[The above video has been edited from what aired live.]
When Eddie Murphy took the stage during the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special this past weekend, there was a moment when it appeared the scripted segment had ended and someone in the control room missed the cue to go to commercial. The live camera feed continued and Murphy ad-libbed until a photo came up, fading to an ad break. That is not what happened. Make no mistake: Eddie Murphy freaked out.
The question isn’t “What happened?” so much as “Why did it happen?” Murphy is scared to perform in front of people, essentially - and everyone around him has been trying to coax him into returning to the stage for years. In the original version, you can notice the moment he runs out of scripted material his confidence erodes; there's no pause as if an error is happening off-stage, but instead Murphy instantly tries to cover. So either a longtime SNL director was so caught up in the celebration that he failed to give the cue to cut to commercial, or Murphy became frightened during extra time on air he did - or did not - know he was going to have before stepping out on that stage. This isn’t the first time he’s been put in this position on television, even – only this time it was live.
Outside of all his many fans, the biggest proponent of Murphy’s comeback has been his longtime friend and Coming to America co-star Arsenio Hall, who has largely been leading the campaign to get Murphy to perform in front of a crowd again, and it’s been going on for years. In 2011, Murphy was briefly announced as host of a Brett Ratner-produced Academy Awards before departing shortly after Ratner resigned from the project. For all intents and purposes, this was his way back to becoming comfortable on stage again, but sadly it never happened.
In 2012, during Spike TV’s Eddie Murphy: One Night Celebration, an all-star celebration of his Murphy’s career, Hall stepped on the stage to introduce his portion of the evening, then surprised Murphy (see above) by changing the topic to performing on stage again, then getting the audience chanting. Hall jumped off stage and ran over to Murphy, who was forced to turn down the handheld mic while the audience, at this point, was cheering for what was going to happen next. Nothing happened next. Murphy wasn’t ready. Then in 2013, during the release of his reggae song “Red Light” with Snoop Lion, Murphy revealed his plan to return to stand-up to Rolling Stones:
“...[When] I go back to the stage, I want to be able to do everything. I want to be able to do music and comedy and all that stuff, that's what all this stuff is leading to. Like, we gonna drop this "Red Light" and I'll probably drop another single or two, and I'll probably start doing little kick-offs with my band, going around, put a band together, do little small basic shows. Get the band really hot. And then in a year or two, do music and comedy and have a show like nobody ever had before. Ultimately, that's what it hopefully all just leads to.”
Rolling Stones recently caught up with Murphy in January 2015 and spoke again about stand-up. This time Murphy had just released his second reggae song after receiving not-so-favorable reviews about his previous release:
"If I came back and did stand-up again, I can't just be like the other standup comics. To have a real hot band, play some tracks for about 40 minutes, the curtain drops and then you do an hour of jokes? That's a unique-ass show."
Years later Murphy is still hopeful about his return to stand-up, in much the same way as before. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he can’t be like other stand-ups; he’s going to have a real hot band, but not one that performs poorly-received reggae songs released years apart; and it’s going to be unique. Right now Murphy needs 40 minutes of “hot” music and 60 minutes of stand up in order to return to the stage, which seems far from obtainable, if we’re all being honest. Perhaps that’s the point.
Call it stage fright, or what have you, but at a certain point in a comedian’s career, when their schedule and profession takes them out and away from stand-up, they become less and less confident in what skills they once had. The problem with that is, if you don’t continue to perform stand-up, you essentially lose the ability to, which only makes it that much more difficult when you see other people performing, because you begin to forget that you were once able to and are intimidated by the crowd. Nobody likes to fail. The legend among comedians is that Steve Martin famously quit stand-up after seeing a seat empty in his otherwise sold out shows, and he was at the top of his game at the time.
So on Sunday, when Chris Rock lovingly introduced Murphy’s appearance - planned short or not - he mentioned how Murphy used to be great at ad-libbing and filling time on the show, if required, insinuating what should come next from the man in question. Ultimately, Eddie Murphy stepped out on stage and “freaked out” because he wasn’t ready to perform, even though others who still are live performers say he is. Maybe sometime before that moment he thought so to, and maybe the extra time was built-in to the in show, but Murphy changed his mind on the spot and tried to ad-lib his way out of it. Either way, the answer to Sunday’s “moment”: Eddie Murphy was scared to be in front of a live audience.
The real question, however: Is everyone - including Arsenio Hall, Charlie Murphy and Chris Rock - comfortable if Murphy never changes his mind?