So Eddie Murphy returned to a show that made his name 35 years ago. So he was 19 years old when he started; so he created some of SNL’s most iconic characters; so he reinvigorated a show that needed of a boost of energy — not to mention color. So he went on to become a stand-up legend and one of the top-grossing film stars of all time. Coming back around to the place where everything started for him should be like riding a bike, or a tricycle even. Right?!
Murphy is now an elder statesman of comedy, someone who has made it clear he has nothing left to prove. Yet his appearance in My Name Is Dolemite, his promised return to stand-up, and his appearance hosting this week’s SNL indicate a willingness to consider risk. It took a while, but Murphy got over the crack David Spade made on “Weekend Update” in the ’90s, and suggested to Al Roker this week that he’s been interested in hosting since the SNL 40th Anniversary Special. Murphy wanted this show to make a splash, telling Roker that Mr. Robinson, Gumby, Buckwheat, Velvet Jones, and even Bill Cosby were on the table — and he delivered on all counts.
As usual, this week’s sketches are presented here in order from best to worst.
Though the first string of jokes is weak, kicked off as it is by a gag about Cats, it can’t stop the energy of this “Update.” Colin Jost and Michael Che tell a few jokes about impeachment only to be rudely interrupted by Eddie Murphy as Gumby. Belligerent and self-regarding as always, Gumby demands to be part of the show even if younger viewers will have no idea who he is. He blasts “headshot” Jost and “black bastard” Che, and swears that Pokey is “in a glue factory for all I care.” Murphy is pretty hypnotic here, sweeping up even the hosts with his verve and bellicosity. Even after a cut to the next over-the-shoulder graphic, Murphy refuses to leave the stage until he’s ready. Meanwhile, the hosts lose it.
The second stretch of jokes fares better, including one in which Che wonders why people worry about a gay kiss in the latest Star Wars when the first one featured incest? Then Pete Davidson steps out, ostensibly to talk about the impeachment, and instead addresses his dating life and career, and hints at an upcoming stint in rehab. Between the self-deprecating honesty and jabs at Jost (as well as Daniel Tosh), Davidson’s monologue charms once again. Whether his willingness to put it all out there is a brand of bravery or a compulsion, the show is better for it.
As it’s the end of the year, Che and Jost follow their usual ritual of forcing one another to tell jokes each has written for the other, and do so having not read them before. Che is saddled with jokes about Jeffrey Epstein and herpes, but as usual, Jost gets painted as a racist across the board. (At the end of the run, the bit makes it look as though Jost fires a cue-card guy just because that cue-card guy is black.) Finally, Cecily Strong comes on as Fox personality Janine Pirro. Pirro defends Trump, as usual, but can’t stop herself from barfing all over Jost when she learns that Devin Nunes might be part of the Ukraine scandal and a Fox News poll confirming that 50 percent of the public wants Trump removed from office. It’s messy, silly, and really fun.
Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood 2019
It’s very different in Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood these days: All the white people have gentrified the area, paying 2 million for apartments in which Mr. Robinson’s friend Frankie used to cook crack. How has Mr. Robinson remained in his place? Well, the word of the day is “Squatter’s Rights.” A pair of white gentrifiers drop by to ask about whether Mr. Robinson has seen their 72-inch TV, which was supposed to be delivered in the building’s lobby. As they go, Mr. Robinson uses his new 72-inch TV as a teaching aid, accusing the couple of being racist. Top to bottom, this is a well-considered and well-executed update of the classic sketch. Despite the gray in his hair, Mr. Robinson retains both his sunny and savage sides; more than just beatific smiles and caustic bellows, Murphy carefully fills every moment he’s given.
PBS Democratic Debate Cold Open
For the sixth Democratic debate, things are pared down: It’s Warren (Kate McKinnon), Yang (Bowen Yang), Biden (Jason Sudeikis), Sanders (Larry David), Buttigieg (Colin Jost), Klobuchar (Rachel Dratch), and, surprisingly, Bloomberg (Fred Armisen). Plus, Kamala Harris (Maya Rudolph) tells the nation to kiss off, Tulsi Gabbard (Cecily Strong) curses everyone, and even Trump (Alec Baldwin) and Pelosi (also McKinnon) show up to sling mud. This sketch reflects the state of the Democratic primaries thus far in that everything feels diffuse and it’s impossible to focus. That said, there are plenty of good bits in this open, and the cast members hit their marks. It’s worth noting that Woody Harrelson has ceded Biden back to Jason Sudeikis, who brings a lot more nuance and humanity to Uncle Joe — even his fumbles.
