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‘Saturday Night Live’ Was Dying. Then Eddie Murphy Showed Up.

With Mister Robinson himself returning to Studio 8H on Saturday, it’s worth remembering how his arrival in 1980 changed the show’s history

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It began with—of all things—a newspaper article. In the fall of 1980, during the disastrous sixth season of Saturday Night Live, first-year writer Barry Blaustein’s father sent him a story out of Cleveland. The report focused on court-appointed administrator Donald R. Waldrip, who as part of a larger desegregation plan, had ordered the city’s mostly black high school basketball teams to diversify their rosters with more white players.

“The directive indicates that Cleveland basketball teams may eventually be chosen by casting directors from The White Shadow,” New York Times columnist George Vecsey wrote, name-checking the television series about a racially mixed Los Angeles high school squad. “But it does not live up to the highest values in sports.”

Desperate for material, Blaustein decided that this notoriously misguided attempt at integration would be the perfect thing to skewer in a sketch. He and his writing partner, David Sheffield, just needed someone they could pitch the idea to. Fortunately, they had a colleague itching for screen time.

“He was only a featured player,” Sheffield says. “He was not a member of the regular cast. He didn’t appear in anything to speak of. He was very quiet. Kept to himself.”

Back then, Eddie Murphy was all of 19 years old. The late-night series’s overwhelmingly white writing staff barely seemed to know that the young black man existed. But one day, when Blaustein and Sheffield were hanging out with him at work, he began effortlessly riffing as a character named Raheem Abdul Mohammed, an aspiring cultural commentator and film critic. “The joke was that he always went to the wrong theater in the multiplex,” Sheffield says. “We were just like, ‘Boy, that guy’s funny.’”

That guy, Blaustein figured, would be the perfect person to make fun of the ugly situation in Ohio. “I asked Eddie if he thought he could do anything with it,” he says. “And then he wrote something up and he showed it to David Sheffield and myself. It was really, really good.” So good, in fact, that it landed Murphy on “Weekend Update” for the first time.

On December 6, in the middle of the satirical news broadcast, fake anchor Charles Rocket tossed it over to Joe Piscopo for a sports segment. “The other big story this week, Cleveland,” he said after making a joke about boxer Roberto Durán. “Judge ruling all high school basketball teams must have two white players. Fair? Unjust? Comment: Cleveland high school student Raheem Abdul Mohammed. What’s the story Raheem?” Sitting to his left was Murphy in a black and yellow letterman’s jacket.

“Yo, baby,” Raheem said before jumping into a short, righteous screed that felt borrowed from Murphy’s stand-up routine. “At least let us have basketball. Is nothing sacred? Anytime we get something going good y’all got to move in on it. In the ’60s we wore platform shoes, then y’all had to wear platform shoes. In the early ’70s we braided our hair, then in the late ’70s you had to braid your hair. Now it’s 1980, we on welfare—by the end of next year y’all gonna be on welfare, too.” At that point, the camera zoomed in on Murphy’s face.

“I don’t see no judge saying that every two bathroom attendants got to be white,” Raheem continued. “All I’m saying is that y’all stay on the hockey courts and the polo fields, and let us stay on the basketball courts. If God would’ve wanted whites to be equal to blacks everybody’d have one of these.” From under the desk, he pulled out a boom box. As he crossed his arms and glared at Piscopo, the audience’s laughter spiked.

Blaustein and Sheffield were standing just off camera. “The moment he went on the air it was like, ‘My God, this guy’s incredible,’” Blaustein says. “He just won ’em over,” says Gail Matthius, Rocket’s eventual “Update” cohost that year. “Right afterwards, I said to myself, ‘Oh yeah. Something just happened right there.’”

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This weekend, Eddie Murphy will host Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1984. Between then and now, he became the biggest movie star that the show has ever produced. Recent headlines have focused on Murphy’s decision to return to the program after decades away, the dissolution of a years-long grudge over a 1995 cheap shot David Spade infamously took at his career. But Murphy’s return to Studio 8H is also reason to reflect on what the actor meant to Saturday Night Live. Because he meant a lot: Without Eddie Murphy, there might not be anything left of SNL except streamable reruns.

