Thirty-five years ago an unknown teenager from Brooklyn made an uncredited cameo in a lackluster episode of a network variety show on the verge of collapse. By the next episode that kid got his first real shot on screen and he never looked back. Soon enough, the only thing keeping “Saturday Night Live” from dying in the post-Lorne Michaels era was Eddie Murphy.
Within two years Murphy was performing standup on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and turning in iconic parodic performances on “SNL” as Buckwheat, Gumby and Mr. Robinson in sketches that would be forever emblazoned in the annals of American pop culture. By 1984, Murphy was a hugely bankable movie star, making his mark in comic masterpieces like “48 Hours,” “Trading Places” and, most memorably, “Beverly Hills Cop,” which catapulted Murphy to international fame and spawned two sequels.
On Oct. 18, the man with one of the most infectious laughs in comedy will receive the 18th annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Kathy Griffin, who will present clips of Murphy’s 1982 “Tonight Show” debut at the Kennedy Center gala event, says Murphy’s brilliance stems from his gutsy approach to standup comedy.
“In an era when everyone is apologizing for everything, it is fun and liberating to go back and watch him express anything that he thinks is funny without filters,” she says. “He is not a safe comedian and isn’t that what standup comedy is really about?”
Of course, Murphy is also one of the most commercially successful African-American actors in film history. His movies have averaged $100 million at the box office, including such hits as “Coming to America,” “Shrek” and “The Nutty Professor.” Although he’s been absent from the big screen for several years, Imagine Entertainment is reportedly developing a Netflix comedy feature with Murphy.
“Eddie is an icon and a terrific actor who has been making us laugh for 35 years,” says Cappy McGarr, executive producer of the Mark Twain Prize.
He adds that Murphy’s early films were brilliant not only because they were funny, but also because they tackled themes of racism in America. “Trading Places,” released in 1983, explored the divide between the haves and have-nots.
“That movie is just as relevant now as when it was made,” McGarr says. “Like Richard Pryor, who received the first Mark Twain Prize, Eddie has been an incredible influence on all those who followed him.”
Comedians Murphy influenced and inspired include Arsenio Hall, Dave Chappelle, Whitney Cummings and Chris Rock, who’s called Murphy his “idol.” He will be among the presenters at the Kennedy Center ceremony, along with fellow “SNL” alumni Will Ferrell, who received the Mark Twain Prize in 2011, and Tina Fey, who was honored with the award in 2010.
Griffin says the Mark Twain Prize is the ultimate award for comedians, especially since they are typically overlooked at the Oscars. (Murphy’s one nomination is for his dramatic turn in Bill Condon’s 2006 musical “Dreamgirls.”)
“This is a huge honor for Eddie,” Griffin says. “Everyone in comedy wants this. The ones that have it all brag about it and the ones that don’t are pissed. This is it.”
Per McGarr, the Mark Twain Award may not be enough validation for a genius such as Murphy: “I just wish we could give him more than one medal.”