Saturday Night Live: When Mr. Rogers Confronted The Show

Saturday Night Live: When Mr. Rogers Confronted The Show

A television producer knows it’s going to be a big steaming stink of a day when an unhappy viewer shows up in the lobby demanding some face time. That’s exactly what happened to Saturday Night Live head honcho Dick Ebersol one morning back in 1982. 

“I got a nervous call from one of the assistants on the show that was hard to believe,” Ebersol recalls. “‘Umm, I’m not sure you were expecting him,’ she said, ‘but it sounds like Mr. Rogers is downstairs. And he’s looking for Eddie.’”

Ebersol knew right away what the beef was about.  One of young Eddie Murphy’s breakout characters was Mr. Robinson, literally a ghetto version of beloved children’s show host Mr. Rogers.  While Fred Rogers welcomed you to his neighborhood, Mr. Robinson genially confided that he was more likely to break into your house when you were away.  

Safe for Ebersol to assume Mr. Rogers didn’t appreciate the bit.  Still, it was not like Rogers hadn’t heard impersonations before. On the National Lampoon’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick comedy album,  Christopher Guest played “Mr. Roberts,” interviewing Bill Murray as a stoned bass player.

Robin Williams loved to do Rogers as well, welcoming kids to his neighborhood and inviting them to pop a hamster in a microwave.

In the 1980s, every two-bit standup had a Mr. Rogers bit.  “Can you say (inappropriate word like ”cocaine” or ménage à trois )?” was about the hackiest trope going.  Even old-timers like Johnny Carson got in on the act.

“I remember going up to be on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” Rogers told the Archive of American Television. “And he said to me, ‘You know, Fred, we wouldn’t do these parodies if we didn’t like you.'”

Like him or not, Fred Rogers had a bone to pick with Murphy.  Ebersol tried to run interference. “I was face-to-face with him in my office. He was as kind and benevolent as you might expect, but also, it was clear, he had come to express his discomfort with ‘Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.’”

Rogers confessed to David Letterman that he thought imitations like Murphy’s could be downright dangerous. One radio guy in particular irked Rogers with an imitation that directed children to combine mom’s hairspray with dad’s cigarette lighter. “He thinks he’s talking to adults but he’s talking to children,” Rogers said over Letterman’s cackling audience. “I think that could cause a lot of fires.”

Rogers had a similar issue with Murphy.  While Rogers thought Eddie was very funny, he insisted that “it just always needs to come from a good place.”  Ebersol spent about ten minutes trying to reason with “this friendly but firm fellow,” then decided that the only way to deal with the issue was to tackle it head-on. That meant introducing Freddie to Eddie.

It could have been awkward when they got to the writers’ room--except that Eddie was so excited to meet his famous visitor.  “‘The real Mr. Rogers,’ Eddie exclaimed with a giant smile. And he immediately went in for a hug.”

Rogers was unrelenting, Ebersol said on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast. He (gently) laid into Murphy and the comedy writers: “It’s not that I have anything against you young men but it’s disrespectful to what I’ve created and I just can’t have it.” 

But it’s unclear if Rogers’s lecture had any effect. SNL went ahead with another Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood sketch that very weekend, so if Rogers was hoping for a moratorium, he didn’t get it.  Did Eddie soften his approach?  It’s hard to say, though even Mr. Rogers would admit that Murphy’s impression was always done with a great deal of affection.  And even if Rogers didn’t get his way, he did leave 30 Rock with a Polaroid to commemorate the meeting of giants:

Never meet your heroes, unless they're Fred Rogers.

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