When Murphy arrived in 1980, what remained of the legendary original cast had just followed creator Lorne Michaels out the door. Naturally, the quality of the series dipped and ratings had cratered. “It would’ve been like if when Friends was on the air, the whole cast left and were replaced by different people,” says comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who also joined SNL that fall. “And you just expected the audience to go, ‘Oh, I’ll just watch it like I always do.’” Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who went on to coauthor the definitive oral history of the show, went as far as declaring that new executive producer Jean Doumanian had taken the program “for a long walk off a short pier.” (Doumanian did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)

Murphy’s first season is widely considered the worst in the 45-year history of the series, but he became a life preserver whose presence helped save Saturday Night Live from drowning. “The show would’ve been canceled without Eddie,” Sheffield says. Even as the show was foundering, the 19-year-old’s combination of talent, savviness, and drive signaled that SNL actually had a future. “I remember him being in my office and saying that he wanted to be as big as Elvis,” says former SNL cast member Robin Duke. “I remember saying, ‘Whoa, there’s some confidence.’”

Shortly after Murphy’s arrival at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, then-SNL talent coordinator Neil Levy was in a 17th-floor restroom stall when he noticed something written on the wall near the toilet paper dispenser. There were four words, scribbled in pencil: “Eddie Murphy number 1.” Levy could never confirm who did it, but he’s pretty sure he knows.

By the time he reached 30 Rock, Murphy was already a seasoned performer. “Eddie struggled for about two weeks before getting a network job,” Sheffield deadpans. After spending his early years in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Murphy’s family moved to Roosevelt, Long Island, where as an adolescent he became a schoolyard legend for his ability to goof on classmates. In 1976, his knack for crowd work landed him a gig hosting a local talent show. He was only 15.

“It was the first time ever for me performing on a stage with a microphone,” Murphy later told Newsday. “I liked comedy and I knew I was funny. I wanted to do that so bad I never thought about anything else.” (Through a representative, Murphy declined to be interviewed for this article.)

From there, the ambitious teen sought out a manager and then began working at local clubs. In the late ’70s, he formed a comedy team called the Identical Triplets with two white guys, Bob Nelson and Rob Bartlett. Murphy eventually became a regular at the Upper East Side’s Comic Strip. “It was a time period when besides Cosby and Pryor, there weren’t that many black actor-comics,” says comedian and writer John DeBellis, who knew Murphy then. “And he had such a spark and such a presence.”

Midway through 1980, Murphy heard that Saturday Night Live “needed a black guy real bad.” Until then, there had been a single African American cast member on the show: Garrett Morris. After he departed with the rest of the first cast that spring, the series was in search of its next person—not people—of color, a tokenistic approach to casting the show that has plagued SNL since its inception. “Lorne had only had one black person,” says Levy. “So God forbid you didn’t do something that wasn’t the formula.” (Through a representative, Michaels declined to be interviewed for this article.)

As the sixth season of the show approached, Doumanian was on the verge of signing actor-comedian and future filmmaker Robert Townsend. Then Murphy began phoning Levy. “I don’t even know how he got through to me,” he says. “I wasn’t just taking calls from actors at the time. And he just managed to talk his way through.” When Levy explained that auditions were over, Murphy claimed that he had 18 brothers and sisters to support; Levy found Murphy funny enough to ask him to come in to 30 Rock.

“He did a piece which was three and a half minutes long,” Levy says. “He acted like five different characters up in Harlem. One of them was instigating a fight between two other ones. It was just a tour de force. And blew me away.” Levy has maintained that it took some convincing to push Doumanian to hire Murphy. Eventually she did—but only as a featured player, not a full repertory player.

Levy recalls apologizing to Murphy for his low salary. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’m gonna be a millionaire before I’m 21,’” Levy says. “He said that to me. And he was. He was pretty cocky and sure of himself. He kind of saw his destiny.” But Levy never mistook this confidence for egotism. After all, Murphy hadn’t been hardened by the rejection of show business. “He didn’t care what anybody thought about him,” Sheffield says. “He was just so confident and there to be funny. I don’t think there was ever a moment where he doubted himself or his role on the show.”

“Just before that you’re in high school and you’re a cut-up,” says fellow featured player Patrick Weathers, who shared a dressing room with Murphy. “He had that type of fearlessness. He had not been conditioned in any way to be like, ‘Oh, I better not try that.’”

The problem during his first few months on SNL was that no one was letting him try anything. In the wake of Michaels leaving, the show was in disarray. On Blaustein’s first day of work, he took off his coat, and was immediately handed a piece of paper. “These writers came in and said, ‘Sign this petition,’” he says. “I go, ‘What petition?’ They said, ‘That Jean Doumanian should be fired.’ And I’m going, ‘This person just hired me, I’m not gonna sign this petition saying she should be fired.’”

