Eddie Murphy’s ‘SNL’ Characters, Ranked
There’s never been a Saturday Night Live bottle rocket quite like Eddie Murphy. Once the show wised up and pushed him onto center stage, he never looked back, creating an all-star team of recurring characters that nearly always delivered the goods. A surprising number of them — Gumby, Buckwheat, Mr. Robinson — traded on Murphy’s childhood nostalgia, warped takes on the characters that he loved while growing up. Characters such as…
One character who didn’t get revived when Murphy returned to host SNL was flamboyant hairdresser Dion. Like many of his outsized characters, Dion got his share of laughs, but there wasn’t much to him (or Joe Piscopo’s Blair) except limp-wristed stereotyping.
I’m sure some people would have a problem with the very concept of Velvet Jones, the benevolent pimp who’s ready to teach unemployed ladies how to be a sex worker. But the dude was so good-natured, so earnest in his TV advertisements, that it’s hard to take much offense.
I’m guessing James Brown was another Murphy childhood hero, even if he wasn’t a traditional kid’s character. The impression is solid, but Murphy’s kinetic energy sells the sketches. Look at the bits on paper and it would be hard to find the jokes, but the SNL audience members are falling out of their chairs nonetheless.
The actual children’s character of Gumby was a pretty bland dude. His main redeeming quality was that he was bendy. Leave it to Murphy to reimagine the milquetoast toy as an aging Jewish comedian straight from the Catskills, eager to prove to the world that time has not passed him by. After all, he’s Gumby, dammit!
Put the gentle Mr. Rogers in the housing projects, and bam, you’ve got Mr. Robinson. Like Mr. Rogers, Mr. Robinson greets whatever life has to offer with a smile, even if that offer is an eviction notice.
You don’t have to be familiar with the Our Gang/Little Rascals series of kid movies from the 1930s (!) to appreciate Buckwheat, but it probably helps. The black-and-white shorts were staples on local television during afterschool hours, and Murphy clearly consumed his fair share. The bit was funny when it was a straight-up imitation, but turned satirical when Buckwheat was killed by a three-named lunatic. It was a commentary on the political assassinations of the times but also an act of self-preservation.
“I do remember going through a period when people would scream out characters from Saturday Night Live — Buckwheat or Mr. Robinson or Gumby — and it would really piss me off,” Murphy told Playboy. “I wouldn’t turn around. It bothered me, because I was Eddie, you know?” With Buckwheat dead, that was one less thing to shout.
Early Saturday Night Live wasn’t known for its sensitivity toward Black people. The show had Garrett Morris play a flying monkey in a Wizard of Oz sketch, for God’s sake. That all changed when Murphy arrived and took over the show. There wasn’t much social bite to characters like Gumby or Dion, but the “White Like Me” sketch remains iconic for Murphy’s Mr. White character. It set a comic blueprint for Murphy’s early movie work in Trading Places, 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, all of which examined what it meant to be a Black man in modern white America. The fact that it remains so relevant is cause to both celebrate and damn the sketch today.