I recently read an online article that ranked every cast member of Saturday Night Live and it took me all of about five seconds to crown my personal choice for #1. The list itself was pretty fun to scroll through, and at the bottom, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that the writer had oh-so-predictably picked John Belushi as the “best” SNL cast member ever. John Belushi is one of those sacred cows of comedy who is long overdue to be butchered and served up as a bunch of tasty burgers for some protein-deficient Appalachian kids. He’s barely an SNL top ten. A funny guy at times, but completely overrated. That’s what happens when you die at 33. Were the “Samurai Ford Pinto Salesman” and “Immigrant Cheeseburger Man” really that funny? I don’t think so. (That being said, I would have loved to see his impersonation of Lena Dunham.)
What’s all this got to do with one Edward Regan Murphy? Well, in my eyes he’s the most talented and brilliant cast member SNL has ever had. From Gumby to to “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” to Buckwheat to “Kill My Landlord,” he absolutely, well, killed. But Eddie was so much more than just a player on some dumb late night TV show. He pretty much owned the decade. I didn’t even like him that much back then–I thought he was “too popular” or whatever, but to watch his 80s body of work now, without the distortion of whatever warped “underground-only” sensibilities I possessed back then–is to watch someone barely out of his teens pretty much taking over the world.
Here we had an unapologetically profane BLACK man (and, Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson be damned, let’s not pretend White America was all into cuddling up with black people back then, especially dudes in hot red leather pants who talked a lot about their dicks) who fashioned himself into the most popular celebrity in America. This doesn’t happen “because it’s time.” It takes raw talent, hard work and a whole heapin’ help of that hard to quantify element called charisma. Eddie had all that and more. There really wasn’t any branch of entertainment he didn’t make his own. It went something like this:
Television: the aforementioned SNL, several HBO specials that helped put that young network on the map, and of course his unforgettable role as a randy “walker” on that very special two-part episode of The Golden Girls.
Movies: If you had to make a basketball team out of 5 movies, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, Trading Places and Coming To America would be like a starting five of Jordan, Magic, Bird, Dr. J and Hakeem the Dream.
Music: Surely you remember “Party All The Time?”
Fashion: 5 trillion Mumford Phys. Ed. Dept. T-shirts sold!
Things have been, how shall we say, “uneven” ever since. But what major star has ever avoided this? Unless you go and run your Porsche 550 Spyder into a big old Ford coupe or die freebasing in some rented West Hollywood chateau, it’s all part of the celebrity arc. Nobody stays #1 box office champ forever. Still, the man remains capable of raking in hundred of millions of dollars for his studio–things like Shrek and The Nutty Professor practically minted money–as well as delivering critically-acclaimed work in films like Dreamgirls and Bowfinger. He’s also been involved in a lot of truly abysmal efforts moviegoers avoided like you would a bum relieving himself into a San Francisco Examiner box. But he’s still around, and I believe he has some good work left in him. Time will tell. But the 80s, man–the guy was untouchable.