“Some of the [writers] were fresh out of Harvard,” Sheffield says. “They were saying, ‘I don’t really need this job.’ My last job was directing lawnmower commercials in Mississippi, so I definitely needed that job. And Barry and I realized what a break it was.”

Soon after his chaotic start at SNL, Blaustein recalls seeing Murphy quietly sitting with his friend Clint Smith in a hallway outside the writers’ offices. What Blaustein didn’t know was that Murphy was far from a class clown. Off stage, he was relaxed. “It’s not like he was just some guileless, incurable ham that was on all the time,” Weathers says. “He was a pretty cool guy. He was funny. But he was cool.”

Still, the lack of opportunities gnawed at him. For the second episode of the season, Sheffield wrote “In Search of the Negro Republican,” in which Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins (played by Rocket) combs Manhattan for an elusive black member of the GOP. In the sketch, Murphy and featured player Yvonne Hudson, a black woman, were relegated to cameos while an outside actor was brought in to play the lead. “Eddie and I were sitting on a couch during rehearsals,” Weathers says, “and he kept saying, ‘So this is what featured players do. This is what featured players do. We sit on the couch.’”

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Like Murphy, Long Island–raised Blaustein and Mississippi-raised Sheffield spent the early part of the 1980–81 season of Saturday Night Live doing anything possible to get sketches on the air. Eventually the friends and partners, who met while working on the show, found something they could use to their advantage over their more experienced colleagues: They could write for the young comic who wasn’t yet a full cast member. Thus it didn’t take long for Murphy, Blaustein, and Sheffield to band together. “We formed sort of a bond,” Blaustein says. “Eddie would come up with ideas and we would come to him, because we’d work on stuff together for an hour every morning. We wrote 90 percent of his stuff on the show.”

Though, as well as Raheem Abdul Mohammed’s first “Weekend Update” appearance went over, the SNL writers remained, at best, ambivalent about Murphy. “Most of the writing staff didn’t wake up,” Blaustein says. But, he adds, “There was never a point where they said to us, ‘You can’t put Eddie in this ’cause he’s not good enough.’ They encouraged us. Look, when you have a guy who can take your material and elevate it, of course you want him to do it. I didn’t care that he wasn’t a cast member.”

In addition to Blaustein and Sheffield, Murphy gained an ally in Piscopo, who understood the young comedian’s potential. “I think Joe saw in Eddie somebody to be associated with,” Matthius says. “He was a star.” Piscopo’s attachment to Murphy later became a punch line; the often-cited joke by show insiders, including Sheffield, is that “Eddie Murphy’s success went to Joe Piscopo’s head.”

On January 10, 1981, Murphy again popped up on “Update,” this time as himself. After Matthius read a news item about 18- and 19-year-old American men being forced to register for the draft, she introduced Murphy.

“My name’s Eddie Murphy,” he said while wearing a jacket and tie. “I’m 19 years old and this is my comment. I don’t want to be drafted. I’m very serious about this. It’s not that I’m afraid of war or anything like that. I don’t mind getting shot at now and then. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just that I have certain obligations here at Saturday Night Live and if I get drafted, who’s gonna be the token black on Saturday Night Live?”

He next asked the crowd who, in his absence, would do impressions of black celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby. Then he broke into an impression of each. The audience ate it up. If Raheem was funny, Eddie was hysterical. It was the country’s first unfiltered look at Murphy, who ended the segment by taking a shot at the predecessor to whom he was often compared. “I’m telling you, look, if you want a tough soldier, if you want to draft somebody that’s really, tough, mean, serious business, mess you up, this dude you should draft, his very name scares the hell out of me, this is the guy right here, this is your man, get this guy, Garrett Morris,” he said, pulling out a photo of the departed cast member. “Serious business. I know he’s a little over-age but word has it he has a lot of free time right now.”

It was a sharp barb that perhaps unfairly targeted a man who himself had been marginalized by SNL. But it was yet another sign of Murphy’s fearlessness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to be boxed into a role; nor was he interested in maintaining Saturday Night Live’s status quo. (In an interview with TV Guide in the early ’80s, Murphy said that Doumanian had “tried to ‘Garrett Morris’ me, turn me into the little token nigger.”) And above everything else, the joke, and Murphy’s entire monologue, absolutely killed.

“He knew he had to figure out how to navigate all these white people and all these comedians, and find a place for himself,” says then-SNL writer-filmmaker Mitchell Kriegman. “And be true to himself.”

