Eddie Murphy's First Joke In Nearly Three Decades Was About Bill Cosby

Eddie Murphy as Bill Cosby on Oct. 18, 2015.

Back in February, when Saturday Night Live held a rather self-congratulatory three-and-a-half-hour marathon of a 40th anniversary party for itself, one of the most hotly anticipated moments was former cast member Eddie Murphy's return to the stage.

Finally, after a sweet intro by Chris Rock, Murphy came out and...did absolutely nothing. Like an uncomfortable amount of nothing. This video cuts out before the truly awkward part, but what you're missing is just more dead air. Later, fellow former cast member and underrated genius Norm MacDonald explained that a plan for Murphy to resurrect his famous Bill Cosby impression for the "Celebrity Jeopardy" skit had been canned because Murphy felt uncomfortable "kicking a man when he [was] down."

Well, something apparently changed in the last eight months.

While accepting the Kennedy Center's prestigious Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Washington Oct. 18, Murphy not only performed stand-up for the first time since 1987, he came out swinging with a dig at the legendary older comedian (and now-notorious serial rapist).

"You know you f**ked up when they want you to give your trophies back," said Murphy of Cosby, who was honored with the same award back in 2009. At that time, it's worth noting, more than a dozen women had alleged sexual assault by Cosby over the course of the previous three decades -- though the media furor wouldn't reach a fever pitch until another comedian, Hannibal Buress, called Cosby out publicly during a stand-up set in October 2014. 

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Here's a clip of the awards ceremony that includes the Cosby impression (Murphy takes the stage around 2:20):

Those in attendance say his full set lasted about seven minutes; PBS has since issued a statement promising that the network will air Murphy's entire speech, unedited, when the ceremony is broadcast on Nov. 23.

So what made Murphy change his tune? This is an interesting about-face, because I don't exactly think of Eddie Murphy as a champion for feminism or anything. On the contrary: Throughout most of his early (and highly lauded, brilliant-in-many-other-ways) comedy, you'd be hard-pressed to find a five-minute clip that doesn't contain a truckload of casual sexism, misogyny or homophobia. And then there was that whole denying-he-was-the-father-of-his-child-with-Mel-B thing in the mid-aughts.

So: Is it the sheer number of women who've come forward in recent months that turned the tide for Murphy, or did sticking up for Cosby just become too unpopular of a position to take while trying to still maintain a popular public persona, a la Whoopi Goldberg?  I find it hard to imagine Eddie Murphy's sitting around thinking about his bankability in that way. The bit also comes days after Ebony magazine caused a stir with its November issue's cover, which features a shattered image of The Cosby Show's nuclear family -- depicting the revelations about Cosby's wildly different public and personal lives as indicative of something like the shattered American dream.

As Buress proved just a year ago, comedians have a very real platform for swaying opinion on a controversial or overlooked issue; it remains to be seen if and how Murphy (who's arguably still among the most beloved comics of the last half-century) will use it re: the Cosby situation going forward.

Either way, I guess we'll call it a victory that there is a wall a beloved figure can hit -- let's say "51 women repeatedly publicly describing horrible, traumatic things that happened to them for the sake of hopefully finally holding the extremely powerful perpetrator accountable in some small way" -- after which you lose respect from even those most likely to stand by your side. Here's hoping we won't ever get another chance to see this particular boundary tested at all.

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