While it’s unfair to compare the two, one could make a case that Eddie Murphy returning to host Saturday Night Live created as much anticipation as the final installment in the Star Wars saga. Having both happen on the same weekend is one of those pop culture moments in which one can revel. While the verdict seems mixed (at best) on the latter, it’s safe to say that the former actually exceeded the sizable hype it created when announced back in September.
It’s hard to compare the scale of Studio 8H to an intergalactic battle, but this episode of SNL felt appropriately HUGE. Everything crackled with extra energy, with both the show and the audience feeding off one another in recognition of the moment. What could have been a simple regurgitation of Murphy’s Greatest Hits turned instead into the staying power of both Murphy and SNL itself. This wasn’t 90 minutes of why the show used to be good, but why it still matters.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to find three sketches worth mentioning in this space. This time around, I wish I could get into the TARDIS and sprinkle a few of these sketches into past round-ups. The fact that strong segments featuring Buckwheat and Gumby didn’t make the line-up below speaks to the overall strong quality of the show, which pound-for-pound might have been the strongest since Martin Freeman hosted in roughly five years ago to the day.
On top of that, the show had probably its best political cold open of the year and even that didn’t make the cut. In addition, the annual Colin Jost/Michael Che “Make The Other Read Jokes They Hadn’t Seen Before” segment was probably the best iteration of that recurring bit, and that also AWOL below. It was a murderer’s row of SNL content, and cutting many of these feels particularly painful.
With that said, here are the three sketches that will dominate discussion over the holidays.
Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood 2019
Whenever an old Eddie Murphy character returned tonight, the show was keen to demonstrate the different environment into which that character now found itself. Even if the characters were exactly the same, the world around them made the return fresh. Of all the returning figures from Murphy’s initial run on the show, this one had the strongest end-to-end execution. Even if the beats felt familiar, the re-contextualization made it fresh.
The early moments were a bit rough, as the audience erupting into applause seemed to affect Murphy’s ability to hear the music. But it was smooth sailing after that. One can imagine Mr. Robinson living in one of the buildings featured in the “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015” sketch, another one that featured the gentrification of New York City as its central focus. (This is all the funnier to think about given Murphy’s comment about Kevin Hart during the monologue.)
While not as spry as the initial iteration of Mr. Robinson, this version possesses all the mischievous machinations of the former. Whether it involves preying on white guilt in order to steal a neighbor’s television or using the fire escape to avoid a paternity claim, Murphy’s character still employs all the tricks he did back in the early 1980s.
What makes Mr. Robinson work is the idea that, underneath this sweet facade, lies someone desperately hanging onto his little bit of an ever-changing world at every moment. The methods by which he does so are often suspect at best, but it makes the character incredibly relatable all the same.
Eddie Murphy Monologue
While SNL is obviously live, there are still limits inside which a segment will usually operate. Someone might flub a line, or a camera shot gets missed, or a joke that killed at dress rehearsal will fall flat in front of millions. But rarely does the live aspect turn genuinely thrilling, when literally anything could happen. Such a moment happened when Murphy assembled Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle onstage. You could see a collective realization in their eyes that while cue cards lay before them, the world was theirs for the next 90 seconds.
Part Eddie adulation, part homage to his comedic legacy, and part criticism of the show’s less-than-stellar history involving cast diversity, this monologue crackled from moment one, in which the “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” cheers made it seem like this was taking place at Madison Square Garden, not Studio 8H. Even if every man that came onstage professed owing his career to Murphy, each got to demonstrate his own unique flavor of comedic delivery in the relatively short monologue. What could have been bloated and self-serving turned surgical, with punchlines honestly better than they had to be. Simply arranging this level of talent onstage would have been enough. Having roughly a dozen great jokes spread amongst them was icing on the cake.
While he only appeared briefly at the end, it was great to see Kenan Thompson ultimately included with this Mount Rushmore of comedy. Overlooked at almost every phase of his SNL career, Thompson’s legacy has slowly emerged over the past few seasons as one of the glue guys in the show’s history. Getting recognition of that by placing him along those already acknowledged as comedy greats serves to solidify his legacy.
Home For The Holidays
It almost physically pains me not to include this week’s “Holiday Baking Championship” here, but given the number of people that will relate to this other holiday-themed sketch, it deserves the nod. SNL has turned this sketch into its own kind of tradition, constantly undercutting the Instagram-able moments that families choose to acknowledge with the stark reality that comes from trying to have the “perfect” holiday.
Murphy’s calm, measured Christmas Dinner speech is constantly contrasted with the reality of his claims. The best example comes with the friction around his daughter’s impending marriage to Matthew: Both Murphy’s character and his wife (played by Maya Rudolph, doing double-duty this week in a guest role) are against her marrying a white man, and have zero interest in feigning the reason for their disgust. The camera panning to Matthew hearing all of this earned one of the biggest laughs of the night.
This sketch works because everyone watching can relate to at least two of the horror shows depicted onscreen. For a show often accused of being insular and inward-looking in its comedic viewpoints, this is one of the warmest sketches they execute each year. “To All Our Families: We love you even when we don’t” is a wonderfully succinct way of summing up how the majority of people feel about their own relations, and having this sketch to share with some of them this week is a great gift for SNL to give.