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NPR Arts & Life

Eddie Murphy Returns To Host SNL

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last night, superstar comedian Eddie Murphy reached back through 35 years of history to revive classic characters like Mister Robinson, Buckwheat and Gumby when he hosted "Saturday Night Live." One of his sharpest jokes came from comparing his life right now to another well-known comic with whom he did not always get along.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

EDDIE MURPHY: If you had told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring stay-at-home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail...

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: Even I wouldn't have took that bet.

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: I'll tell you, who is America's dad now?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Here to tell us more about Murphy's historic guest host turn last night is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Eric, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: OK. So it's been 35 years since he was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." How do you think he did? Was he funny?

MURPHY: Yeah, I think he was very funny. I mean, he did a great job of picking characters that people loved from when he was last on "Saturday Night Live" and updating them for today's times. And so, you know, he had Buckwheat as a contestant on "The Masked Singer," and he had, you know, Velvet Jones on Black Jeopardy. We'll talk about that in a minute.

In particular, he has this character, Mister Robinson, that's a version of Mister Rogers, but he's - you know, he's in a poor neighborhood. And he updated it for today's gentrified times and even updated the theme song. So let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MURPHY: (As Mister Robinson, singing) I was gone for a bit, but I'm all right. My neighbors was all black, but now they're white.

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: (As Mister Robinson, singing) The check cashing place turned into a bank, elevator works, and the stairs, they don't stink. The white people came and changed everything. But I am still your neighbor.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, you know, you mentioned one of his characters earlier, Velvet Jones. You know, he was known for certain characters that were edgy. They made a statement, as you said. But you do have to wonder if all of these characters, you know, fit in today's times. How do you think that went?

DEGGANS: Yeah, that was a big question. And what was interesting with the Velvet Jones character - so this is a character who was a pimp who had an infomercial. And he always had these books about basically how to be a prostitute. So that was the joke back then.

So if you had an idea that he was going to do this, how's he going to do this in 2019, when we're trying to be much better about these subjects? They had him on Black Jeopardy, and they made fun of the fact that he was so politically incorrect. And so we have a clip of this, but we want to warn people that he does use language that some may find offensive. So just be aware of that as this clip plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MURPHY: (As Velvet Jones) She is independent, and she can make her own money. She doesn't need to have sex with anyone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's very nice. Welcome to the modern era, Mr. Jones.

MURPHY: (As Velvet Jones) Yes. And it's all in my new book entitled "How To Be An Instagram Ho."

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So it'll be interesting to hear how people reacted to that. But there was this wonderful moment where Murphy was joined during the opening monologue by Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan and Kenan Thompson - so a nod to his legacy on the show and certainly his legacy in comedy. But as you pointed out, it's been 35 years since he's been on the show. Like, there was a brief moment when he participated in an anniversary special. So, just - you know, what was that about? What has been his relationship with the show?

DEGGANS: He's had a very fraught legacy with the show. People don't remember that there was a time when Lorne Michaels, the guy who has run "Saturday Night Live" for most of its history, was not the executive producer. And I think Eddie was very protective of his stardom and didn't necessarily want it hitched to "Saturday Night Live," especially when it was being run by this guy who wasn't central to his career in the way that Lorne Michaels helped Tina Fey and Will Ferrell and all these big stars.

But now I feel like things have changed. You know, Eddie has been away from, you know, working regularly for a while, and his last few movies haven't necessarily done well. He's trying to remount his career. The show itself has changed a lot.

And so part of seeing him on stage with all these comics who were sort of his comedy babies - you know, Chris Rock was a protege of his. You know, Kenan Thompson picked up the torch that he once held when he was a cast member. Dave Chappelle continues his legacy as a standup comic. So you saw all of that, but you also got the sense that Eddie was finally cool with "SNL" and everything about his legacy there.

MARTIN: And before we you go, why do you think Eddie Murphy decided to do this now? You know, he does have a Netflix film out, "Dolemite Is My Name." What do you think? You know, why now?

DEGGANS: Certainly, there's a sense that there's a campaign to get him an Oscar nomination for his role in Dolemite and for the movie itself. It's a great story that sort of retells, you know, this sort of classic blaxploitation character that a lot of people don't know. He also has more work coming. He's going to be doing at least one standup special for Netflix. He just finished filming the sequel to "Coming To America." And so there's a sense that he's coming back to work.

And so this "Saturday Night Live" was a great way to sort of herald the beginning of something that as someone who has admired his work for a long time, I can't wait to see what he's going to do next. And I hope he puts himself in situations where he challenges himself more and where he's willing to fail.

MARTIN: That was NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Eric, thank you so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.