Eddie Murphy's Twain Triumph

The comedy great gets a long-overdue tribute with the Mark Twain Prize ceremony on PBS.

Chris Rock, in his funny and heartfelt tribute to Eddie Murphy during February's "Saturday Night Live" 40th anniversary special, credited his friend with inspiring a generation of comics – and saving the show.

If not for Murphy, Rock noted, "I'd be like the funny UPS driver in Queens – and Tina Fey would be the funniest English professor at Drexel University."

Murphy appeared touched, though his own short, unfocused remarks didn't come close to matching Rock’s introduction. For once, Eddie Murphy wasn't funny.

The backstory that perhaps explained the awkwardness later emerged: Murphy had balked at playing the embattled Bill Cosby in a sketch that night and was left with nothing to do other than accept Rock's plaudits. 

It marked another chapter in Murphy's uneasy post-departure relationship with the show that launched his career. But more importantly, Rock's brief salute underscored that Murphy hasn't always gotten his proper due as one of the major comedy powerhouses of the last 35 years.

That changed, in part, last month when Murphy notched the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The ceremony, to be broadcast on PBS Monday, offers Rock and other fans a whole 90-minute show to celebrate the man who kept “SNL” alive and changed comedy.

It seems odd, in some respects, to give what amounts to a lifetime achievement award to someone still relatively young. But Murphy’s packed huge accomplishments and laughs into his 54 years. He got an early start, beginning his standup career at age 15 and joining “SNL” four years later. As part of the first post-original cast lineup, he helped reinvent and reinvigorate the show with his caustic take on Gumby and his streetwise Mister Rogers takeoff, Mister Robinson.

Murphy’s star quickly rose in Hollywood, where the “48 Hours” and “Beverly Hills Cop” franchises helped establish comedy as a major box office force. He extended the no-holds-barred standup approach of Richard Pryor with “Delirious” and “Raw.” Still, Murphy also proved himself a family friendly performer by playing the title roles in remakes of “The Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle,” before bringing his voice to the wisecracking Donkey in the “Shrek” animated hits.

The long career has included some bombs, which prompted a David Spade quip during “Weekend Update” that soured Murphy on “SNL” for two decades. “Look, children,” Spade said, with a picture of Murphy behind him. “It’s a falling star. Make a wish.” 

Murphy didn’t return to the show until February’s special. Fey was there and so was Will Ferrell – both great performers who inexplicably got the Twain Prize before Murphy.

While Murphy seemed to enjoy a Spike TV tribute three years ago, there’s no love lost between him and the Hollywood establishment whose pockets he helped line. He’s likely still smarting from not getting an Oscar for his stunning dramatic turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” (not that the winner, Alan Arkin, didn’t do a great job in “Little Miss Sunshine”). Murphy’s bowing out of hosting the 2012 Academy Awards didn’t endear him to entertainment moguls.

The Twain ceremony drew devotees from Murphy’s crowd: comedians – among them former SNL stars Rock, Tracy Morgan and Kevin Nealon, along with Dave Chappelle, Trevor Noah and Murphy’s “Coming to America” co-star Arsenio Hall.

Murphy reportedly was comfortable enough at the Kennedy Center to forgo any qualms about lampooning previous Twain Prize winner Cosby (“Bill has one of these. Did you all make Bill give his back?" he said before launching into a Cosby impersonation: "I would like to talk to some of the people who feel like I should give back some of my [expletive] trophies!").

Unlike his brief “SNL” anniversary show appearance, this marked vintage Murphy – back on the big stage, making jokes. Perhaps the tribute will inspire Murphy like he inspired others, and spur him to get back to the business of being one of the funniest people on the planet. In the meantime, check out a preview of the Twain Prize show, which celebrates Murphy’s legacy on the medium that spawned his career.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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