Countless articles and television chat shows have been centered around Eddie Murphy lately. That’ s because this Saturday he will be hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the first time in 35 years. I have to admit that I’m rather excited about it. I, like most people, am very fond of Eddie Murphy and have enjoyed his films over the years.
In fact, I thought the humor and otherworldly talent that he showed doing several roles in films like “The Klumps,” “The Nutty Professor” and going back to “Coming To America,” was unfairly overlooked by critics and Academy Award voters.
“What other actor on the planet could have done that?” I remember asking someone (or maybe it was to myself), “and yet such talents are never recognized as award worthy.”
There is an Eddie Murphy Renaissance going on now as he is getting accolades for “My Name Is Dolomite,” and the buzz surrounding a sequel to “Coming To America.”
Eddie is back and his return to SNL will remind everyone why he was the biggest star in the world 35 years ago.
And I was there.
This is not an attempt at modesty, but I honestly forget that I had a front row seat to the creation of “Eddie Murphy Superstar.” My life took different turns, with career ups and downs, and for over 16 years I’ve lived in Iowa where as close as I get to chasing the dreams of an actor is community theater. To be fair to my own narrative, however, I live a very happy, full, diverse, and productive life. But, Once Upon A Time…
I wanted to be Eddie Murphy.
It was 1982 and I was toiling (and having a blast) in Chicago on stage with Brad Hall, Paul Barrosse, and a future superstar in her own right, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
We were Northwestern University students and grads who were putting on Improvisational Guerilla Theater. We didn’t call it that, but that description seems to fit. Brad and Paul had created the Practical Theatre and their directive was: “Seldom Produced Plays and Occasionally Brecht.”
There was a motto, too: “Art Is Good.”
Paul once said, and I quote him to this day: “All good art comes in at 2 hours or less.”
Glib, to say the least, and easily proven incorrect, but that, nevertheless, epitomized our creative ethic; to be fast, spontaneous, relevant, irreverent, and never dull.
We caught the eye of Chicago improvisational heavyweights Sheldon Patinkin and Bernie Sahlins of Second City and of Chicago theater critic Richard Christiansen. They liked what we were doing in our renegade shows and helped us to produce a collection of our best sketches over a three year period that we called “The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.”
It was a modest hit and word got to “Saturday Night Live” that we should be looked at. To make a short story even shorter, we were asked after a Thursday show if we could be in New York within two weeks to begin the 1982 season of SNL.
We got there in September of 1982 and the first show was in about 3 weeks. I had not watched Saturday Night Live much at all since the first incarnation ended in 1980, and was only peripherally aware that Lorne Michaels had left and that there was a new cast that had received some negative reviews. I knew the name Eddie Murphy but the only cast member I recognized was Joe Piscopo. It was probably the name itself, Joe-Pis-co-po, that anchored my awareness, but I recall being pretty excited about meeting him.
Dick Ebersol the new executive producer, and Bob Tischler, the producer, brought the 4 of us into an office.
Dick said: “I want you to see the best of what we’ve been doing,” and put a VHS tape into a VCR. What we saw was sketch after sketch of Eddie Murphy. Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, Gumby, Velvet Jones, Tyrone Green, Solomon and Pudge (with Joe Piscopo), and Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra (also with Joe).
I realized that I had been missing a real talent on the show. The laughs from the studio audience were huge and I was surprised that the show was getting flak from critics. Paul, Brad, Julia and I didn’t know why we’d been hired. It seemed as though the cast was pretty strong and that the key players were in place. This recollection may be completely false and only something I made up to create a narrative, but it seems like it was Brad who asked Bob Tischler: “Why are we here?”
The answer, whether precise or collected over time was: “To kick Eddie in the pants. His interest is already drifting away from SNL. We want new blood, like the original cast members, to give the show, and Eddie, a lift.”
I walked around the 17th floor of 30 Rock where the offices are to get the lay of the land. I believe it was Tim Kazurinsky showing me around when I noticed Eddie Murphy’s autograph on everything. A desk had “Eddie Murphy” scrawled across it. A lampshade had “Eddie Murphy” written on it. The coffee machine, too.
Tim explained that was something Eddie liked to do. My first impression of Eddie was one of an innocent ego trying to navigate all the attention and, perhaps, a little wary of the stardom that was looming around the corner.
Eddie appeared in the hallway with his smile that lit up hallways, rooms and studios. Easy to talk to, even a little shy.
Then, in walks Joe-Pis-co-po. Wild curly hair, moony eyes; handsome in a very approachable way. “If Goofy had a baby with John Travolta” I thought to myself (and kept to myself until this moment).
This afternoon would be the first get together of old cast, new cast (us) crew and writers. Dick and Bob thought the best way for everyone to get to know us and our brand of comedy was for us to perform certain sketches from our stage show. So…in a room lit like a furniture show room, just after lunch, in a crowded corner, Brad, Paul, Julia and I did dark, odd, theater-based, absurdist, comedy.
I remember the feeling when it was over just as clearly as I remember throwing up with the measles. No one wanted to talk to us. Eddie passed by, smiled at me, and said: “Kroeger, you have to be the whitest man in America.”
