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.

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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.

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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.