Classic SNL Review: December 15, 1984: Eddie Murphy / Robert Plant & The Honeydrippers (S10E09)

RATINGS SYSTEM:
***** - Classic
****  - Great
***   - Good/Average
**    - Meh
*     - Awful

OPENING: BUCKWHEAT LIVES!

  • Alfalfa (Mary Gross) sees Buckwheat in a crowd shot in a newspaper.
  • I’m not going to rate this part because it’s merely a setup for the sketch that appears later in the show; but it’s a good teaser for what’s to come and effectively sets the mood for tonight’s show. Nice use of the replayed assassination footage (“Hey Mr. Wheat!”).
  • According to Kevin Kelton, this was a late-stage addition to the show after another sketch involving a huge dungeon set fell through; Dick Ebersol had him, Andy Breckman, Jim Downey, Andrew Kurtzman and Eliot Wald come up with a Buckwheat sketch, despite the character being killed off a year and a half before. The writers came up with the solution of Buckwheat having faked his death, while Kelton came up with the two-part format (a deliberate throwback to the running segments the show used to do in its early years).

MONTAGE

  • The SNL Band has a fuller horn section than normal tonight, augmented by Jon Faddis, Lou Marini and Ronnie Cuber.

MONOLOGUE

  • Eddie Murphy only agreed to host SNL to rehabilitate his career after Best Defense tanked, but once Beverly Hills Cop took off, it was too late to pull out.
  • This is mostly just a set-up for the next film, but Murphy’s as charismatic as ever, and manages to be fun even as he jokingly badmouths the show’s previous year and promises that at least two or three things tonight won’t be funny.

***

FILM: "WHITE LIKE EDDIE" - ANDY BRECKMAN

  • Eddie Murphy disguises himself as a white man to expose the different treatment white and black people face in America.
  • A classic satirical look at white privilege, written and directed by Andy Breckman. While the differences in treatment (giving each other free things and public transit cocktail parties once the last black passenger leaves) are played for laughs (as are a couple of digs at “white” culture: Dynasty and Hallmark cards), what gives this sketch its power is that it’s rooted in the truth, and, as Shawn King wrote for the Daily News in 2015, the truth is very much less funny.
  • A number of familiar faces turn up here: writer Jim Downey plays the newsstand clerk who gives Murphy the free newspaper, Clint Smith plays the makeup artist, and Eddie’s older brother Charlie Murphy is one of the people being made up at the end. The actor that played the doctors in Video Victims, Buckwheat Buys the Farm and Buckwheat Dead turns up here as Bob (the white loan officer) while character actor Mike Hodge plays Harry (the black loan officer).

*****

SHOW: MISTER ROBINSON'S NEIGHBORHOOD

  • Mister Robinson (Eddie Murphy) uses a Santa suit to sneak into his apartment, shows how to make a counterfeit Cabbage Patch doll, and teaches some words that begin with X.
  • A concise final outing for Mister Robinson, who makes a welcome return here. Pretty straightforward, but the Cabbage Patch doll sight gag was great.
  • This was my first exposure to the character, due to this sketch’s inclusion in the Christmas Past compilation specials in the early 90s.
  • Written by Kevin Kelton.

*** 1/2

SHOW: MILESTONES

  • Desmond Tutu (Eddie Murphy) carelessly breaks Doug Flutie’s (Rich Hall) Heisman trophy.
  • A silly premise, but there are a lot of funny smaller moments: the segue from the bomb threat Tutu received at the Nobel Prize ceremony to the discussion of Flutie’s legendary pass, the poor jobs Tutu does fixing the trophy, “I don’t know how to fix it, I’m a bishop!”, and Christopher Guest’s host character suggesting that Tutu use the “Carefree-Curl” in his hair on the trophy. The sight gag of the ruined trophy was well done too.
  • Flutie’s “who’s going to draft me?” speech was a little prescient as he was the lowest-drafted Heisman winner in NFL history, but he ended up having a much more successful career playing in the Canadian Football League in the 90s.

*** 1/2

SHOW: LIFESTYLES OF THE RELATIVES OF THE RICH & FAMOUS

  • Plastic surgeon’s receptionist Denise Lewis (Martin Short) is as loud and slapsticky as her famous great uncle Jerry’s movie characters.
  • Not quite as good as the Lifestyles from the first episode; Nelson Hepburn is more impressive a characterization than Denise Lewis, though Short’s impression is still good. This one one-ups the first sketch’s running joke of the obviously-edited-in Robin Leach (Harry Shearer) reaction shots by making it even more apparent (Leach nodding in a scene shot outdoors during an interview shot indoors).
  • Both Claude Kerven and Christopher Guest are credited as directors.
  • The scene with Billy Crystal as Yul Brynner’s similarly bald travel agent aunt Kitty was cut from the October 12, 1985 rerun as the real Brynner died two days before.
  • This is Shearer’s only appearance tonight; in Live From New York, he mentions a succession of shows where a sketch called “Hellcats in the White House” was cut from air; for the last one, Shearer was in Reagan makeup from dress straight through air, only to find out late in the show the sketch was cut. This show seems to be the week he was talking about here, as he makes no live appearances tonight.

