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Eddie Murphy’s Brand of Anarchy Was What ‘Saturday Night Live’ Needed

After three decades away from the show that he saved in the 1980s, the comic played the hits and gave ‘SNL’ some much-needed edge

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Eddie Murphy’s first impression on Saturday Night Live last night: Bill Cosby. Yeah. There’s no point to easing into this. “I have 10 kids now—11 if you count Kevin Hart,” he announced during his triumphant monologue, commanding the stage he’d last taken in 1984, save for a quick cameo during the show’s 40th anniversary special back in 2015. And then, look out: “If you’d have told me 30 years ago that I’d be this boring, stay-at-home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail, even I would’ve took that bet.” And then, look out, here comes the Cosby voice: “Whooooooo is America’s dad NOW!”

Oh, wow. Yes, Eddie Murphy, the guy who very arguably saved SNL from oblivion nearly four decades ago, the guy who very publicly and angrily broke with the show after David Spade mocked him in the mid-’90s, was back to reclaim his throne (and promote Dolemite Is My Name), and shit got rowdy. Murphy reprised his most beloved characters (from Mister Robinson to Gumby to Velvet Jones), blurted out the word shit accidentally, (as Gumby!) called Colin Jost both “Trailer Boy” and “Headshot,” and also called Michael Che “Black Bastard” twice. During Black Jeopardy a photo of Idris Elba in Cats was shown, and the punchline was, “Movies can stay white.” Pete Davidson seemed to announce that he was going into rehab. Che and Jost reprised their annual bit where they try to embarrass each other by reading each other’s Weekend Update jokes, then Jost had to pretend to fire a cue card-holder because he was black, and this was the unread joke on the card:

Rowdy. This episode was incredible: easily the best since Adam Sandler’s episode in May. Skip the Murphy-less cold open (another fairly lifeless Democratic debate spoof) and jump straight to the monologue, which ended with our host, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, and a conspicuously smoking Dave Chappelle onstage. Rock did a joke about Law & Order: UTI; Chappelle did his impression of T.I. as a gynecologist: “I will check your hymen expeditiously.” Oh, wow.

“Right now you’re lookin’ at half of Netflix’s budget,” Chappelle added. “Right here onstage.”

Morgan: “Not me. Not me I made all my millions on the road.”

Murphy: “You mean touring?”

Morgan: “No. I got hit by a truck.”

Incredible. Murphy staked his claim to being the greatest living SNL cast member by playing the early-’80s hits but sneaking them into a late-’10s context. Even the night’s quietest parts were boisterously loud. It was indeed a thrill to get the first new Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood of the 21st century, but the biggest jokes (mostly about gentrification, including the one that one that ended with the word “RACIST” displayed on a 72-inch TV) somehow didn’t hit as hard as Murphy’s little twirl and beckoning hand the first time he went to open the door. Very few humans in Saturday Night Live history are huge enough deals to nail a gesture that small.

The accidental shit came during a Holiday Baking Championship parody wherein Murphy unveiled a horrifying Sonic the Hedgehog cake with a demonic voice and human teeth, and what he was saying wasn’t half as funny as how he was saying it:

“Yeah, it’s bad, it’s gross, it’s real bad.”

“I think I just made a lot of bad choices. I don’t mean with the cake, I mean like in general, in my life, I just made lots of bad choices in my life.”

“That’s some evil backwards devil talk. I believe I opened up a portal, and I am so bad at baking.”

And finally, as the devil cake tried to crawl away: “Come back here, you coward. We could still win this shit.” Murphy immediately put his hand up to his mouth: It’s the first and last time you’ll see him look sheepish after swearing.

As for Buckwheat, he emerged from a Corn on the Cob costume on a fake episode of The Masked Singer to sing such timeless classics as “I Chot Da Chariff,” “Aneese Nameena,” “R-E-S-P-T-T-D,” and “Tinga Nadies.” (That’s “Single Ladies.”) Famed author/entrepreneur Velvet Jones appeared on Black Jeopardy to once again hawk a book called I Wanna Be a Ho, but also books called Ass for Cash, How to Dance Like a Ho, and climatically, How to Be An Instagram Ho. Murphy flubbed half his lines and somehow it still didn’t matter.

Most of the show was devoted to these generations-spanning callbacks, save for a harried family holiday toast here or a stroke of 1 a.m. polar bear mauling elves in Santa’s workshop there. But even the shakier material popped with Murphy at the helm, stumbling through the occasional cue card but nailing the sense of gleeful anarchy that once made him a star and first made the show worth watching.

Of course what everyone really wanted, though, was Gumby, dammit.

Gumby came out for Weekend Update under the premise of Gumby berates Michael Che and Colin Jost for not being as funny as Eddie Murphy. Quotes: “I saved this damn show from the gutter.” “Shame on you, Lorne Michaels. Shame on you, NBC.” “I’ve passed kidney stones with more personality than the two of you.” “Face it kid, the both of you together couldn’t Velcro my sneakers.” Spot the lie! Also, with regards to Lizzo, your musical guest: “She’s a real beauty, and you know, colored girls don’t usually do that for me.” (Lizzo did “Truth Hurts” as a hard-rock shredfest and “Good as Hell” as an extra-inspirational Broadway showstopper; both were lovely but could’ve been maybe 40 percent more crass.)

All of this was a useful reminder that the Murphy-as-Gumby premise was never cleverer or more complicated than Eddie Murphy wears a Gumby suit and yells a lot, and that is all the premise anybody ever needed. When a young SNL was on the verge of a catastrophe, a young Murphy stabilized it, and then left a vacuum even the likes of Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan couldn’t quite fill. Last night’s show was less a savvy-veteran victory lap than an assertion that Murphy’s torch burned so bright that he never quite got around to passing it. It was quite an anarchic thrill to see him waving it around once again, especially in those moments when he seemed to be on the verge of setting the whole studio on fire.