Ever since it was announced (way back in August) that Eddie Murphy would be hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in the 35 years, since he left the show to become a full-time movie star, I've been extremely excited to see what would happen. Would he bring back all his old characters? Would he cancel at the last minute? Would anyone who wasn't around to watch SNL in the early '80s care that Murphy was back? On that last point, it seems the answer is yes: SNL had its biggest ratings in two and a half years this weekend. Murphy's return to the show was a live television event, and he mostly knocked it out of the park.
Right from the start of the Monologue, Murphy reminded everyone why, as Chris Rock once said, he was the biggest star to emerge from Studio 8H: there are few comedians who are both universally charismatic and subtly confrontational at the same time, while still being able to come across like he's having the most fun of everyone on stage. He assembled an all-star group of comedians to begin, with Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle all appearing and getting some good lines in. The whole thing was topped off by a hilarious (and very brief) Beck Bennett cameo, followed by Kenan Thompson, SNL's longest castmember, joining the other four men as among the greatest living black comedians.
Murphy brought back four of his classic SNL characters—not all of them completely worked, but the best sketch was probably Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood 2019, the first one of the night. Gentrification has caused a lot of changes to the neighborhood since the last time we visited Mr. Robinson, not that it's getting him down too much. Murphy's impeccable comic timing is what sold this one to me—just the way he really milked walking to the door was hilarious.
My favorite old character was Gumby, who interrupted Weekend Update to complain about being forgotten and under-appreciated in his incredibly unique manner (as one person put it: "an old Jewish man wrapped in a kosher pickle"). Murphy had a fantastic time yelling at Michael Che and Colin Jost, getting off tons of killer lines at their expense: “You know why you sit behind a desk? Because your jokes don’t have legs, you schmucks!”
This wasn't just a Eddie Murphy reunion party—it was also a Christmas episode, and the best holiday-themed sketch of the week was Home For The Holidays, in which Murphy's father and his family reflect on spending the holidays together. In recent years, SNL has gotten really good at pre-taped segments like this (see: "Best Christmas Ever" from Matt Damon's episode last year) that mix sentimental holiday cheer with the soul-crushing reality of spending that much time in close quarters with family.
The 10-to-1 sketch, North Pole News Report, was one of the most fun of the night, propelled by Murphy's manic energy as an elf (named, what else, Kittle Diddles) who witnessed a horrific accident at Santa’s workshop involving a polar bear.
Holiday Baking Championship has become a reliably funny recurring sketch for SNL, and this week's version was elevated by Murphy's abomination, a Satanic cake that was supposed to look like Sonic the Hedgehog.
The other two returning Murphy characters didn't work quite as well for me, although Murphy was typically great and energetic in both sketches: Masked Singer was a quick and enjoyable way to incorporate one-note character Buckwheat and his mumbly lyrics ("Tinga Nadies" was particularly good). That one was fine enough, but Black Jeopardy: Velvet Jones was less so (despite the fact that the Black Jeopardy recurring sketch has been one of the best of the past couple years).
Besides Gumby, Weekend Update had two notable guests: Pete Davidson made one of his sporadic appearances on SNL in a very meta segment all about how little Davidson appears on SNL these days (while implying that he is planning to get mental health help). And Cecily Strong appeared as Jeanine Pirro, and she was, as ever, absolutely fantastic—even when she was coughing up blood all over Jost.
As I've mentioned in these reviews before, I'm not a huge fan of Jost and Che, but a few times every season they come up with something that makes me laugh out loud, and so it went with their annual Christmas Joke Swap 2019. Jost got Che with the herpes joke, but as ever, Che won the swap with the Babe Ruth joke and the cameraman one.
Oh yes, we almost forgot about the PBS Democratic Debate Cold Open. which featured Larry David as Bernie Sanders, Rachel Dratch as Amy Klobuchar, Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden (I think I like his version more than Woody Harrelson's at this point), Fred Armisen as Mike Bloomberg (sure, why not, Bloomberg is funnier than Tom Steyer), and Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris (because everyone understandably loves Rudolph, even though Harris is out of the race). No matter how much talent and how many good impressions you stuff onto a stage, these political cold opens remain pretty awful (though thankfully not as horrible as the Alec Baldwin Trump ones...though he did show up for the last bit of this sketch). The Tina Fey-Sarah Palin sketches were ever so slightly exaggerated recaps of Palin's greatest blunders, and they worked like gangbusters at the time; but that formulaic structure just hasn't worked at all during the Trump era. Instead of just regurgitating moments from the debate, I wish the sketch had leaned into the bits where it veered toward chaotic, cartoonish insanity.
There were TWO cut-for-time sketches this week: Holiday Gig, which gave Thompson the spotlight over Murphy (also, Kyle Mooney was there!), was like "What's Up With That" lite (that's not a bad thing). That was good, but Aidy Bizzo & Lizzo was great and should have made it into the episode.
Musical guest Lizzo (and her all female band) performed "Truth Hurts" and "Good As Hell."
That was the last SNL episode of 2019. Adam Driver will return to host for the third time on January 25th with musical guest Halsey.