Norm Macdonald recalls the week of making SNL40 happen, and the Eddie Murphy performance that almost happened

Norm Macdonald is as straight a shooter of one-liners and longer punchline-laden jokes as there has ever been in stand-up comedy.

It made his tenure as Weekend Update anchor stand out so much he was the only one fired from his Saturday Night Live gig midseason. It has made his stand-up specials memorably meta; his appearances on Comedy Central even more epically so. And when he decides to go on Twitter, whether it’s to call the action of a PGA golf tournament or recall the play-by-play of his own comedy career, he, still, holds nothing back.

Tonight Macdonald managed to pull off a Grand Slam, with his own very insidery take on the week that went into making and then the actual live broadcast of SNL’s 40th anniversary special on Sunday night. SNL40 reached 24 million viewers over the course of three-and-a-half-hours; Macdonald just sent his own sublime perspective of this historic tribute to his 489K followers over the past two-and-a-half-hours.

Here it was, in Norm Macdonald’s own words, in the order you’re intended to read them.

“It was some week.

I got in early, on Monday, so I could write. It was a massive undertaking, a 3 hour show. People were exhausted.

I worked with Lori Jo Hoekstra and Steve Higgins,who was always in a suit, because he had to go be Jimmy’s sidekick, every day, round 5.

I saw Lorne, thanked him, congratulated him, and shook his hand as Canadians do. He accepted. Got that out of the way early.

Mood was too relaxed. I was confused as to who exactly was to be in charge of this thing.

It was to be Lorne Michaels.

Of course it was. It had to be Lorne.

They wanted Celebrity Jeopardy.

Higgins had two funny categories already figgered.

Higgins and I co-wrote the first one years ago and I waited for Martin Short to host so I could ask permission to steal.

He said that Eugene Levy had written the original. We received permission and beside Darrell and I, the talented Mr. Short played Jerry Lewis.

It was always difficult to fit in that final celebrity.

We never wanted a celebrity to be dumb, although many, even within the show, thought that was the idea.

The idea was for Connery to be abusive and Burt to be dismissive.

Sometimes people ask me who the funnier character is, Connery or Burt.

The funniest character in Celebrity Jeopardy, by far, is Alex Trebek as played by Will.

Nothing but Rich Little nonsense.

It was always the third podium that was hard to find a man to stand behind.

It would inevitably only be an impression, nothing but an empty showcase.

The best to do it was Hanks, playing dumb Hanks. Hanks always got it. And Alec too.

So we hunkered down to write it. 40th anniversary and all. Had to be the best one. Tough job. Very tough.

This was bad news.

Celebrity Jeopardy was never about impressions.

In real life, Connery is the opposite of Darryl’s take. Connery was the perfect gentleman, Burt was the funniest guy in the room.

Celebrity Jeopardy was about hope.

It was about the hope of one man, Alex Trebek, the hope that never died. The audacious hope that never let the facts of the past interfere.

It was a rhythm piece, as each disaster was signaled by the sound of a buzzer, and each new category signified more, new, hope.

And the 3rd contestant was the tough one. The third attitude always just out of reach of Higgins and me.

And now we were being told we would have to do a dozen impressions. The rhythm would be gone.

It was what it was, though, and what it was to be. How could it be saved from becoming an episode of copycats?

And then Higgins had an idea.

An idea that would blow the show wide open.

Among many other things, this show was to be the return of Eddie Murphy.

Eddie, the man who, in Lorne’s absence, kept the show alive. Singlehandedly.

To every comedian who ever performed on SNL, what Eddie accomplished was unthinkable.

Every Saturday Night at 11:30 Eddie Murphy, a kid, would fill 90 minutes with comedy.


So Eddie never came back.

Until last week.

Higgins had the idea. A video daily double.

The category would be potent potables, a common one on Jeopardy, but one we somehow had never done.

And the idea was that it would be a bar set. And the idea was that Cosby would be mixing a drink in a video that was taped 6 months ago.

It was perfect. It was all Steve Higgins idea.

At the end of the sketch, Darrell would choose potent potables. Homebase would be dressed as a bar.

The iconic doors would open and on to home base would step Eddie Murphy. The audience would know what to do.

Why is Eddie wearing a multi-colored sweater? He steps behind the bar, begins mixing a drink. The audience covers the fact he has not spoken.

When he speaks, he is Cosby. Eddie Murphy doing a perfect Cosby impression. The audience does not let him finish. The sketch ends.

The show, for all intents, ends.

All the impressions are forgiven.

The first thing to do is cut down the number of contestant/impressions and the second is to contact Eddie and to convince him to do it.