***

SKETCH: THE END OF BUCKWHEAT

  • Alfalfa (Mary Gross) tracks down a disguised Buckwheat (Eddie Murphy), who faked his death to evade a threat on his life.
  • A satisfying conclusion to the Buckwheat saga, though I’d put this a bit below the spring ’83 assassination trilogy. As much as the return of Murphy’s Buckwheat is the big draw here, this is Mary Gross’s time to shine; watch her as Alfalfa turns sinister on the “You humiliated me!” line or her posture when holding the gun.

*** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "ROCKIN' AT MIDNIGHT"

  • A lively cover of Roy Brown’s 1949 jump blues song; Robert Plant is joined by Brian Setzer (guitar), Paul Shaffer (piano), current SNL band members Michael Brecker (saxophone), Tom Malone (trombone), Georg Wadenius (guitar), Tom Barney (bass) and Buddy Williams (drums), former SNL band members Lou Marini and Ronnie Cuber (saxes), plus Jon Faddis (trumpet). Setzer and Brecker both get solos here.

SKETCH: BROADWAY GUMBY ROSE

  • Gumby (Eddie Murphy) and fellow alter kakers Irving Cohen (Martin Short), Lew Goldman (Billy Crystal) and Mort Schmegman (Christopher Guest) bicker over lunch at a deli.
  • A good way to incorporate Eddie Murphy with the new all-star cast; it also puts Short and Crystal’s existing characters in a new context, while Christopher Guest outdoes everyone as the slightly senile Schmegman. This sketch also gave the world the name “Adolf K. Musselman” (who you don’t call a sandwich in front of Irving Cohen).
  • Written by Nate Herman.
  • Larry David can be seen in the background as one of the patrons sitting by the window, while returning guest writer (and former deli employee) Alan Zweibel is behind the deli counter.

*** 1/2

SHOW: NEWSMAKERS

  • Communist Party representatives (Mary Gross and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) frustrate host Ben Chapman (Billy Crystal) by repeatedly performing an elaborate schoolyard chant whenever both talk at the same time.
  • A little one-note, but Gross and Louis-Dreyfus (the latter making her only appearance tonight) are good as usual. Billy Crystal actually gives one of his most underrated performances here as the frustrated host, from his visible disdain for his guests’ political leanings at the start, to his reactions in the background as they do their chant.

***

MISCELLANEOUS: BLACK HISTORY MINUTE

  • Shabazz K. Morton (Eddie Murphy) tells the story of how white people stole credit for peanut butter from George Washington Carver.
  • This was funny enough on its own (particularly the reveal of the names of the two white people), but what really made this was Murphy’s trouble with the cue cards, and his ad-libs in character to the audience (“So I messed up, shut up! Stop clapping before y’all make me smile!”)

****

SKETCH: CLIMBING THE STAIRS

  • In 1944 France, it’s up to Lawrence Orbach (Martin Short) to save the others in his unit by climbing the stairs to use the phone, but the incompetent soldier doesn’t have that skill.
  • Martin Short’s physical work is impressive, but this was a pretty thin premise for a sketch, and noticeably weaker than most of the other sketches tonight.
  • I do always laugh at the exchange between Short and Gary Kroeger’s character as he tries to explain stair-climbing with a crude stick figure diagram (“Which is me?” “THE ONE WITH THE HEAD!”)

**

SATURDAY NIGHT NEWS

  • After a one-episode hiatus for the news segment, Christopher Guest is back at the newsdesk, still too dry and fumbling his lines, though he seems to do better when interacting with the guests. He only has a pair of jokes tonight; one of them is a deliberately bad pun (Eddie Murphy stars as the young Frank Sinatra in “Old Blue Eyes is Black”), while the other (students not locating the USA on a map) died on arrival.
  • Paul Harvey (Rich Hall) returns to tell The Rest of the Story about three brothers, working in plugs for different advertisers until Guest stops him and spoils the ending (they were the Kennedys). Nothing special, but decent.
  • BBC journalist Angela Bradleigh (Pamela Stephenson) gives the British perspective on Reagan’s proposed spending cuts, though most of the commentary is obscured by the prosthetic teeth Stephenson wears (aside from choice lines like “tiny unpronounceable islands” and working in a sung “five gold rings”). Another bit that wasn’t anything special, but Stephenson does deserve praise for pulling it off.
  • Eddie Murphy discusses the trends in Christmas toys, specifically shrinking GI Joes, Ken’s effeminate demeanor (probably the part of this that’s aged the worst), and all the celebrity lookalike dolls including the “anatomically-correct” Michael Jackson doll. This kills with the audience, and Murphy has many good lines all throughout (especially how the gremlin resembles the offspring of Miles Davis and Sammy Davis).

