Murphy opened his first stand-up set in 28 years with an impression of Bill Cosby, whom he refused to play on “Saturday Night Live’s” 40th anniversary show.
While accepting the honor, Murphy riffed on the award, which Cosby won in 2009.
“Bill has one of these,” Murphy said, looking at the miniature bust of Twain.
“Did you all make Bill give his back?” he asked, referring to alleged efforts by some to have Cosby return his trophy. “You know you f—ed up when they want you to give your trophies back.”
Lapsing into a deft Cosby impersonation, he loudly decried such efforts prompted by certain allegations about his character. It brought down the house.
“I would like to talk to some of the people who feel like I should give back some of my f—ing trophies,” Murphy said in his best Cosby voice.
“You may have heard recently that I allegedly put the pill in the people’s stomach,” Murphy said while impersonating Cosby. “Who is Hannibal Buress? First of all, Hannibal is a caveman’s name. … If I ever see or meet this Hannibal Buress in person I am going to try to kill this man!”
Fellow comedian Buress put the Cosby allegations back in the spotlight during a stand-up set in 2014.
After accepting the award, from Kennedy Center chairman David Rubinstein, Murphy said he was honored to stand alongside past recipients such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Carl Reiner and Lily Tomlin. Yet he regretted that there is no money attached to the honor. “I call it the Twain sur-prize,” he said.
Murphy’s versatility in standup, sketch and film genres drew hearty praise mixed with light-hearted barbs from former “Saturday Night Live” chums and others. The event will air Nov. 23 on PBS stations.
Participants included comedian Tracy Morgan, who followed his previous evening’s “SNL” hosting duties by branding Murphy as his “comedic hero.” “It’s obvious why the producers wanted me on this show — I have a huge following on PBS,” quipped Morgan.
Sounding a serious note, Morgan revealed that he received a phone call from Murphy the night he came out of his coma, and that Murphy made him laugh. “I love you,” he said to his idol seated in a box above the center’s Concert Hall.
Following the traditional format, the show included a variety of the honoree’s vintage TV and film clips. They included the 1988 film “Coming to America,” presented by the film’s co-star Arsenio Hall, who reminisced about how the two comics pitched the film to dubious execs at Paramount, revising their plan after an initial rejection.
Other clips included the 19-year-old Murphy’s first appearance on “The Tonight Show”; “SNL” bits as Buckwheat and the kidvid spoof “Mr. Robinson”; films “Shrek” and “The Nutty Professor”; and, of course, a raunchy standup performance in Murphy’s famous red suit.
“The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah spoke about his arrival to the U.S. from his native South Africa. He said watching Murphy’s genius opened his eyes to his own potential in comedy in the U.S. “I am part of your legacy, Eddie,” he said.
Former “SNL” cast members Kevin Nealon, Joe Piscopo and Jay Pharaoh also joined the kudo clip parade. Nealon riffed on the center’s insistence that the Twain honor be called a prize, not an award. “An award is something you earn. A prize is something you win. I sure hope Eddie wins tonight,” he said.
Comedian Chris Rock called Murphy an inspiration, but confessed that after praising him last year for an “SNL” anniversary, he has grown tired of the obligation. “The next time I get on a plane to honor him, there had better be a coffin in the room,” he said.
Others on hand included Dave Chappelle, Kathy Griffin, George Lopez and singer Sam Moore.