This week, to celebrate his comeback role in Brett Ratner’s (allegedly good!) Tower Heist, we look back on Eddie Murphy’s finest career moments.
“The Joe Piscopo New Jersey Special”
Bill Simmons: After 30 years of “Eddie Murphy saved Saturday Night Live from being canceled” stories, you’d think nobody else was on the cast … when actually, Joe Piscopo was the Pippen to Eddie’s Jordan. Nobody remembers this now, just like nobody remembers Joe Piscopo. They were in dozens and dozens of sketches together, peaking with their hilarious bit about Sinatra and Stevie Wonder joining forces for “Ebony and Ivory.” You are blind as a bat and I have sight. For two solid seasons, nobody else on the cast mattered. They may have well been extras. Even if Eddie was a bigger star, Piscopo was probably featured in more sketches: He could impersonate any celebrity and always ended up being the lead of any game show/talk show host sketch. They used him the way Dan Aykroyd was used, and how Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman would eventually be used.
Eddie left the show midway through the 1983-84 season, but not before a marathon night at 30 Rock in which they banked a bunch of Eddie bits to sprinkle through the remaining shows. The last sketch featured Eddie and Joe playing semi-homeless old guys at a piano bar — two of their favorite characters — and playfully wrestling off-camera at the finish. At the time, I just assumed that they had at least five buddy-cop movies in their future. But the truth was, Eddie was too big for a sidekick. He didn’t need one. A few months after he left SNL, Beverly Hills Cop made him the biggest star in the world. By 1986, Eddie could do whatever he wanted and Piscopo’s career was going south. So when Eddie agreed to appear in Piscopo’s comeback comedy special in 1986 (The Joe Piscopo New Jersey Special), it was a pretty big deal because everything Eddie did was a big deal in 1986. I remember watching the show specifically because of Eddie. They filmed a piece called “New Jersey Vice,” a Miami Vice parody, with Piscopo as Crockett and Murphy as Tubbs (skip to two-minute mark). It could have been funnier, but still, it was pretty funny. And the toll booth scene slays me. It’s also Joe Piscopo’s last legitimately funny moment. Twenty-five years later, nobody even remembers that he helped saved SNL. But he did.
Coming to America
Andy Greenwald: Coming to America isn’t a good movie. It’s riddled with lazy rom-com clichés, slowed by a wooden leading lady and saddled with the most problematic depiction of Africa outside of a Joseph Conrad novel. It is, however, a great movie, full of incredible one-liners, surprising cameos, and hairstyles that will definitely leave an impression. It’s also an exhilarating glimpse at Eddie Murphy at his absolute creative peak, the moment when he was trying anything and everything was working: It was Michael Jordan’s 1992, Ted Williams’ 1941, and Ryan Gosling’s 2011 rolled into one hilarious, latex-dependent whole. Although it’s hard to top his turn as the guy we all know as Joe the Policeman on the “What’s Goin’ Down” episode of That’s My Mama, his greatest triumph in the film, to my mind, is also the least recognizable. As Saul, the old Jewish guy who inexplicably hangs out in the black barbershop, Eddie is completely covered but totally present. This bit, taken from the end credits, works because while it may concern itself with schmaltz, it’s never shtick: He’s as remarkable kibitzing as he is fronting Sexual Chocolate. He may be telling jokes, but this is a seriously impressive performance, sly and clever when it could easily have been broad and boorish. Taste the soup!
“Party All the Time”
Rembert Browne: You know those horrible/glorious bars that play the music videos while the songs are blasting? Well, a few years ago there was a three-month stretch where “Party All the Time” would play within five minutes of my entrance into a particular bar. It was like a party trick that I had no control over. “Party All the Time” is, hands down, my favorite Eddie Murphy career move, but surprisingly it has NOTHING to do with Eddie Murphy. They should have retitled the video “Rick James Will Party All the Time With You, Whether Eddie Is Around or Not.” Calling Rick James’ performance a “cameo” is like referring to Brandy as “Ray-J’s sister.” Rude Rude Rude. Rick is the star of this production and there’s nothing Eddie Murphy can do about it. Every time he’s on-camera, with that supersize curly fry mop shag of a hairdo, I think to myself, “This might very well be the greatest man alive.” Watch this for Rick and only Rick. Especially 2:47-2:51. (You’ll probably cry.) Once with sound, and then muted on loop in the top right-hand corner of your monitor for the rest of the day.