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "SANTA CLAUS IS BACK IN TOWN"

  • 14 Karat Soul joins Plant and the band for a cover of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s 1957 hit for Elvis Presley; Plant is a little hammy, but the band is good, and the fake snow adds a nice touch.

MISCELLANEOUS: EDDIE AD-LIB

  • A timing issue with the show meant there was only 30 seconds between commercial breaks, so Eddie Murphy stalls and plays the piano.
  • Not rated, but Murphy’s always had a way with making these “killing time” segments entertaining, and this is no exception. I’m guessing the culprits for making the show run long were Billy Crystal’s breaking character in Broadway Gumby Rose and Murphy’s line trouble and ad-libs in Black History Minute.

GOODNIGHTS

  • Eddie Murphy has his arms around retiring propmaster Willie Day and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and says he came back to do tonight’s shows because it’s Day’s final show. Christopher Guest and Rich Hall stand off to one side, Billy Crystal holds a “Happy birthday Mom” sign, while Martin Short and Paul Shaffer chat.

Final Thoughts:

A rebound from the disappointing Ringo Starr show, and a stronger show than Murphy’s 1982 hosting gig, though not quite as solid as some of the shows that came earlier in this season. Eddie Murphy’s presence gave this week’s material quite a boost and carried much of the show tonight, though his best showcases didn’t feature the rest of the cast, some of which were particularly underused. Robert Plant and the Honeydrippers’ old-time R&B influenced performances were also enjoyable, and (aside from Plant’s curly mullet) aged better than many of the other Ebersol-era musical guests.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • White Like Eddie
  • Black History Minute
  • Broadway Gumby Rose
  • Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood
  • Buckwheat Lives!/The End of Buckwheat
  • Milestones

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Climbing the Stairs

MVP: 

Eddie Murphy

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Jim Belushi: absent
  • Billy Crystal: 4 appearances [Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich & Famous, Broadway Gumby Rose, Newsmakers, Climbing the Stairs]
  • Mary Gross: 3 appearances [Buckwheat Lives!, The End of Buckwheat, Newsmakers]
  • Christopher Guest: 3 appearances [Milestones, Broadway Gumby Rose, Saturday Night News]
  • Rich Hall: 4 appearances [Milestones, Broadway Gumby Rose, Climbing the Stairs, Saturday Night News]
  • Gary Kroeger: 2 appearances [The End of Buckwheat, Climbing the Stairs]; 1 voice-over [Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood]
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 1 appearance [Newsmakers]
  • Harry Shearer: 1 appearance [Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich & Famous]; 1 voice-over [The End of Buckwheat]
  • Martin Short: 3 appearances [Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich & Famous, Broadway Gumby Rose, Climbing the Stairs]
  • Pamela Stephenson: 2 appearances [Climbing the Stairs, Saturday Night News]

crew and extras

  • Larry David: 1 appearance [Broadway Gumby Rose]
  • Willie Day: 1 appearance [Milestones]
  • Jim Downey: 1 appearance [White Like Eddie]
  • Mike Hodge: 1 appearance [White Like Eddie]
  • Charlie Murphy: 1 appearance [White Like Eddie]
  • Clint Smith: 1 appearance [White Like Eddie]
  • Alan Zweibel: 1 appearance [Broadway Gumby Rose]

guests

  • Eddie Murphy: 10 appearances [Monologue, White Like Eddie, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, Milestones, Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich & Famous, The End of Buckwheat, Broadway Gumby Rose, Black History Minute, Saturday Night News, Eddie Ad-Lib]
  • Robert Plant & The Honeydrippers: [“Rockin’ At Midnight”, “Santa Claus is Back in Town”]
  • 14 Karat Soul: [“Santa Claus is Back in Town”]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • February 23, 1985
  • October 12, 1985
  • July 12, 1986

Known alterations:

  • Kitty Brynner sequence removed from at least the October 12, 1985 rerun
  • Slight edit to Climbing the Stairs to remove boom mic in shot

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.