He imitated my mid-western, consonate-driven, dialect, and we both laughed. He was not being mean, he was reaching out to say “It’s okay.”
It was now Saturday night. The first show was about to go live. Chevy Chase was the guest host, but too full of himself, from what I was told, to actually be there. He was live via remote from Los Angeles. The red light on the camera is about to go on and Brad and I are dressed in black turtlenecks as two effeminate art critics who will gush all over Tyrone Green, Eddie’s street artist character.
Brad and I were essentially gay characters, and to this day I regret that the humor was being extracted from cliche characterizations of gay mannerisms. My consciousness had not yet evolved to any understanding beyond “Holy shit! 20 million eyeballs are about to be on us!”
The first show was a blur. In fact the first several shows are a blur. I can’t recall what sketches were in the first show, the second, and probably the third or fourth. There was a takeaway, however, that is consistent. We did The Gumby Christmas Show, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, James Brown’s ‘Hot Tub,’ Solomon and Pudge, and in each sketch featuring Eddie Murphy, he transcended the medium. It was more than a love affair with the audience, you could feel the energy from them whenever Eddie was on camera. They knew they were watching greatness unfold.
Eddie was 19 years old. Granted I was only 23 myself, but Eddie had confidence, and a complete lack of fear. He trusted himself, and he made every word, gesture, punchline, phrase, motion, step, and crucial timing, appear effortless.
Then “48 Hours” came out. I believe Eddie had made that the previous Summer and his performance eclipsed Nick Nolte. His screen presence was somehow even more confident than it was on TV. Eddie was a movie star after only one turn at bat. Now, when he appeared in a sketch, the audience would literally gasp and break into applause. I recall thinking that Eddie’s appearance in a sketch was like being a guest star on “The Lucy Show.” Whether it was John Wayne or Van Johnson, they would make their first entrance and the studio audience would applaud, forcing the scene to freeze for that moment of real life recognition.
Then came “Trading Places,” then “Beverly Hills Cop.” One, two, three. Eddie’s first 3 movies were smash hits, but not just at the box office, but as cultural landmarks. Eddie’s characters weren’t bigger than the screen, they made the screen bigger. Eddie filled it proportionately. That is what a genuine movie star does.
My dressing room at 8 H had been next to Eddie’s both years we were on the show together. By this time his dressing room was always filled with an entourage. If I had a fast change during the live show it was sometimes difficult to get through. Once I recall being stopped by a large man who asked me what business I had being there. Eddie needed protection because he would get mobbed.
He took to celebrity, though, like a fish to water (I looked for a less tired analogy but couldn’t find one). He was wearing chain mail jackets now and smiled at me one of those times I was trying to get back to my dressing room. He clarified, “These are my celebrity clothes.”
I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that Eddie was awed by anyone, but he did admire the status of Michael Jackson. Offhand, I’d say that Michael was the only celebrity in the mid-80s who was bigger than Eddie. Eddie was even wearing Michael Jackson red leather jackets as part of his “celebrity” wardrobe.
That was the thing about Eddie. If he admired someone, it was a tribute of respect, not idolatry. When Eddie would imitate Michael, or Stevie Wonder, Elvis, Bill Cosby, or Jerry Lewis, his imitation was not an imitation; it was an extension of the person. He took those he admired to a comic place that seemed as authentic as the people themselves.
People reading this may know more about Eddie Murphy’s upbringing, his influences and all of his history, better than what I offer here. In fact, I never looked all that deeply into his past. I just knew this- he had an uncanny ear and an eye for detail that belied his years. How could a 19 year old “kid” understand the rhythm of a homeless person, a superstar singer, a children’s show host, or a cartoon character (he made Gumby a cranky, old, Jewish man)? He defied easy understanding.
He left at the end of the ’84 season but agreed to do pre-records so that his presence was still there. He also came back to guest host. “Tootsie” had just come out and I worked up a Dorothy Michaels impression. Looking back, it was pretty lame, but at the time I thought I had nailed it. I wrote a faux-commercial where Dorothy Michaels is selling cosmetics for men, but it wasn’t going to get on the show. Dick Ebersol asked Eddie if he would let “Dorothy” apply make up onto him in order to keep the sketch on the show. Eddie’s presence would make it sell.
Eddie said he’d do it. I still can’t believe that Eddie Murphy was willing to play second fiddle to me, just to give me some airtime. I may sound like a fanboy now, and that’s just fine. I learned from Eddie Murphy life lessons I carry to this day.
Eddie showed me what confidence looks like. Not cockiness, but self-assuredness. Replacing the fear of rejection with self-confidence allows a person to take risks. It allows a person to grow and to learn at an exponential rate. It also allows a person to be generous.
I have one recurring dream. Besides the one where I forgot to wear pants to high school. And that is that I am back in Studio 8 H knowing what I know today, but didn’t know then. I am able in my dream to navigate the treacherous waters that were overwhelming to a 23 year old Iowa boy. Just like Eddie did.
Today, I consider myself a successful person; my life is filled with opportunities to entertain, to host, persuade, represent, and even inspire. I chalk up my success largely to lessons I learned from Eddie Murphy.
Be confident, trust yourself, be generous, and never stop listening.
Thanks, Eddie. I’ll be watching on Saturday!