Amos Barshad: My parents’ CD collection goes about 35 units deep and consists mostly of Israeli seventies folk-rock (what up, Arik Einstein?), so we don’t usually agree on too much pop culture. But they’ve always loved the crap out of Trading Places, for all the obvious reasons, and inculcated us at an early age, with repeated viewings, to fully appreciate its genius. That means watching Eddie Murphy pretend he just realized he has legs — “I can walk! Jesus, praise Jesus! Look at me, this is too much! First Moses, now this!” — is, personally, extra-comforting. Bonus fact! The guys who wrote this also wrote Space Jam.
“What’s Up With You?”
Katie Baker: I probably should have submitted this last week for the “Worst Music Video of All Time” category, but somehow I suspected that one day we’d be doing either an all-Eddie Murphy or Michael Jackson YouTube Hall of Fame and this would be my automatic entrant. Make sure you watch the last two seconds in particular, and then hit “replay,” like I’ve been doing all morning.
Daniel Silver: For my money, the defining role of Murphy’s career is in the 1999 Hollywood satire Bowfinger. Directed by Frank Oz, and written by and co-starring Steve Martin, Eddie once again plays multiple roles, but here eschews prosthetics and heavy makeup in favor of two distinct physical performances, as Kit Ramsey and his lovable ne’er-do-well brother Jiff. The setup is simple: Since he can’t secure the biggest star in Hollywood (Murphy’s Kit) for his next film, a destitute film producer (Steve Martin) opts to secretly shoot the movie around the star, using his look-alike brother (Murphy’s Jiff) to fill in the gaps. With Kit, Murphy didn’t need to do much; he was essentially playing a hyperbolic version of a public persona pegged on him in the late ’90s (reclusive, emotionally unstable, and paranoid). But with Jiff, the purest of Murphy’s real talents shined. Even though Jiff looks almost exactly the same as Kit — with a slight slough, a facial scrunch, a subtle wig, a pair of glasses, and a set of orthodontics — Eddie was able to create a second fully formed character. I challenge anyone to watch the film and not think Kit and Jiff are played by different actors. Oz and Martin never shot a scene in which Kit and Jiff appeared together, so I’ve chosen one of the stronger Jiff scenes. Watch how Murphy embraces Jiff’s nebbishes and fully commits and delivers on his eccentricities (him screaming “Heavenly Father” over and over still kills me). Both Steve Martin and I think it was a crime Murphy wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
“Kill the White People”
Patrice Evans: Before Lonely Island and SNL digital shorts, there was only Eddie Murphy doing a rasta man and singing “Kill the White People.” So many things to love, from how Eddie takes the stage, to the off-kilter stoners in the backing band, to the pitch-perfect lyrics. Whether at a funeral, basketball lineup introduction, or graduation, I suspect it’s the most appropriately inappropriate anthem for all occasions. If there were a tournament bracket for best sketch ever (not just Murphy), this is the sleeper to bet on. (But buy my record first.)
“Buckwheat Is Dead”
Lane Brown: Eddie Murphy has given plenty of great performances in double roles (see above), and one of them was in this awesome 1983 “Weekend Update” sketch, from back when Saturday Night Live could occasionally be confused with Monty Python. In it, he plays both Buckwheat (RIP) and Buckwheat’s assassin, John David Stutts, who is also assassinated. Let’s see that tape again!
Previously: YouTube Hall of Fame: The Worst Music Videos of All Time
The Deleted Scenes Hall of Fame
YouTube Hall of Fame: When Sitcoms Got Dark
YouTube Hall of Fame: Tom Hanks on Late Night, Pandas on a Slide, and Helen Hunt on Crank
YouTube Hall of Fame: Howard Cosell, R.E.M., and Two Men Hit With Footballs
YouTube Hall of Fame: Stevie Nicks Combs Her Hair, a Comedy Film From Nigeria, and the Least Sexy Video on the Internet