After weeks of build-up, and an amazing intro by Chris Rock, he walked onstage and spoke for less than a minute, barely cracking a single joke. “This show is a big part of who I am and my life and I’m so happy to be back here,” he said. “I actually feel like I’m going back to my old high school.”
The comedian was, in fact, just 19 when he first appeared on Saturday Night Live in late 1980. The entire original cast and show creator Lorne Michaels had just left, and new producer Jean Doumanian and the new cast, which featured Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo and Charles Rocket, generated vicious reviews and lethargic ratings from the very beginning. Murphy didn’t get any face time in the first episode, and in the second one he merely had an uncredited cameo in a sketch called “In Search of the Negro Republican.”
He didn’t make a splash until this “Weekend Update” bit about a recent ruling by a Cleveland judge that all high school basketball teams had to feature at least two white players. Murphy played Cleveland basketball player Raheem Abdul Muhammed. “We ain’t got much,” he said. “At least let us have basketball. Is nothing sacred? Whenever something is going good, you all have to move in on it. In the 1960s we wore platform shoes, then you all had to wear platform shoes. In the early 1970s we braided our hair, then you all had to braid your hair. Now it’s 1980 and we on welfare. By the end of next year, you all are going to be on welfare too.”
He absolutely killed it, and slowly they began giving Murphy more “Update” bits that eventually lead to his own skits like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and “Gumby.” When Doumanian was fired the next season, the only cast members to survive the purge were Piscopo and Murphy. As Chris Rock said in his intro, had Murphy not came onto the show there was a very strong possibility it would have been canceled over 30 years ago.
Many people were disappointed that Eddie didn’t revive any of his old characters on the 40th anniversary special or agree to play Bill Cosby in “Celebrity Jeopardy,” but the man has done more than enough for Saturday Night Live.