This month, Eddie Murphy hosts Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years. His recent comeback, with films like Dolemite is My Name, plus his development of a sequel to his 1988 film Coming to America, led me reflect on his legacy all over again, not only his career but what he means as a cultural figure.
For people born 2000 and on, Eddie Murphy might simply be seen as the guy from films like “Norbit” and “Daddy Day Care”: A goofy guy who makes corny, PG-13 family films with a few fart jokes in them. It’s debatable that younger generations really know who Eddie is, but I question if any of us really know who he his or what he means as a cultural figure.
When I think about Eddie’s legacy, I often think about my first introduction to his work. One of my earliest memories of his comedy came in the summer of 1996, when my parents and I went to go see a movie called The Nutty Professor.
Mind you, I was only 6 years old at the time, so my sense of humor was really just starting to develop. But even though I didn’t catch every joke on my first watch, I knew early on that this movie was funny. Like any six-year-old , I laughed at the fart jokes and the wacky family members. But, it was after the movie when I watched the credits and noticed something when the cast list came up:
Sherman Klump: Eddie Murphy
Cletus Klump: Eddie Murphy
Mama Klump: Eddie Murphy
The Richard Simmons-esque fitness guy: Eddie Murphy… You get the picture.
At the time, I didn’t really know who Eddie Murphy was. As a child of the 90s, I was lucky enough to be used to seeing a variety of funny Black men on TV and film; Martin Lawrence, The Wayans Bros, Robert Townsend and even rapper-turned-actor Will Smith were names I knew early on. So, to me, Eddie Murphy was just another person in the long list of funny Black people I saw on TV/film.
Plus, being born in 1990, I’m a part of a generation of kids born in the middle of what some critics once described as an Eddie Murphy “slump”… If you can even call it that. I was born years after the edgy Raw/Delirious/Beverly Hills Cop Eddie, but also years before the family friendly Klumps/Dr. Dolitte/Donkey from Shrek Eddie.
Fast forward to over 20 years later, in a sense, I’m still learning about who Eddie Murphy is and what his career means.
In the years since that trip to the movies with my parents, I’ve learned that Eddie Murphy’s work was bigger than just the Nutty Professor, in fact, he had movies that my parents had grew up on. So, I watched a lot of his pre-Klumps work, films like Trading Places, Beverly Hill Cop, Coming to America, Harlem Knights, Boomerang and his stand-up specials Raw & Delirious. I also watched a great deal of his work which came in the years following the Klumps… even some of the flops like Pluto Nash and Meet Dave. But, seeing the whole of his career thus far, I understand why he transcends just comedy and entertainment.
1)Eddie is a pioneer for Black comedic actors- Eddie’s early roles were the prototype of the “hip, irreverent, fish-out-of-water” character for Black comedic actors. In fact, one could argue that Will Smith’s role in the early seasons of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was, in many ways, a 90s/hip-hop version the type of characters Eddie played early in his career. He’s the guy that doesn’t quite belong, but is comfortable in his own skin and always finds a way out of trouble. Not only is Will Smith an example of direct comedic descendant of the Eddie Murphy legacy, but one could look at Martin Lawrence’s career, look at Chris Tucker in films like Rush Hour, even some of Kevin Hart’s roles… Eddie’s influence is there.
2)We overlook how young he was when he started- A part of the genius of Eddie is how young he was when he made a name for himself in comedy. He was doing stand-up in NYC clubs as early as age 15, he got hired for Saturday Night Live at 18, starred in Trading Places, 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop, and his stand-up special, Delirious, all before the age of 25. Most people are still working their way into show business at that age.
3) He showed that Black comics could play the hero- It’s also worth noting that in many of his film roles, especially early on, Eddie is the hero. I know that might sound pretty obvious or unremarkable to some people, but consider the era in which he became a star (the early 80s). Think about depictions of Black comedic figures (or Black people in general) in mainstream film prior to Eddie Murphy. How many black comedians/comedic actors got to be the hero? Not many. On top of that, how many Black comedic actors of that time got to simply play multidimensional human beings, being bold, brash, funny, cool, and slightly vulgar all at the same time? In many ways, Eddie is one of the first of his kind.
4) The ability to hold yourself accountable and grow: In good conscience, you can’t reflect on Eddie’s early career and ignore some of the problematic jokes/words in his work (I won’t go into detail, but there’s plenty in Raw and Delirious, take your pick). But what I appreciate is that in an era where so many entertainers are quick to dodge responsibility by decrying the ills of political correctness, he’s been able to simply say “I was wrong” to acknowledge mistakes of his youth.
When I think about who Eddie Murphy is, the answer to that question helps me to understand why I (and many others) connect with his work; Eddie Murphy is us. He’s the people I’ve known my whole life. When I watch his SNL work, I’m reminded me of some of the guys I grew up with in Philly public schools. When I watch movies like Nutty Professor, Trading Places and Life, he reminds me of my uncles, my cousins and guys I heard in the barbershop. A large piece of what makes Eddie extraordinary how his work reflects the wit, charisma and brilliance of many everyday, ordinary folks.
Eddie Murphy is now 58 years old, an age where some of his comedic influences like Pryor and Cosby, were already slowing down. But, I guess that’s part of the reason why this comeback is interesting, its something that we didn’t get to see from some past comedy stars (for a plethora of reasons). This next chapter in his career won’t be the same as his past. But either way, we’re lucky to witness it.