Eddie Murphy, who is often credited with saving Saturday Night Live during the tumult of the early 1980s, the years in which Lorne Michaels walked away from the show, finally returned to Studio 8H after 35 years, hosting SNL for the first time since he left in 1984. (He appeared briefly in the 40th anniversary special, but performed in no sketches.) The reason for his long absence has been chalked up to hurt feelings over a joke David Spade made in the mid-90s, after Murphy had a couple misses at the box office. But at some point Murphy got over it, and not only did he return to SNL, but he brought many of his classic characters back, including Gumby, Mister Robinson, Velvet Jones, and Buckwheat.
Of course, that means the theme of the night was “Wow, most of this has not aged well”. That got explicitly called out twice, including in Gumby’s Weekend Update appearance.
Look, Eddie Murphy calling Colin Jost “Headshot” is a perfect joke unto itself. But this entire segment exists basically to show how this bit hasn’t improved with time, and the joke is more about the audience’s reaction to Gumby now. Velvet Jones was used much more astutely on “Black Jeopardy”, updating Velvet’s self-employment scam “I Wanna Be a Ho” for the Instagram generation with a punchline that pokes at influencers as much as it does the offensive language of Velvet Jones. What works especially well in this sketch is that Murphy understands these jokes are not acceptable. He is, after all, the rare comedian who actually apologizes for using hurtful language in the past. He’s not defending his past jokes here. He turns them into meta-jokes, holding these bits up to contemporary scrutiny and then finding ways to make them relevant to now, like the Instagram punchline in “Black Jeopardy”.
But Murphy didn’t just recycle his classic characters, he also did new bits, and it’s here we really see the enduring appeal of Eddie Murphy. We know he’s funny and can tell a joke. But all Murphy has to do is look into camera and he can get a laugh, he has one of those elastic faces that makes for great reaction shots. (His brother, the late Charlie Murphy, also had this ability.)
Nowhere does this ability show to better advantage than in the “Home for the Holidays” digital short. The whole bit is built on the difference between Murphy’s sincere warmth during family dinner and his various angry and irritated faces in the flashbacks. Only a performer as expressive as Murphy can make this work—which is why Maya Rudolph, also an incredibly expressive performer, returns to play his wife.
Eddie Murphy’s return to SNL was worth the long wait. This is easily a highlight episode of the year, where almost every sketch works—I haven’t even mentioned the holiday bake-off with the demon cake—and his monologue brought on other black comedians, the generations that followed in Murphy’s footsteps, showing his impact on comedy, the doors he opened and who came through. (He also throws a pretty sharp joke about Bill Cosby, one not many can land, and one he lands largely because he HAS changed from 30 years ago.) In all, Murphy’s return is the rare bit of nostalgia that really pays off, reminding us why we loved him on SNL all those years ago, and why he still makes us laugh today. I hope we don’t have to wait another 35 years for Murphy to host SNL again.