But that night, Murphy wasn’t done. As 1 a.m. drew close, it became clear to the crew that the episode was running short. “You can’t, like, call the affiliates and tell them, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be four minutes short today. So put something else on,’” Levy says. “You’re just gonna sit there with dead airspace in a live show.” The talent coordinator quickly suggested that Murphy should try the stand-up routine that he’d performed at his audition. Murphy, of course, was game. “He just went out there and talked,” Sheffield says. “He did it seamlessly. It was without cue cards, without a script, without anything. It was just Eddie doing what he does.”

Two weeks later, Murphy stepped onto the SNL stage in a shiny, baby blue Adidas track jacket. He was there to announce that he was being promoted from featured player to full cast member. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You’re thinking the kid’s young, he’s 19 years old. Am I gonna be a burnout? Am I gonna go crazy? Burn myself out? Start using drugs? Abusing myself? Wasting thousands of dollars on things I really don’t need? I don’t think so.” At that moment, he pulled his hands out of his pockets to reveal 10 fingers full of rings and wrists draped in gold bracelets and a sparkling watch. “I’m a pretty level-headed guy,” he continued. “And if … you’re worried about, like, Eddie Murphy going Hollywood, please don’t, because I’ve got my stuff together.”

As he finished his address, Murphy put on his sunglasses, yanked an oversized white mirror out of his pants, stared into it and began to fix his hair. Then he looked at the camera, and smiled.

Murphy’s breakthrough was good for the long-term future of Saturday Night Live, but at the time, it didn’t feel like a saving grace. For those in the thick of it, the sixth season of SNL was still total chaos. “I never had chiropractic issues till that year,” Matthius says. “I just figured, ‘OK this is the way show business is. This is the way live television is.’ Roll with it.”

Kriegman remembers Doumanian bringing the show’s staff into her office to read TV critics’ scathing reviews out loud. When he got fired midseason, “I couldn’t have been happier,” Kriegman says. “I wanted to quit but my lawyer wouldn’t let me quit, because when you have a contract, I learned at that moment in show business, if you quit, you’re breaching contract. … If they fire you, you get your money, which is great.”

As SNL was struggling, Murphy managed to express his dismay at the creative direction of the show while also being totally disarming. “That meant laughing with that completely weird fake laugh he’s got, when the producer says something stupid,” Kriegman says. “If you think about his laugh, he has a laugh that allows him to laugh at something and release tension but also have a point of view that maybe he doesn’t agree.”

“Eddie and I, when we’d be reading at read-through, or doing a sketch that wasn’t working, we’d be looking at each other and give each other a head nod,” says Gottfried, who in one sketch in Season 6 played a corpse in a coffin. “And that means, ‘This is shit.’”

But not everything that season was shit. On February 21, 1981, the night that Prince made his first Saturday Night Live appearance and Rocket infamously blurted out “fuck” on the air, Murphy debuted his first iconic original character. In “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” an inner-city-set parody of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he played the title role, singing a bit of a different song than Mister Rogers did:

It’s one hell of a day in the neighborhood
A hell of a day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

Blaustein and Sheffield—the latter of whom recalls writer Pamela Norris also contributing—aren’t exactly sure how they and Murphy came up with the concept. “There was a lot of pot smoking,” Blaustein says. “These things come around just sitting around talking. I can’t remember what was the moment. I remember thinking, ‘This would be funny.’”

Mister Robinson spends the sketch doing things like teaching his young audience curse words. Mr. Speedy, a drug dealer played by Gottfried, delivers a $125 “chemistry kit.” And at the end of the scene, the show-within-a-show’s host visits his version of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, an urban diorama. “Oh look, Mr. Taxicab Driver is driving through our neighborhood,” Mister Robinson says as he pulls a toy cab through the mini set. “Think he’ll pick up one of the people from our neighborhood? No way!”

Murphy faced a similar problem in real life. “More than once he would leave the office at 3 or 4 in the morning and I’d have to go down there to Rockefeller and 6th Avenue and hail him a cab,” Blaustein says. “Cabs weren’t picking him up.”

After “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” hit, Murphy’s fame began to build. Weathers recalls Murphy and his pal Clint Smith going out for lunch and being met on the way back by adoring fans. “Clint was saying, ‘Eddie got mobbed in the lobby! He got mobbed in the lobby!’” Weathers says. “It was so funny. He was really taking off.”

