40 Years Ago: Eddie Murphy Makes His First ‘SNL’ Appearance
It was Nov. 22, 1980, and Murphy, then just 19 years old, was not yet an official member of the cast.
Saturday Night Live had gone through upheaval, with a completely new lineup of writers and performers brought in for the sixth season. Associate producer Jean Doumanian had been elevated to executive producer, taking over from show creator Lorne Michaels. Looking to add a minority cast member to the SNL ranks, Doumanian set up auditions.
“For two days in mid-September some thirty black actors and comedians filed through the writers’ wing on the 17th floor to read for Jean and her people,” noted the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live.
Doumanian was first leaning towards comedian Charlie Barnett, before later deciding that actor Robert Townsend would be the perfect choice. Meanwhile, the show’s talent coordinator, Neil Levy, started hearing from a different young comic.
“This guy Eddie Murphy started calling me - it sounded like from a payphone - and I told him, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not auditioning anymore,’" Levy recalled in the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “But he called again the next day, and he would go into this whole thing about how he had 18 brothers and sisters and they were counting on him to get this job. And he would call every day for about a week. And I finally decided I would use him as an extra.”
Murphy was given an audition, his chance to get a foot in the SNL door.
“It was just Neil Levy. Just me a Neil in his office. And he said, ‘Make me laugh.’ And luckily, because I was doing standup already, so I had material and I did impressions," Murphy recalled decades after his SNL tenure. "I did Ali, Muhammad Ali. And I did Bill Cosby. And he didn’t laugh at all. He just sat and kind of looked at me and just said, ‘Thank you.’ And then I left and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t get it.”
Though Levy had played it cool, he instantly recognized Murphy’s ability.
“Talent was shooting out of him,” the SNL executive admitted. Despite this, adding Murphy to the cast was no slam dunk.
“I had already selected the cast,” Doumainian later explained, insisting in hindsight that she too had recognized Murphy’s talent. An agreement would be struck. The young comedian would become a featured player on the show, but not until the season’s fourth episode (airing in December).
Thus, Murphy’s first sample of the SNL spotlight was as an extra. The Nov. 22, 1980 episode featured a sketch titled "In Search of the Negro Republican." The scene would take place at a New York dinner party, with a National Geographic-like hunt for an Africa-American GOP member.
Murphy’s presence was easily missed. The future star simply lounged in a chair, making background conversation while the scene’s action took place elsewhere. Still, there’d be no missing Murphy once he made his official SNL debut, and this fleeting appearance gave the comedian his first taste of screen time.
“The first time I was on, I rode back to Long Island on the Long Island railroad, and I didn’t take my makeup off because I was on TV,” the star later recalled. “I thought people was going to see me with the makeup on and know I was on TV. And no one knew. I probably just looked like a very strange young fellow on the train at night.”