Sunday night’s ceremony awarding the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was supposed to be a no-stop-unpulled tribute to comedian and actor Eddie Murphy, as he collected the nation’s most prestigious honor for funny business.
But perhaps because it would have seriously clashed with the Kennedy Center’s plush crimson carpet, no one went so far as to show up in that iconic red leather suit that Murphy famously sported in his breakout 1983 stand-up act “Delirious.”
Still, before the show began, as the A-list crew of comics enlisted to pay homage to Murphy made its way across the red carpet’s phalanx of reporters and cameras, the suit was there in spirit, with his pals taking turns riffing on it. They were, it seemed, warming up for the scripted program in which they would extol the comedy legend’s gifts — and first, they had to get in a bit of requisite roasting.
“I couldn’t pull it off,” said “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon. When he first saw the suit, Nealon said he thought it was “corny.” But by the end of the notoriously raunchy special, he wanted one for himself.
Murphy’s “SNL” cast mate Joe Piscopo jokingly took credit for the sartorial statement piece. “It was my idea. I had it in my closet,” he said. “When Eddie stepped up and he was in that suit, it was Elvis doing comedy.”
Fashion policing aside, there were a few more heartfelt pre-show tributes to Murphy, particularly from the younger generation of comedians.
Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old who just took over from Jon Stewart as the host of “The Daily Show,” recalled the first time he saw Murphy, in the 1988 flick “Coming to America.” Murphy plays a foreign royal gone undercover in New York to search for his future queen. Noah, then a kid living in South Africa, said his “mind was blown.” He said he was similarly in awe when, at 22, he watched Murphy’s seminal stand-up act “Raw” for the first time.
Current “SNL “cast member Jay Pharoah, known for his spot-on impersonations of President Obama, Denzel Washington, Will Smith and others, showed off his mastery of Murphy’s vast oeuvre, belting out the lyrics of the 1985 song “Party All the Time” (yeah, Murphy’s a musician, too) for the cameras.
And although Murphy was obviously the man of the evening, plenty of eyes were on Tracy Morgan, the “30 Rock” star who was fresh off hosting “Saturday Night Live,” a gig that marked his return to the spotlight more than a year after a near-fatal car accident.
Morgan began making his way down the red carpet, stopping to hug fellow comic J.B. Smoove, but quit about halfway through. (Hey, “SNL” hours would leave anyone exhausted.)
Finally, Murphy himself arrived in rock-star fashion, not in the infamous suit, but five minutes past showtime, and with an entourage that included his mom, girlfriend Paige Butcher, and six of his eight kids. And it turned out that all the ribbing from his friends wasn’t even necessary — the honoree himself revealed a surprising secret: Despite what his fans (and those folks giving him the prize) think, “I’m not funny,” he said.
The Mark Twain ceremony will air Nov. 23 on PBS.