So, the talks were underway. “Brett says Eddie doesn’t feel comfortable,” “Eddie says ‘maybe it’s ok since he’s doing pre-allegation Cosby”

And on and on it went. I had not spoken to Eddie or @BrettRatner. I was dead sure Eddie would do it. Most others were not.

Still, there was so much work to do.

Mike and Dana showed up. They were going to do Wayne’s World. I joined the writer’s room, which Mike helmed, and tried to help.

This is why he has created a half-dozen perfect comedies. Work ethic, remarkable taste, and never taking no for an answer.

Higgins would stick his head in the room from time to time, tell me another celeb had been cut and make me happy. I kept trying to help Mike.

I didn’t get a single joke into Wayne’s World. It was a great sketch, and he did a top ten list, best things about SNL.

When, on air, he announced, “number 1, the crew,” the studio audience, unprompted gave a standing ovation. I’d never seen this in 8H.

The magazine had listed all 141 cast members and ranked them, best to worst.

“Guess where you ranked,” he laughed and I knew from the laugh it was low. “As long as I beat….”and I mentioned a girl who lasted 4 episodes

The joke was that I really hoped I would beat a girl who nobody had ever heard of. The bigger joke is that I hadn’t.

My mind searched for an even more obscure cast member.

I remembered the first year SNL hired an older man because they didn’t think all kids could play characters of age.

“As long as I beat George Coe,” I said, making a fine joke. Again the truth was a finer joke. Coe had easily outranked me.” And on it went.

I should say that it was not the magazine that ranked us, but a single writer. I looked him up and found a book he had written.

He doesn’t deserve to be named and his book was sentimental nonsense meant to look like something Dave Eggers would write.

But, in all fairness, it was not the magazine who did the ranking. At least I think. Anyway, it made for a very funny running joke.

The idea of jokes approved by a writer the caliber of Jim Downey being called lame by some sappy “writer” was a great joke.

Downey was in charge of the political pieces, the best of which he had written, and nobody knew what was going on with Update.

At least that’s what I was told the dozen or so times I was asked.

Who was in charge of Update, I asked and eyes would get shifty. Was it the guy that wrote the Rolling Stone thing?

Still, had to write Jeopardy. Higgins, Lori Jo, and I would stay late into the night, then go to P.J. Clarke’s and end the nights at 3.

It was like the old days.

The old days.

We worked straight through, me with my Winnipeg Jets jersey, Lori Jo in a beautiful dress, Higgins in his Tonight Show suit.

Downey had remembered a thing Bill Murray used to do around the office, the theme from Jaws, and thought that would be perfect.

But there was a problem. Bill Murray was in Carmel for the Pro-Am, which he had won a couple of years back with DA Points.

With Bill Murray, golf always comes first.

And chaos seemed ready to sink it all. So I went to Lorne.

And Lorne was in his office, which overlooks 8H, which overlooks 40 years of memories. And he was looking out the window, down on to the floor.

And I was very nervous and he was perfectly calm. “Perhaps it would help if you called Eddie,” and that was that.

My son got in on Saturday and wandered as the stars became bigger and bigger around him.

I’m talking to Lori Jo and Higgins and Fred and my son and suddenly Paul McCartney is there.

And he is in the circle of us and Lori Jo talks of being a vegan and he says his daughter works for Gucci and is a designer, but no leather.

My son and I look at each other. Very cool.

And the 4 of us follow McCartney in to 8H and he sits behind the piano and does 6 songs.

I take a video on my phone of Fred Wolf, striking a Dylan pose, with McCartney in the background at the piano, singing.

I get all filmmaker and go over Fred’s shoulder and get real close to Paul and when he finishes he is looking directly in to my camera.

Then, as he finishes one and goes in to another I feel a hand on my back. The hand of security. Solid hand.

There is Sarah Palin, gorgeous, and you can understand the charisma. She is irresistible.

Too many superstars to take in all at one time. So happy my son could see them all.

And then comes Eddie.

I’m standing with my son, Lori Jo, and Chris Rock. We see Eddie from 100 yards away.

Rock says, “There he is, like Ali in Zaire.” Eddie, Bomaye.

It’s my job to talk him into doing Jeopardy.

We talk in his dressing room for an hour. When it’s over, I’m convinced he’ll do it.

He doesn’t.

He knew the laughs would bring the house down. Eddie Murphy knows what will work on SNL better than any one.

Eddie Murphy, I realize, is not like the rest of us. Eddie does not need the laughs.

Eddie Murphy is the coolest, a rockstar even in a room with actual rockstars.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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