Eddie Murphy fans who may not have watched the show live are better off watching this one first. There’s no way to avoid spoiling the twist: The new Masked Singer — a massive ear of corn on the cob — is actually Buckwheat (Murphy). After the big reveal, it’s just Buckwheat singing his latest batch of hits, which will be entirely ruined by the transliterations — including “Dine, Teal, Dawibba.” Eh, on second thought, that just looks like gibberish out-of-context. Murphy’s cheery, guileless delivery carries the scene, and it’s remarkable how well the whole thing works after 35 years. It’s simple but just right. The rest of the cast, in particular Chris Redd as Nick Cannon, just looks thrilled to be part of the return. The writers even let one of the judges, Nicole Scherzinger (Melissa Villaseñor), say as much.
Eddie Murphy Monologue
As Murphy takes the stage, the crowd is losing its collective mind, and with good reason. Murphy is greeted by Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle. Though they all have sketches to pitch, such as Law & Order UTI (“Instead of Ice-T, it’s Cranberry Juice.”), it’s really about camaraderie. Beck Bennett leaps onstage to get friendly, and is immediately pushed off by Kenan Thompson. No, it isn’t a full stand-up set from Murphy — he hasn’t worked out any material as of yet — but his delivery is easy and entirely natural. Each of the other personalities has a nice moment or two to themselves, and it’s got a great finish. There are good gags throughout, including a Cosby joke up top and one in which Chappelle looks at the other three comics and says, “You’re looking at half of Netflix’s budget here onstage.”
Holiday Baking Championship
Four final contestants in the Holiday Baking Championship display their best efforts to create childhood memories in cake. Claudia (Cecily Strong) crafts a cross-eyed Elsa from Frozen who “looks like she has a DNA problem,” Ralph (Kyle Mooney) goes for a phallic Cinderella castle, and Mitch (Murphy) makes Sonic the Hedgehog look like a blob of angry pudding, complete with human teeth. Though the formula is the same, the beats of this sketch land even better than the first. The Satanic Sonic, which begins to speak “in your grandmama’s voice in order to drag you to hell,” is particularly well-executed. The “penis castle” joke lands just right, and Murphy ends the thing before censors can catch him saying “shit.”
Home for the Holidays
The host of a holiday dinner (Murphy) offers thanks to his family members — including his wife (Maya Rudolph), his dad (Kenan Thompson), his son (Chris Redd), his daughter (Ego Nwodim), and his future son-in-law (Mikey Day) — for filling the season with love and cheer. Interspersed with lines from the loving monologue are real, stressful moments from the last several days: occupied bathrooms, dishes burned in the oven, conflicts concerning the son-in-law’s whiteness. SNL has done these sorts of cutaway juxtapositions for other holidays, and there as many clichés as there are specifics here, but it’s nice to see the tropes play out in a black family.
Black Jeopardy: Velvet Jones
On this episode of Black Jeopardy, host Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson) welcomes contestants Rashad (Chris Redd), Kiata (Ego Nwodim), and Velvet Jones (Murphy). Doesn’t matter what the question is, Jones is ready to hock one of his books: I Wanna Be a Ho, How to Dance Like a Ho, etc. It doesn’t matter that, in 2019, the world is a bit more sensitive and the internet will explode if Jones carries on. Hasn’t he heard about Me Too? “You like hoes? Me too!” Though the perspectives of other pop-culture figures — e.g., Black Panther — have really enlivened the framework of this sketch, this mashup between Jones’s infomercials and Jeopardy! feels muddled. As fun as it is to watch Murphy revive Jones, the game show doesn’t stay on track or bring us any new perspectives.
North Pole News Report
At the North Pole, elf news anchor Nick Sugarplum (Alex Moffat) and elf field reporter Donnie Chestnut (Mikey Day) report on a fire at Santa’s workshop. A wild-eyed elf witness (Murphy) recounts a scene of terror involving a polar bear breaking through an electric fence and bursting into the workshop to gobble Santa’s helpers whole. Aggrieved elves start espousing conspiracy theories about what Santa knew when. This sketch hits its one note up top, and though it swerves here and there, the premise doesn’t propel it all that far. As a whole, it feels like obligatory, slightly naughty Christmas fare.
This was the triumphant return to SNL for which both Murphy and his fans hoped. The resurgence of his energy was obvious in both old sketches that took on slightly new forms, and appearances in new bits that required real commitment from Murphy. There were a few moments, such as the new beats of “Black Jeopardy,” that failed to find the right take on an aging gag, but they were nothing compared to the highs of this energized Murphy plowing into the show sidelong. (And, you know, maybe some cloistered 12-year-old got to hear the word “shit” for the first time.) The show went all in on the “Update” segment this week, and it paid off: Between the various walk-ons and Che and Jost’s ritualized ribbing, there was a little something for everyone. It was the best “Update” in a long time. The show won’t be live again until about a month from now, with Adam Driver as the host, but this one should give fans plenty to rewatch. Plus, one on the cutting-room floor that’s worth checking out: Aidy Bryant becoming at least 90 percent That Bitch in “Aidy Bizzo and Lizzo.”