(Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty)
Whether you loved, hated or didn’t care either way for Saturday Night Live‘s epic 40th anniversary special last weekend, there’s a pretty good chance you agree that Eddie Murphy’s long-awaited return to Studio 8H was a little anticlimactic. It had been 30 years since Murphy set foot on the SNL stage, the last time coming at the end of a comedic feat that’s simply impossible to overstate — he almost single-handedly kept SNL on the air from 1980 to 1984 — and everyone was expecting he would make the most of it. Instead what we got was a truly generous and heartfelt introduction from Chris Rock, a guy who owes his career to Murphy, followed by Murphy himself standing before the audience seeming to awkwardly stretch for a minute-and-a-half. Murphy was incredibly gracious and appreciative of the audience love he received, but what he wasn’t was funny.
According to Norm MacDonald, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. In a lengthy dissection of what he and a few other old cast-members had planned for Murphy’s big return, done 140 characters at a time on Twitter a couple of days ago, MacDonald explained that the hope was that Murphy would play Bill Cosby during the show’s blow-out “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch. The sketch had Will Ferrell as an exasperated Alex Trebek turning to the board to reveal a Video Daily Double question, only to have it be “Bill Cosby,” dressed in the requisite ugly sweater, mixing a drink as part of the category “Potent Potables.” The gag got a decent laugh as it was done, with Kenan Thompson playing Cosby, but MacDonald knew that if the reveal were Eddie Murphy, the crowd would’ve completely lost its mind. It would’ve been the surprise of the show and likely its biggest moment. Comedically it seemed as if a decision was made between making Murphy’s appearance a protracted paean to his impact on Saturday Night Live and comedy in general and an actual brand new example of what made Murphy so worthy of that praise. We saw which side won out.
According to MacDonald, Eddie Murphy decided that despite the laughs he’d get, it wasn’t worth it to “kick a man when he’s down.” While that’s a controversial position given that Cosby has been accused of — though never charged with — sexually assaulting or being inappropriate with 28 women, you have to understand that Cosby is one of Eddie Murphy’s idols and whether you’re furious about the devastating apparent dark side of Cosby that’s been exposed over the past several months and you stand beside the alleged victims in their accusations, you also have to understand that Cosby is not simply a comedy legend but a trailblazer for black entertainers in America. Murphy famously ripped Cosby during his 1987 standup film Raw, taking Cosby to task for being a sanctimonious scold long before Hannibal Buress attacked him for the same thing, with the difference being that Buress used his alleged hypocrisy as a weapon against him. But it’s easy to go after an icon within your field when he’s on top of the world, not so simple when that person is a national pariah. Again, this was one of his heroes we’re talking about. (For his part, Cosby is grateful Murphy passed on the gag.)
Adding to this, comics that came up through the 70s and 80s are a notoriously depraved bunch by reputation and while it’s doubtful anyone will ever accuse Eddie Murphy of drugging and sexually assaulting almost two-dozen women, there still has to be a sense of “there but for the grace of God” to all of this as far as Murphy is concerned. Open the closet to go looking for skeletons and who knows what you’d find?
Despite all of that, though, Eddie Murphy should’ve done the Cosby bit. Why? For the simple reason that it would’ve been funny. It would’ve been a riot. It wouldn’t simply have killed, it would’ve destroyed. The audience would’ve been tearing their seats out. And in the end, that’s what matters most. It’s difficult to use the word “sympathize” and “Cosby” in the same sentence right now, but it’s easier to actually sympathize with the fact that Murphy didn’t want to hurt one of his very biggest inspirations as a comic. But Cosby is fair game for humor, regardless of your thoughts on the scandal swirling around him. The writers of the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch even put some pad into the bit by having Ferrell’s Trebek claim that the Cosby Video Daily Double was taped before the accusations began making headlines. The only argument anyone can make from a comedy perspective to avoid doing the sketch is that it didn’t showcase Murphy enough, but the surprise alone would’ve been the punchline. It also would’ve instantly revitalized a sketch that was already becoming bogged down with too many interchangeable impressions. It would’ve been what that entire sketch was leading up to — that one big reveal that would’ve brought the house down.
While it’s nearly impossible to square the idea that more than 20 women are lying about having been assaulted by Cosby, I’ve never been a fan of the media frenzy surrounding this story. It’s fair to say that maybe the sudden attention was an act of contrition for the years of oversight by the media, but a trial in the court of public opinion serves no one. That said, humor is humor, and the Cosby scandal is a fair target for ribbing by comics. At this point the specifics of the story have taken on such a life of their own that it’s possible to do a joke about them that, believe it or not, isn’t a direct attack on Cosby himself. Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a rapist onstage during his stand-up was an attack; showing Cosby mixing a drink and letting the audience connect the dots is funny. It’s understandable that Murphy wouldn’t want to touch it regardless, but it’s still unfortunate. Murphy made his bones by being utterly fearless as a comic talent. That’s what kept SNL alive during those lean years when the man at its helm was Dick Ebersol — one of the unfunniest people on earth and a guy put in place simply because he was NBC executive aristocracy — and it’s what led Murphy to change the face of comedy forever. He’s lost his fearlessness over the years and that’s why he’s lost his comedic edge. The Cosby bit shouldn’t have been the only place Eddie Murphy was featured in the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, but it should’ve been his introduction, albeit a reworked one with a little more meat on it.
No matter what he did, Murphy was going to face a backlash, as evidenced by the backlash that’s already begun to his decision not to do the bit. A piece in Salon by Jenny Kutner — who represents just one in that site’s seemingly endless supply of kid crusaders still basking in the afterglow of their brand new degrees in feminist studies and their new apartments in Brooklyn — claims Murphy’s decision not to do the sketch “feeds the myth of Cosby’s innocence.” Meanwhile, Judd Apatow has continued to be insufferable on Twitter, going on a tear following Norm MacDonald’s disclosure and saying that Murphy chose “to support a rich rapist over thirty victims” and reminding people that “Cosby likes to knock people unconscious and then fuck them.” It’s one thing to dislike Cosby or to stand in solidarity with his alleged victims; it’s another thing entirely to completely miss the point of why a black comedian who was allowed to thrive in the business largely because of the path carved out by a hugely influential black comedian who came before him might not want to be seen attacking that man publicly. I’m not exactly the right person to play identity politics or the “race card” here, but seriously, if you’re a white guy who has no idea what it was like for an Eddie Murphy coming up through the ranks and what it would’ve been like without a Bill Cosby paving the way, you need to shut the fuck up immediately.
Ultimately, however, it was Eddie Murphy’s choice to do the bit or not and, as Norm MacDonald says, he knows what’s funny maybe better than anyone. The only question is whether he’s actually willing to do what’s funny anymore. His decision not to want to be attached to something that could be interpreted as an attack on a comic idol of his may not please everyone politically, but it’s still understandable. But the fact remains that he gave up a chance to do something really funny. And in the end that’s all that should matter: being funny.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.