Comics Laud Eddie Murphy Ahead of Mark Twain Prize: “He’s the Muhammad Ali of Comedy”

Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Joe Piscopo and others on the comedian’s influence and genius as he receives the prestigious humor prize at the Kennedy Center.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Joe Piscopo recalls the first appearance of a teen named Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live because he was sitting next to him. It was Dec. 6, 1980, and the two were about to launch into a “Sports Guy” bit about whether too many white men were playing in the NBA. Soon, Piscopo and all of America would squirm at Murphy’s visceral comic presence. But in the moment, right before cameras went live, Piscopo tells THR that Murphy, then 19, was whispering to himself, “The kids at Roosevelt High are never going to believe this.”

Piscopo also recalled the very first time he met Murphy. It was just a few months earlier on the 17th floor at Rockefeller Center where SNL had its offices. “We were all New York City comics but Eddie was from Long Island, which might as well have been Idaho the way the geography worked back then,” remembers Piscopo. He had just joined the cast, and Murphy had come in to audition. “Right after I met him we read the Richard Pryor-Chevy Chase word-association sketch [the famous one in which the pair traded racial insults] cold and he nailed it as much as Pryor did.”

Now, 35 years later, the enduring comic genius of Murphy, 54, will be celebrated Oct. 18, when the Kennedy Center presents him with its Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. An A-list roster — including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Whitney Cummings and longtime friend Arsenio Hall — will fete Murphy’s groundbreaking talent and perform during the two-hour show, which will air Nov. 23 on PBS.

With the event looming, participating comedians already are dishing praise with a wink. “Eddie became every character he impersonated. He found every nuance, every movement. He’s musical and comedic — he’s a genius!” says George Lopez. “Now you can have jacked-up hair and run for president!”

Murphy does raunch on the 1983 HBO special ‘Delirious.’

Fellow SNL castmember Kevin Nealon jokes that Murphy made comedy “sexy,” giving props to his James Brown impression “because it showcased many of his talents — singing, dancing and comedy” — in one sketch. Hall cites 1988’s Coming to America (in which he co-starred) as his favorite Murphy movie, but he ranks 1999’s Bowfinger a close second, noting that the late Roger Ebert said Murphy deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Kathy Griffin says she has “personally been inspired by” Murphy. Her favorite Murphy routine is from his 1987 stand-up film Raw, where he recounts a conversation he had with Pryor about his material being too blue. “Eddie Murphy doing Richard Pryor says, ‘”Whatever the f— makes the people laugh, say that shit. Do the people laugh when you say what you say?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you get paid?” I said, “Yes.”‘

Rock has called Murphy “the funniest guy I’ve seen in my life,” and credits him for convincing Lucien Hold, the late manager of New York’s Comedy Strip, to give Rock a shot on stage. (In a 2014 interview with THR, Rock said he feels responsible for mentoring young African-American comedians because “people took chances on me. Eddie Murphy did not have to put me in Beverly Hills Cop II.”)

“Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” debuted on ‘SNL‘ in 1981.

Watching Murphy on SNL “made me want to do comedy,” says Tracy Morgan, who will make only his second major public appearance to honor Murphy (following a surprise turn at the Emmys on Sept. 20) since a June 2014 car crash left him severely injured. Says Morgan, “He’s the Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali of comedy.”

Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers and a Kennedy Center board member, says Morgan’s appearance likely will be the emotional highlight of an event that has become a key stop on the Washington social circuit. He admits that wasn’t true in 1998, when the first award went to Murphy’s longtime idol Richard Pryor. (Other past honorees include Jay Leno, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels.) “In the first few years, we had dif­ficulty trying to get it off the ground,” says McGarr. “But now we attract everyone from Supreme Court justices to senators and congressmen.”

The nomination process begins with McGarr and the other three exec producers canvassing the comedy community to compile a short list before running a sel­ection past the Kennedy Center’s professional leadership. (And of course the Kennedy Center is not without Hollywood ties. In addition to Washington figures like Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the board  includes such Hollywood heavyweights as HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd and Shonda Rhimes.) The producers then huddle with the nominee to choose career highlights on which to focus. Not surprisingly, the show’s vibe depends on the honoree. “We honored Carol Burnett a couple of years ago, the first woman who had a variety show and a tremendous influence,” says McGarr. “But believe me, Eddie Murphy’s show is going to be a little different than Burnett’s show.”