Murphy himself seemed to know was what coming. In truth, he’d spent nearly his whole life preparing for stardom. Once, while Levy was watching a film of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, Murphy stopped by. “He sat on the floor and he watched it while I was doing some work,” Levy says. “And the next day he came back and said, ‘You got that Elvis thing?’ I said, ‘Sure.’” And they watched it again. “The third time he came in I said, ‘Just take it,’” Levy adds. It’s probably no coincidence that Murphy, like the King in ’68, wore head-to-toe leather in both of his ’80s stand-up movies.

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In their office, Blaustein and Sheffield had a blackboard on which they wrote sketch ideas. One day, Murphy dropped in, picked up a piece of chalk, and started signing his name. “Each time his autograph got more florid, more perfect,” Sheffield says. “He was practicing his autograph because he knew he would need to.”

In March 1981, Gottfried was sitting with Murphy in an office at 30 Rock when a staffer popped in to say that the latter had a phone call. “He was a little confused and he picks up the phone,” Gottfried says, “and goes, ‘Yeah, yeah. Oh no, oh shit. No, no, no, I won’t tell anybody.’” Before he even hung up, Murphy turned to his castmate and broke the news: NBC had just fired Doumanian.

“That was out of a movie,” Gottfried says. “We got called in for her to announce to us that she’s been fired after the word had already gotten out. She was announcing it and it was like trying to act surprised when you know there’s gonna be a surprise party for you. And everyone goes, ‘Oh …’ It was so uncomfortable.”

Doumanian was replaced as executive producer by NBC executive Dick Ebersol, who in the mid-’70s had developed the show with Michaels. When Ebersol arrived, he cleaned house, firing the majority of the writers and the cast. His first episode as showrunner, after the series went on hiatus for four weeks, was on April 11, 1981. Mercifully, the Writers Guild of America went on strike that month, leading to the cancellation of the rest of the season.

When the carnage was over, Blaustein, Sheffield, Piscopo, and most importantly Murphy, kept their jobs at SNL. And over the next several seasons, with Ebersol in charge, Murphy became the biggest draw on a retooled show. In addition to doing multiple impressions and bringing back Mister Robinson, he played a variety of popular recurring characters, including Gumby, James Brown, Tyrone Green, Stevie Wonder, “Little” Richard Simmons, and Buckwheat.

“Of all people, he knew that camera,” Robin Duke says. “The camera loved him. I was afraid of the camera. I just wanted to push the camera aside. But Eddie was able to work the crowd and the camera.”

Within two years of starting at 30 Rock, the magnetic Murphy made his movie debut, playing temporarily released, crime-solving convict Reggie Hammond alongside Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. The week of the film’s release in December 1982, Murphy, Blaustein, and Sheffield were working as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting was happening hundreds of feet below them. Sheffield recalls that Murphy decided to grab a megaphone. “He opens a window and he’s shouting, ‘48 Hrs. coming soon to a theater near you. Eddie Murphy!’ In the middle of the ceremony. And the Rockefellers were down there. And they sent security up to the floor and we had to hide Eddie until they were gone.”

The hit action comedy minted Murphy as a Hollywood star. A year later he starred alongside Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places; in 1984, the Murphy-led Beverly Hills Cop came out and crushed at the box office, pulling in $234.8 million. That same year, Murphy decided to leave Saturday Night Live.

Over the next four decades, Blaustein and Sheffield, who helped write sketches for Murphy’s SNL return this weekend, remained close to Murphy. They went on to write Coming to America, Boomerang, and two Nutty Professor movies. They also penned Coming 2 America, which comes out next year. “We’ve been working together for 40 years on and off,” Blaustein says. “That’s a long, long, long time. When I got divorced I remember I said to him, ‘Now that I’m divorced, you’re my longest relationship.’ He said to me, ‘You’re my longest relationship.’” After he offered up an apology to that dismal reality, Blaustein says Murphy just shrugged: “He said, ‘Ah, we could’ve both done worse.’”

Levy still remembers noticing “Eddie Murphy number 1” scribbled in pencil on the wall of that 17th-floor restroom stall at 30 Rock. To him, it wasn’t an act of egomania. “I always saw it as a 19-year-old kid trying to manifest his dream with a mantra,” he says.

Five months later, in early 1981, Levy returned to the same stall and saw that the four-word phrase had been written again near the original. Except this time, it was much bigger, in black marker, and punctuated by an exclamation point. Levy could never confirm who did it, but he’s pretty sure he knows.

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