Though the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary special that aired Sunday was unflatteringly compared with a “four-hour clip-job,” it left memories both poignant and cringe-inducing.
Though Murphy’s monologue on Sunday was uninspired, it turned out he was the center of an 11th-hour behind-the-scenes tribute show drama. Would Murphy, known for his spot-on Bill Cosby impersonation, imitate the embattled comedian facing a raft of sexual assault charges in an all-star “Celebrity Jeopardy” parody?
In a lengthy series of tweets Wednesday, former “SNL” cast member Norm Macdonald — who championed an idea to put Murphy in a multicolored sweater and dust-off his decades-old Cosby send-up — offered a glance behind the scenes.
“He steps behind the bar, begins mixing a drink,” Macdonald wrote, according to Gothamist’s heroic Twitter transcription. “When he speaks, he is Cosby. Eddie Murphy doing a perfect Cosby impression. The audience does not let him finish. The sketch ends.”
According to Macdonald, Murphy was reluctant, but after an hour-long pep talk, acquiesced.
Until he didn’t. Alas: Murphy-as-Cosby was not meant to be because Murphy — perhaps the biggest star in “SNL” history, a man who does what he wants when he wants — bailed. Macdonald credited the star’s moral compass.
“He knew the laughs would bring the house down,” Macdonald wrote. “Eddie Murphy knows what will work on SNL better than anyone. Eddie decides the laughs are not worth it. He will not kick a man when he is down. Eddie Murphy, I realize, is not like the rest of us. Eddie does not need the laughs. Eddie Murphy is the coolest, a rockstar even in a room with actual rockstars.”
It’s tempting to believe Murphy thought it uncouth to take a shot at Cosby. Sure, these guys don’t tell the same kinds of jokes. Sure, Cosby is a bit of an outlier in the evolution of African American comedy and its eventual absorption by the American mainstream. Dr. Huxtable doesn’t really fit into the arc that got us from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor to Murphy to Chris Rock to the “Kings of Comedy” to Wanda Sykes and beyond.
But it’s clear Murphy, 53, came up in the shadow of the 77-year-old Cosby. Though, in his 1987 concert film “Raw,” Murphy famously — and hilariously — alleged Cosby called him to complain about the younger comedian’s profanity, he qualified the routine from the beginning: “I’ve been a big fan of Bill Cosby all my life,” he said. And at least one author claimed Murphy was the one who called Cosby when he heard Cosby was unhappy with his material.
Then again, maybe Murphy wasn’t just trying to spare the feelings of one of his elders. Maybe he just realized the sketch wasn’t funny. After all, the laughs Macdonald said Murphy knew would come didn’t really come at all.
When Kenan Thompson appeared as Cosby in Murphy’s stead on Sunday, the results were less-than hilarious. Watch as the audience nervously titters as Thompson, decked out in the sweater Macdonald envisioned, enters at 8:04.
It was clear that Murphy — for reasons either ethical or comedic — had dodged a bullet.