The year was 1980. The show was "Saturday Night Live." The prospects oh-so-grim. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had left, with showrunner Lorne Michaels right behind them. Buzz was AWOL. The ax hovered.
Then, on Nov. 22, 1980, a 19-year-old comic from Roosevelt joined the lineup in an uncredited role. Eddie Murphy stayed three seasons — four counting the ninth season, where he appeared only in pretaped sketches to accommodate his "Beverly Hills Cop" shooting schedule. Whether "SNL" would have survived without him is academic, but this isn't: "SNL" was a dumpster fire and Murphy put it out.
Murphy's return to Studio 8H Saturday — his first as host since Dec. 15, 1984, and 35 years after leaving the cast — is keenly symbolic for that reason, and resolves an ancient grudge from 1995. (Cast member David Spade on a Murphy flop: “Look, kids, a falling star! Quick, make a wish.”)
For veteran "SNL" fans, this homecoming is so much more. It promises a back-to-the-future rush, to a time when they were young and the biggest star in Hollywood was about to be born before their very eyes. Unable to resist the lure (or power) of nostalgia, Murphy is expected to reprise classic characters like Gumby, the get-rich-quick huckster Velvet Jones, Buckwheat and Mister Robinson. That should be interesting: Murphy killed off Velvet while Buckwheat (R.I.P.) was assassinated.
In fact, they have all lived on thanks to YouTube where some classics have aged well (like his James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub); others less so (a borderline homophobic Richard Simmons skit). Gumby is still amusing, but the original source material — a '50s cartoon, after all — is prehistoric. Murphy's characters also launched memes long before there was an internet to launch them, like "kill the landlord" or "I'm Gumby, dammit." Expect those reprisals, too.
Those clips still vividly reveal the natural-born tummler and brilliant mimic who occasionally breached the fourth wall — typically after forgetting lines — to even bigger laughs. His own laugh was part wheeze, part honk, a Murphy trademark he'd retire after it became its own punch line.
Murphy was an edgy, occasionally subversive, performer. In a 2011, he told Rolling Stone of his early movie career that "I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world on screen." Not quite — Sidney Poitier had long before — but he was indisputably the first on late-night TV. While Garrett Morris had preceded him at "SNL," Murphy's timing was better. In 1980, black culture was ascendant, and about to break free of the broader culture that had appropriated so much of it for so long. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation were about to launch the hip-hop revolution. Michael Jackson was the king of pop and Oprah was on the horizon. BET began that January. The movies needed a black superstar and got one (and how). "48 Hrs." (1982) and "Trading Places" ('83) blew up while Murphy was still at "SNL," then "Beverly Hills Cop" six months later.
Some questions: Will Joe Piscopo make a cameo? They arrived together on "SNL," and he was part of his early success. Will the Wizard of Oz himself, Lorne Michaels?
This much we already know: Saturday's "SNL" will be a landmark event indeed.