“Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” his classic parody of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was the first of several venerable Murphy acts to come back for a victory lap.Will Heath / NBC

This may sound like a trite observation, but Saturday Night Live works best when you can tell it’s playing to a live audience. This week, with Eddie Murphy’s first appearance in 35 years on the show that launched the comedian to fame, it was easy to tell. The excitement in Studio 8H was palpable, and the crowd’s reaction to each laugh line crackled with joy. After starting with a cucumber-cool monologue, Murphy dialed his vigor right back up to his heyday as a sketch performer. SNL is often guilty of too much nostalgia, but last night’s episode was a special one, deserving as much retrospective joy as possible.

Hired at the age of 19, Murphy was an instant phenomenon during SNL’s rocky early ’80s seasons, after Lorne Michaels departed along with the program’s original stars. For four years, Murphy was a sensation on the show, even hosting once and notoriously proclaiming, “Live from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy show!” He left SNL in April 1984 and hosted once more the following December, but after that he never returned to host, with his public persona growing more prickly over the years. That history didn’t matter last night—Murphy barely missed a step, throwing himself into every sketch with unguarded delight.

Murphy’s only other appearance at Studio 8H since his official departure was for the show’s special 40th-anniversary celebration four years ago, where he delivered an awkward, rather serious monologue after declining to perform a sketch about Bill Cosby that had been written for him. It was a strange moment of introspection in an evening of goofy laughs. But it also suggested, perhaps unfairly, that his sketch days were behind him, that he could no longer harness the intense energy that had made him such a unique comedy star decades before.

Murphy fired off a couple of solid jokes last night (“I have 10 kids now—11 if you count Kevin Hart”), though he still projected the low-key serenity he had at SNL 40. But his mood was offset by the guest appearances of Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Tracy Morgan, who gathered with Murphy onstage to soak in the excitement of his return and to acknowledge his influence on their careers. “Right now you’re looking at half of Netflix’s budget, right here onstage,” Chappelle cracked.

The first sketch after the monologue assuaged any lingering doubts that Murphy wouldn’t be 100 percent committed to the material. “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” his classic parody of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was the first of several venerable Murphy acts to come back for a victory lap, and it’s clear how much fun Murphy and the writers had in finding new ways to fit his old favorites into the modern world. One could argue that almost all of Murphy’s recurring SNL favorites are somewhat out of date, but the show found cheeky and clever ways to acknowledge that each time.

So Mr. Robinson, who once sang stilted children’s songs about living in a bad neighborhood, stealing groceries, and dodging slumlords, now mocked the gentrification going on around him and antagonized his cloying yuppie neighbors. Buckwheat, the parody of a The Little Rascals character that became so notorious that Murphy eventually killed him off during his SNL run, returned from the dead as a participant in a very 2019 showcase for celebrity hangers-on, Fox’s The Masked Singer. Velvet Jones, a trashy self-help author whose sexual politics were out of date even in the ’80s, participated in the recurring sketch Black Jeopardy where the host (played by Kenan Thompson) had to keep reminding him that times had changed.

My favorite Murphy character was always Gumby, a surreal take on the beloved Claymation character that turned him into a cigar-chomping Hollywood lifer, a cynical and verbally abusive performer fond of yelling, “I’m Gumby, dammit!” Rather than being shoehorned into a sketch, Murphy’s Gumby dropped by the Weekend Update desk to berate the hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che about his lack of screen time, screaming, “The two of you together couldn’t Velcro my sneakers” and, in one particularly inspired moment, derisively calling Jost a “headshot.” Che and Jost’s excitement the whole time was noticeable, and their usual joke-telling had a little more pep. It was the clearest example of Murphy raising everyone’s game.

Maybe the best sketches of the night, though, were not walks down memory lane but just very typical parodies, the type SNL does all the time. One was a jokey baking show in which each participant had made some kind of malformed cake to be mocked by the judges; the other saw Murphy play a manic Christmas elf telling a TV reporter about a polar-bear attack. Both required Murphy to be part of the ensemble, read a bunch of silly lines, and essentially do the kind of work SNL asks of any of its guest hosts week in, week out. Yet still Murphy managed to find a real spin on his characters and demonstrate the live-wire charm that made him a star in the first place. It was a crucial element for a night that felt like a perfect reunion—SNL should just make sure the next one doesn’t take another 35 years to set up.

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