He Been On: Why Eddie Murphy’s Silence Still Speaks Volumes

Before I set out on my journey at VIBE, I was a freelancer and intern for one of the top comedy websites in the country. I had big dreams of being a comedy writer for television shows, specifically Saturday Night Live. I would watch any episode that came on and observe each cast member’s strengths and weaknesses. No one on SNL made me feel the essence of what comedy is about quite like Eddie Murphy.

For me, Eddie Murphy is synonymous with the art form. His mannerisms were spot-on when he did impressions of James Brown and Stevie Wonder during his time on SNL. His shrill and recognizable voice made our inner-children squeal whenever he did voiceover work in films like Mulan and Shrek. His observational comedy in his stand-up specials, Raw and Delirious, was side-splitting (I mean, I don’t think I truly understood the jokes until re-watching them during a recent Netflix session, but nonetheless, I knew that he was a funny guy when I was young).

Murphy was one of the first comedy rockstars. He started out in stand-up and sketch, proving to be the stand-out star on SNL when he was just 19 years old. He could carry sketches with other cast members and by himself—a task he did very often in sketches like “Buh-Weet Sings,” “Professor Shabazz K. Morton” and “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party.” No matter how big or small his part was, the audience adored him and his electric energy. Most of his skits were performed just once, so the jokes never got stale.

Later, he became a box office sensation with films like Beverly Hills Cop, Coming To America and The Golden Child, bringing his comedy prowess to the big screen. He was also nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for his role as Jimmy “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls, and won a SAG Award for the same role. Just think, his ability to dabble in different entertainment categories paved the way for modern day comedy behemoths like Kevin Hart and Chris Rock to dabble as well.

What’s even more incredible is how Murphy was able to turn the culture on its head during his hey day. On primetime television, no one pushed the boundaries of race, sex or religion quite like SNL in the 1980s, and Murphy was the ringleader of the movement.

Take “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” a parody of the clean-cut “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in which Mister Robinson (Murphy) lives in a squalid flat with eviction notices on his door, and holds a puppet show in which he asks President Ronald Reagan why he and other blacks are treated so poorly in America. Or better yet, look at “White Like Me” (a parody of the book and film Black Like Me), in which Murphy goes undercover as a white man to see how the other half lives (Spoiler: they don’t have to pay for newspapers and have parties when black men get off the bus). I guarantee you that few comedy shows today would touch these topics with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole, or tackle them head on like SNL did. Murphy’s comedy exposed the subjects of race in ways that were both true and gut-busting. He was unafraid and the humor was straightforward, something noticeably lacking in comedy today because people are weary of causing controversy.

However, his meteoric rise and influence slowly disintegrated into what some would categorize as a fall. He starred in a number of box-office bombs like A Thousand Words and The Adventures Of Pluto Nash. He also had a music career which wasn’t received all that well. He didn’t return to Studio 8H (SNL’s studio) for more than 30 years after his last episode in 1984, and David Spade called Murphy a “falling star” during a segment in 1995.

During SNL’s 40th anniversary special in February 2015, Murphy’s highly-publicized appearance was rather underwhelming, as he spent about a minute or so on stage and awkwardly thanked the fans for their appreciation. Robin Thede, a writer/performer for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, tweeted, “It makes me sad that Eddie Murphy won’t do comedy tonight.” Soon after, he appeared at the Oscars to present an award, but seemed less-than-thrilled to be on stage. A similar reaction from social media members made the rounds; one Twitter user wrote, “Eddie Murphy needs a snickers or something…”

Although he hasn’t really appeared in much for a while, let us not forget what Eddie Murphy did for the comedy world. Murphy’s inaugural season of SNL in 1981 was a breath of fresh air—just what the show needed to come back from purgatory after executive producer Lorne Michaels took a brief hiatus. None of SNL’s biggest stars would have gotten the platform to perform if Eddie didn’t (quite literally) save the show. Without Murphy, we wouldn’t have experienced the extreme physical comedy of Chris Farley, the goofiness of Tracy Morgan or the superb writing skills of Tina Fey. As Chris Rock said during the 40th anniversary special, “If Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired Eddie Murphy, this show would have lasted about half as long as Baywatch.” Additionally, many of the comedians we know and love today wouldn’t have had such an incredible person to model their careers after if Eddie did not become the force he became. Aside from Rock and Hart, comedians said to be inspired by him include Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams, Patrice O’Neal, Jerrod Carmichael and Leslie Jones.

People say that Murphy “lost his funny,” but in my eyes, these slight missteps don’t put a damper on his legacy. Eddie Murphy has absolutely nothing to prove. Just because he was in a few bad movies doesn’t mean that he forgot how to be funny. Just because he keeps to himself doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care. Just because he’s a comedian doesn’t mean he always has to be “on.” The fact that he broke barriers on primetime television, transcended expectations by branching out into different industries and influenced so many comedians who carry his legacy proves that he been on.