Eddie Murphy’s ‘SNL’ Audition Involved One of the Show’s Most Controversial Sketches
Eddie Murphy claims to have auditioned for exactly one project in his life — and he was only 18 years old! The job, as one might guess, was for Saturday Night Live. And that audition’s provocative final test was one Murphy passed with flying colors.
The fact that a relatively unknown teenager got an audition for SNL in the first place is pretty crazy. Murphy relentlessly hounded producer Neil Levy from a pay phone, telling him funny lies about why he desperately needed a job on Saturday Night Live. Eventually, Levy gave in and agreed to see the kid.
First, Murphy had to perform for Levy — and just Levy — in an SNL office. “I did Jimmy Carter, back then I was doing him. I did Muhammad Ali, and Howie Cosell, and Bill Cosby,” Murphy remembered in a Vanity Fair interview. “So all that stuff was in my little five-minute audition. He didn’t laugh at anything. I was just doing it, he was just sitting there watching me, and looking me up and down. After I did all my shit, he was like, ‘Thank you.’”
Based on Levy’s reaction, Murphy didn’t think he got the job. But he got called back a couple of weeks later. “It was two people in the room, and they said: ‘Make us laugh,’” Murphy said. “I did the same thing — nobody laughed. Then it was three people in the room, and they said, ‘Make us laugh,’ and one guy kind of giggled a little bit.”
That giggle must have put things over the top because Murphy finally got a formal audition. But it came with an odd request. Part of the tryout involved reading with cast members. Murphy got paired with Joe Piscopo — something that would happen a lot in subsequent seasons — and was assigned a classic SNL sketch.
“Word Association” was probably the most talked about sketch of Saturday Night Live’s first season, a bit in which Chevy Chase actually calls Richard Pryor the N-slur. Yeah, they went there. “It defined us,” Lorne Michaels told The New York Times. “It put us on the map.”
Both Chase and Pryor writer Paul Mooney claim to have come up with the bit, but history seems to have sided with Mooney, who says he based it on a conversation with a passive-aggressive Michaels. The use of the slur was “like an H-bomb that Richard and I tossed into America’s consciousness,” Mooney says in the biography Becoming Richard Pryor. “The N-word as a weapon, turned back against those who use it, had been born on national TV.”
Now the sketch was being used again, not as a weapon but as an audition piece. Sounds like an odd choice to have a Black man try out for the show with a sketch that required a white actor to throw racial slurs in his face, but there it was. And Murphy was ready for it.
“I had seen that sketch a bunch of times. So it was like, This is my audition?” said a laughing Murphy. “I didn’t even need the paper! Did it. Crushed it. And got the show.”