A triumphant Eddie Murphy returned to "Saturday Night Live" Saturday after half a lifetime, with little rust to show for such a long absence. Not that a little would have mattered anyway.
This prodigal son could've read the Manhattan phone book and still get the thunderous welcome he got at Studio 8H. "Eddie ... Eddie ... Eddie." In that instance at around 11:40, 35 years disappeared, or at least it did for those old enough to remember the 19-year-old kid from Roosevelt who once stood on that stage and saved a franchise — this one, in fact.
"This is the last episode of 2019," he said, for the first joke, or "if you're black, the first episode since I left back in 1984." An old picture of Eddie circa '84 came up from behind him: "I look at least five years younger there. Well, you know what they say. 'Money don't crack.' "
The set-up for the expected Bill Cosby joke then followed, when he started talking about his 10 kids ("Eleven if you count Kevin Hart").
"If you would've told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring, stay-at-home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail," even he wouldn't have taken that bet. And the impersonation/payback followed: "Who is America's dad now?" (Murphy and Cosby had a particularly cool relationship, as he explained during his "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" close-up last July.)
As expected, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock arrived on stage during the monologue, "SNL" stars Tracy Morgan and Kenan Thompson too.
Morgan: "I was conceived on the 'Delirious' tour bus" — a reference to Murphy's breakout 1983 comedy film that would set up "Raw" four years later. Rock recalled that when he was on the show, "Lorne [Michaels] told me you're going to be the next Eddie Murphy. And then a year later, he said, 'No, you're not.' " Like Murphy, Rock was the other big one that got away — fired by the end of the '93 season, then after a few HBO specials, superstardom followed.
Per Chappelle, "I followed your blueprint for my entire career ... I became the biggest star on television and then I quit."
In fact, the closing shot at the end of the monologue might be the lasting take-away from Saturday — five big stars, all African American, one of them (Thompson) the most important current cast member, as a pointed reminder that "SNL" itself has long struggled with race and including cast members of color. That was certainly its sharp subtext.
After the monologue, the old hits quickly followed, and Gumby made a particularly memorable cameo too, the most memorable in fact. "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" was first up, with a "beautiful day in the neighborhood ... my neighbors was all black, but now they white." Buckwheat turned up a couple of skits later, in "The Masked Singer" and Velvet Jones was part of a "Black Jeopardy!" skit. As evidence of some rust, Murphy even dropped an unbleeped expletive during one live sketch about a Food Network baking show.
The most anticipated host of this season was not squandered by "SNL." He turned up in just about every sketch, and brought his game to most of them, including (or maybe especially) the one at the shank end of show where he played an Elf as you'd fully expect Murphy to play him — at full volume, or full Eddie, if you will. His Velvet Jnes, by contrast, was at times wince-inducing and meant to be. A favorite from the old days, Velvet probably should have remained a fond memory, except that fans fully expected this reprisal.
Buckwheat, those fans will recall, was actually killed off in a later Murphy season because, according to show lore (perhaps apocryphal), Michaels was sick of the character. But a Murphy return to this stage without that character was probably unthinkable so "SNL" figured out the most obvious, and amusing, way to incarnate him. That worked too.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine now just how slyly anarchic (and funny) "Mister Robinson" was back in the day (one of his finger puppets once gave the bird to a sitting president, for example). Saturday's "Mister Robinson," by contrast, was a genial and obvious takedown of the gentrification that's now come to his neighborhood. More than any of the late, great Murphy characters we saw last night, Mister Robinson seems to have aged the most.
Murphy's return to Studio 8H Saturday — his first as host since Dec. 15, 1984 — is symbolic for all sorts of reasons, and final resolution of an ancient grudge. (Cast member David Spade on a Murphy flop: “Look, kids, a falling star! Quick, make a wish.”)
But get past the symbols and grudges and the countless lives that "SNL" itself has gone through since he left all those years ago, and what mattered most — what only mattered — Saturday was the blunt, inescapable fact that Murphy had at long last returned. He's obviously older, "SNL," too, but something about Gumby during "Weekend Update" saying, "I'm Gumby dammit — I saved this show ... shame on you Lorne Michaels, shame on you NBC" almost made you forget that the rest of us are older too. At least it made this historic return truly worthwhile.