'SNL' writer reveals how Eddie Murphy saved the late-night show 40 years ago: 'He was just a natural'

Eddie Murphy as Mr. Robinson on 'Saturday Night Live' (Photo: NBC/courtesy Everett Collection)
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By his own admission, David Sheffield has the dubious distinction of co-writing the worst sketch on one of the worst-ever episodes of Saturday Night Live. The episode in question aired forty years ago on November 22, 1980, with Malcolm McDowell as the host, and the sketch in question was “In Search of the Negro Republican,” a misbegotten parody of a nature special that sought to lampoon Black voters who may have ticked the box for Ronald Reagan in that year’s election. “That was the absolute nadir of my experience on the show,” Sheffield tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “In my defense, that was written as an audition piece and it was supposed to be a parody of the nature show Wild Kingdom, with the satirical point being that there were few Black people in the Republican Party. But [SNL producer] Jean Doumanian decided it should be done as a sketch, which was a big mistake.”

Just how bad is the sketch? So bad that it’s been cut from the version of the episode that’s available to stream on Peacock. And that’s just fine with Sheffield, who was part of a new wave of writers and actors that joined the show after the original Not Ready for Primetime Players had cleared out along with creator Lorne Michaels at the end of the previous season. “I’m so glad it's gone, and wish that it had never been done,” he says. “I still think that if it was done as a film parody, it would have been funny, but it was not one of my proudest moments. That was a dreadful episode from start to finish — the material was grotesquely bad. The entire writing staff was just downtrodden at that point; we were rudderless and didn’t have a clue how to do the show.”

Even if it marked a nadir for SNL, “In Search of the Negro Republican” also contained the seeds of the show’s imminent revival. The sketch featured the onscreen debut of 19-year-old comic Eddie Murphy, who was among the new faces in Studio 8H that season. “Eddie was hired as a featured player, and he'd come straight out of stand-up,” Sheffield remembers. “He was so quiet at first. He didn’t say a word and wasn’t in anything for the first two shows. He just sort of sat back and listened and observed. Nobody really noticed him that much at first.”

As a background extra, Murphy stayed quiet during the “Negro Republican” sketch. Off-camera, though, he and Sheffield struck up a conversation after the episode crashed to a conclusion — a conversation that started a friendship and collaboration that continues to this day. “Eddie came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, ‘Negro’ is a funny word,” the Mississippi-born writer recalls. “And we kind of hit it off then! He and I had an affinity, and a certain comic understanding.”

The duo became a trio as Sheffield and Murphy befriended another new-to-SNL writer Barry W. Blaustein. “One night, Barry and I were hanging out with some other writers, and Eddie came in and started riffing as this character he did called Raheem Abdul Mohammad. Raheem was a film critic, and the joke was that he would always go to the multiplex and see the wrong movie. He would say things like, ‘I went to see On Golden Pond and Goldie Hawn wasn’t even in it!’ It was so damn funny, and Barry said, ‘We’re going to work with this guy.’”

Two weeks after “In Search of the Negro Republican” bombed, Murphy was back on the air… in a speaking role this time. A new version of Raheem Abdul Mohammad swung by Weekend Update on December 6, 1980 to deliver a set of jokes penned by Murphy, Blaustein and Sheffield. Watching the segment again now, you can spot the exact moment that Murphy becomes a superstar: In the middle of his rapid-fire monologue, the camera pushes in on the comic’s face as the audience laughs and applauds. “Eddie killed it,” Sheffield says. “All the rest of the cast members were so damn nervous and afraid of making a mistake. He sat down, stared at the camera and was so cool and so calm. He was just a natural.”

It’s been said many times in the decades since that initially disastrous 1980 season that Murphy single-handedly saved SNL. He certainly became the show’s driving comic force for the rest of his four-season tenure, and Sheffield and Blaustein were an active part of the creation of many of his signature characters, from Mr. Robinson to Buckwheat. “Eddie used to talk about Buckwheat in his stand-up act, so we thought it would be funny to do him on SNL. I remember standing off-camera as Eddie got ready to go on, and it was the first time I’d seen him wearing that wig and those overalls. There was a picture of the original Buckwheat onscreen where he was leaning over in a certain way, so I told Eddie, ‘Lean over just like that so you can match him exactly.’ He did it, and it was just hilarious — the audience loved it.”

One of Murphy’s signature contributions to the show was his ability to joke about race in ways that made both Black and white audiences laugh, a skill that Sheffield credits to Richard Pryor’s influence. “Eddie was so different in his approach to race: He found Black people funny, and he had that in common with Pryor,” he explains, adding that the diversity of their writing trio also helped. “We always said that we had a special advantage, because if Eddie from Brooklyn; Barry, a Jew from Long Island; and Dave, an escapee from the Southern Baptist Church, all thought something was funny, then it would probably connect with a larger audience. It seemed to be a good combination.”

Sheffield and Blaustein remained with SNL through Murphy’s transition to movie stardom with the blockbuster 48 Hrs. before moving to Los Angeles to pursue feature film careers themselves. But they continued to write sketches from the West Coast for Murphy’s final year, including the beloved “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party.” “Of all the sketches I’ve done, for some reason that’s the one people hold up,” he chuckles. “It started because Barry and I were sitting around in a hot tub in L.A., and we were doing our impression of Eddie doing James Brown. It just wrote itself from there.”

The trio continued to write together even after Murphy left SNL on not-entirely-pleasant terms; Blaustein and Sheffield co-wrote hits like Boomerang, The Nutty Professor and, of course, Coming to America. They also helped crack the story of that movie’s highly-anticipated sequel, set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video on March 5. “We never thought we would ever do a sequel,” Sheffield says of Coming 2 America, which was co-written by Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris, and directed by Craig Brewer. “And then we found the spark for the idea in another script that [the studio] bought where Prince Akeem learns he has a long-lost son in New York and has to go get him so he’ll become heir to the throne. We sat with Eddie at his house in L.A. and knocked out a first draft in rapid time.”

Sheffield visited the set during production, and described the experience as “amazing.” “We wanted everyone from the original film to come back and be in this one, and they were all there except for the dear Madge Sinclair, who is no longer with us. Every character from the original and a bunch of new characters that we introduced were all there — it felt like a homecoming.” Sheffield teases that he’s also seen the final cut of Coming 2 America and promises that fans won’t be disappointed. “It’s damn good,” he says. “Not to give away any secrets, but you’ll see some of the characters that Eddie played in the first one, and some new characters we haven’t seen before. As we used to say with Eddie on SNL, ‘It’s going to kill.’”

Speaking of revisiting old characters, Sheffield and Blaustein were part of Murphy’s Emmy-winning return to Saturday Night Live last December, where he delighted the crowd by reprising Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson. “It was a little bizarre,” he says of stepping back into Studio 8H four decades after helping save the show alongside Murphy. “I tried to explain to the writing staff why we were there. I said, ‘Look, think of Barry and I as Eddie's comfort animals. We're here because Eddie wants us near.’”

Asked whether he felt slightly envious about the resources present-day SNL writers enjoy, Sheffield replies, “Well, sure! Back then, it was like we were writing the show pretty much by ourselves. I remember looking around that crowded room last year and thinking, ‘My god, I wish we’d had five or six of these folks to help us then.’ The show always evolves, you know? It’s always a new show, and what they’re doing right now is outstanding.”

Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on NBC; past seasons are available to stream on Peacock.

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