child-star Morty Schmegman, while Rich Hall makes an appearance as a waiter who claims that Gumby still owes him for a sandwich he failed to pay for a decade ago. (When Gumby says he must be mistaken, the waiter sarcastically suggests that maybe he’s thinking of “some other green Jew.”) Crystal breaks up some when the characters are trying to remember the ingredients in a “Morey Amsterdam sandwich”—Guest’s Morty suggests that it’s “banana, onion, and something else, with the relish”—but even with that blip, the sketch is a lively one, because all the performers seem to be having so much fun inhabiting these characters.
I watched that Gumby sketch—and this entire Eddie Murphy-hosted episode—the night that it aired, because as I said, this was the first era of Saturday Night Live I felt I could claim as “mine.” I especially loved Martin Short back then, though at age 14, I’m not sure I could’ve articulated what it was about Short’s bizarre evocations of old-timers that I found so hysterical. I certainly had little to no firsthand experience of the vaudevillians and golden-age TV hosts that the likes of Short and Crystal loved to tweak. Secondhand experience, though? I had plenty of that: from David Letterman, Johnny Carson, sitcoms, and the wackier Saturday-morning cartoons, as well as from SNL sketches dating back to ’75. Again and again, even the hip, flip SNL comedians would riff on the singers and comics that they grew up with, paying tribute to what they’d replaced. It was as though by wearing the clothes and saying the lines, they could conjure up the missing, and re-learn the forgotten.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, “Surprise”