February 23rd, 2017 – When James A. Miller, co-author of Live From New York, was asked to describe Eddie Murphy’s role on SNL he used four words: he saved the franchise. As a cast member from 1980-1984, Murphy joined the show during a time when it was full of new actors, writers and was without creator Lorne Michaels.
SNL was diving into topics during the early 80s that were often shied away from on broadcast television, and Murphy became the consistent anchor for groundbreaking sketches. He also had to fight his way into that position after being told that executive producer Jean Doumanian only wanted one black cast member and she already had “the black guy.” Robert Townsend, the original member, hadn’t signed his contract and was replaced by Murphy after talent coordinator Neil Levy allowed him to audition.
After leaving the show earlier in 1984, Murphy returned to host SNL in December and starred in a mockumentary-styled sketch called “White Like Me.”
Murphy opens up the satirical sketch by sharing that some people say there are two Americas: one black and one white. So he decides to go undercover as a white man to find out what that experience is like.
“I hired the best make-up people in the business. If I was gonna pass as a white man, everything had to be perfect,” Murphy explains in his voiceover.
He studies for the role by watching Dynasty, reading hallmark cards and learning how to keep his butt real tight when he walks.
Once the sketch finds a now white face Eddie Murphy navigating New York, he realizes that white people give each other things for free and have impromptu parties when the lone black person exits the city bus.
He even discovers that a white loan officer will step in at a bank when a black loan officer was going to deny him money.
White Loan Officer: Uh, Harry, why don’t you, uh, take your break now? I’ll take care of.. uh.. Mr. White. Loan Officer: Well.. okay. Thanks, Bob. [ exits ] White Loan Officer: [ laughs, then sits ] That was a close one, wasn’t it? Eddie Murphy: It certainly was. White Loan Officer: We don’t have to bother with these formalities, do we, Mr. White? Huh? Eddie Murphy: What a silly Negro! White Loan Officer: Just take what you want, Mr. White. Pay us back anytime. Or don’t. We don’t care.
“White Like Me” is often listed in articles referencing Murphy’s best work on SNL, and writers in recent years have used it as an example of white privilege today. Shaun King of New York Daily Newssaid “In 2015, white privilege actually looks a lot like the fake SNL world — only worse.”
But others have argued that the use of white face exhibits the same type of racism that black face does. Nick Cannon was slammed in 2014 for using it in a character sketch on Instagram years after the Wayan brothers used it in White Chicks.
How do you think “White Like Me” would be received if it aired this year on Saturday Night Live? Is satire like this needed to have a more nuanced conversation about race or does changing your skin color for a sketch always cross a line? Watch the video and share your thoughts.