Great Sketches #8: “White Like Me,” Saturday Night Live

Eddie Murphy has been open about how much he owes his career to Richard Pryor. He’s referenced it in his standup, he’s joked about it on talk shows, and fans of both comedians inevitably notice the similarities sooner or later. However, there’s a kind of impression that Eddie’s comedy, despite being self-proclaimed as “Raw“, was less political, less angry, less confessional, and more centered around celebrity impressions and observational humor, two types of comedy that often get sneered at.

He may have a legacy of homophobia and fat shaming in his routines to contend with, but we can’t deny the impact of Eddie Murphy on comedy and pop culture, and one of his most memorable moments comes from the one time he returned to Saturday Night Live to host it in 1984 after he left the cast a year earlier. It’s a sketch of seismic significance that seems divorced from SNL itself: no cast members from the time it was produced appear, and there’s a good chance you’ve seen it without knowing what show it first aired on. In tone, subject matter, and delivery, it feels like the ancestor to entire careers: the tone of Chappelle’s Show, Chris Rock, Hari Kondabolu and many others feel like they’ve sprung from this particular look at white privilege, one that’s almost chilling now.

Oh, in case you forgot, the sketch in question is called “White Like Me” (Pryor actually used this title himself when he appeared on SNL in it’s very first season, but that bit wasn’t nearly as developed as it is here so I think we can forgive the steal). It’s a parody of the famous 1961 book Black Like Me, in which a white journalist went undercover as a black man. Here, the tables are predictably turned, and you can guess what the joke will be long before it plays out. That means it’s largely up to Eddie to sell it, and that he does.

Having not seen this sketch in years, I was struck by the faux seriousness of the beginning. Eddie sets up the premise without smiling in an empty hallway before he heads into a makeup room to dramatic music. The first significant laugh from the audience doesn’t come until he tries on a mustache (over his actual mustache) and dismisses it as being “too Harry Reems-ish” before immersing himself in Dynasty and Hallmark Cards, and then we get the real first laugh, when Eddie rounds a corner in full white face, determined, alert, and, indeed, walking as if something were stuck up his butt.

Eddie’s odyssey begins in a small convenience store, where a white clerk informs him that he doesn’t need to pay for a newspaper and aggressively insists he just take it for free (“Slowly I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free”.). As I’ve already pointed out multiple times on this blog, absurdity played straight is a comedy gold mine, and Murphy reacts to this as if he’s made a major discovery.

His next encounter takes place on a bus, which transforms into a kind of speakeasy, as soon as the only other black person steps off, complete with a cocktail girl who sits on Eddie’s lap. The scene gets laughs but in 2018 there’s a palpable queasiness about it, with the strained smile on Murphy’s face playing as almost haunting. Throughout the sketch, he’s not indulging the kind of fast-talking we expect. Almost all of what he does in his white guise is simply react.

The bank scene completes the triptych, with Murphy going from merely being present for freebies and luxury to actually trying to take out a loan. The core of this sketch has centered around a classic “rule of three” structure and this one manages to twist things by introducing a black loan officer who can clearly tell that Murphy doesn’t qualify…only to be thwarted by an old white employee, who kicks him out and tells “Mr. White” he can have as much money as he wants. Once again, I’m convinced that there’s a twinge of wariness behind Murphy’s performance here, and in the way he fake-laughs while scooping up piles of cash. It’s probably stretching to call it quiet indignation but there’s a sense that he’s not going to forget this any time soon.

In fact, he tells us as much in the denouement, when he reveals that he’s sharing his stash of white makeup with his black friends (is that Eddie’s brother Charlie Murphy in the back?) and that the next “really super groovy white guy” or “great super keen white chick” you meet might be a person of color in disguise.  It’s a grand statement on the absurdity of race: why do we put so much important on something that can be easily changed with the right concealer? The fact that Eddie himself would go on to actually play a white man under layers of makeup (among many other characters) in a major movie makes this seem like a showcase for how chameleonic he could be as a taste of things to come.

Many of the zillions of jokes hacky jokes in the comedy world about how boring and uptight white people are carry with them the subtext of a culturally barren class trapped in their own stifling privilege. The oft-mimicked “white voice” that Murphy uses here is another steal from Pryor but it serves a good purpose, since he’s supposed to be a man awkwardly playing a role. The fact that this is a filmed piece and apes the style of a documentary also helps with the faux-seriousness of the whole thing, particularly when it comes to the stirring soundtrack at the end.

This feels like a sketch that will always be relevant in some way or another, whatever the current discussion about race happens to center around. Considering I literally had a professor show this to a class I was in during college, it almost feels as important as an actual documentary. Not bad for five and a half minutes.

(Bonus: you can hear the editor of this sketch talk about his experience working on it here).

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