WASHINGTON — It was a raw Sunday night at the Kennedy Center as celebrities paid tribute to legendary actor and comedian Eddie Murphy.
Murphy was awarded the 18th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award that has gone to such comedy titans as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Carol Burnett.
“It’s the highest honor for a comedian,” Murphy tells WTOP. “Rarely do comics get Oscars and stuff like that so this is the highest honor and it’s a great thing.”
If you were left wanting more from his recent “SNL 40” cameo, Murphy came out swinging during his acceptance speech, dropping “f” bombs and “n” bombs amid a spot-on Bill Cosby impression that left the Kennedy Center audience in stitches.
“I better stop before I get carried away,” Murphy joked to the crowd.
It was a long-anticipated release from Murphy, who spent the rest of the show up in the Concert Hall balcony watching clip packages and hearing memories from fellow comedians.
A number of current comics turned out to salute their hero, from Chris Rock, who copied Murphy’s leather suits during stand-up routines, to Tracy Morgan, who got a standing ovation after surviving a nasty traffic accident, to Dave Chappelle, who co-starred with Murphy in “The Nutty Professor” before casting brother Charlie Murphy in “Chappelle’s Show.”
“He’s done it all,” Kathy Griffin tells WTOP. “This is a guy who started out as a teenage stand-up comic, then ‘SNL’ creating iconic characters at, by the way, some would argue not ‘SNL’s’ best time.”
The 19-year-old Murphy joined “Saturday Night Live” during the Jean Doumanian doldrums before creator Lorne Michaels returned from a five-year hiatus. During these dark days, many credit Murphy with saving “SNL” from certain cancellation with a string of hilarious characters, from Gumby to Buh-Weet, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood to James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party.
“SNL” colleague Joe Piscopo, who played the Frank Sinatra to Murphy’s Stevie Wonder in a famous “Ebony and Ivory” spoof, said Murphy’s talent was obvious from the start.
“We could see from Day 1 this is a great kid, grounded, funny, joking, brilliant,” Piscopo says. “It really was nothing shy of just, ‘Woah!’ From there, we went to audition on the 17th floor at NBC and we did the ‘Word Association’ sketch that Chevy Chase did with Richard Pryor. Eddie Murphy nailed it and was as funny as Pryor, and I’m looking, I gotta take a moment and said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got gold!'”
Murphy would show up on Christmas morning bearing gifts when he started making money.
“He would show up at the house with presents for my kids,” Piscopo says. “How thoughtful is that?”
No, he wasn’t dressed as Santa Claus, though a red leather Santa suit is fun to imagine, considering it was Murphy’s wardrobe of choice during his iconic stand-up special “Delirious” (1983).
“He had the red leather jacket on and the pants. When he first came out, I thought to myself, ‘That is so corny,'” fellow “SNL” alum Kevin Nealon tells WTOP. “But he was so funny and so talented that by the end of his act, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I wonder where I could get something like that?'”
Around the time of “Delirious” (1983), Murphy also began acting in massive movie hits, from “48 Hours” (1982) to “Trading Places” (1983) to “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984).
Griffin says it’s rare for comedians to make that leap, let alone launch multiple movie franchises.
“Creating roles from ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ to ‘Shrek’ that people talk about all the time, that is no small accomplishment for a comedian. And to be nominated for an Academy Award, that’s also unusual for a comedian. He’s just done so many things that most comics aren’t able to do,” Griffin says.
Current “SNL” star Jay Pharoah first remembers Murphy in “The Golden Child” (1986).
“He was making noises! I said, ‘You can get rich making noises?’ I was like ‘Yes!'” Pharoah tells WTOP.
As for “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, his first Murphy experience was “Coming to America” (1988).
“I had the pleasure of being exposed to his comedy in ‘Coming to America’ was the first time. My cousin came over with a VHS cassette and we watched that and it changed everything for me,” says Noah, relating to his own journey from South Africa to New York. “I’m still living that experience.”
In that film, Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall play multiple characters with the aid of prosthetics, the gimmick that convinced Hollywood to greenlight the movie after an unsuccessful initial pitch.
Murphy returned to the “multiple roles” concept in “The Nutty Professor” (1996), playing not only the shape-shifting lead of Professor Klump and his skinny alter-ego Buddy Love, but also the entire Klump family for a memorable dinner table scene of passing gas amid pop culture references.
“What he did with The Klumps, it was a mind-blowing experience for me at the time,” Noah says. “I was always struck that people weren’t more impressed by what he had done, because it was completely different characters acting together. … Just acting with people that are there is difficult. To now act with people who are not there takes it to another level.”
“Most people are just happy to play one. He played the whole movie,” Griffin adds.
In this unique way, Murphy joins the ranks of Peter Sellers, who played multiple roles in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), and Mike Myers, who played multiple roles in “Austin Powers” (1997).
It was Myers who teamed with Murphy for the ogre and donkey tandem in DreamWorks’ “Shrek” (2001), which won the very first Academy Award for Best Animated Film.
After helping bring home the hardware for “Shrek,” Murphy earned an Oscar nomination of his own for his role across Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx in the musical “Dreamgirls” (2006).
“Being a gay man, I love every frame of ‘Dreamgirls,'” Griffin jokes. “I like ‘Trading Places,’ but you know what I love? … I actually love ‘Boomerang.’ I’ve seen ‘Boomerang’ like 100 times.”
“What set him apart was the fact that he was a superstar and yet still connected with every single person in that audience,” Noah says. “He somehow maintained a balance of stardom and at the same time everyman-ness. That was something that amazing for me. He didn’t seem unrelatable, and yet at the same time, we knew that his world was so far out of our reach.”
The Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony airs Nov. 23 on PBS.
So set your DVR. It’s your chance to finally see Eddie Murphy “raw” once again.