Sunday, February 2, 2020

Broadway Danny Gumby and the Yiddish Side of Eddie Murphy

I was at brunch today with my friend Ari and he mentioned an old Saturday Night Live sketch I had never seen. It's a What If scenario: what if a Jewish family like the Franks had been hidden in an attic in Amsterdam, but the people hiding them had never remembered to let them out. My jaw dropped as Ari described the premise, that the family was so annoying it wasn't worth it to the Dutch family living downstairs to free them. Yikes.

I was also intrigued when he mentioned that Eddie Murphy played one of the members of the Jewish family. I assumed he did it in white face makeup, similar to what he used for Coming to America, but no, it's just him, doing his thick as shmalts 'Yiddish' accent with a black satin yarmulke perched on his giant wig.  

When I went to find the clip on YouTube, though, I stumbled on something else. It's Eddie Murphy returning to Saturday Night Live in 1982, to promote his new movie, 48 Hours.

In the opening monologue, he tells the story of buying a house on Long Island. It's haunted by the ghost of the Jewish man who died there. The ghost turns out to have a special enmity for Eddie, and uses a Yiddish word to insult him which I won't spell out here.

Like a lot of words from that era, this particular word is now unacceptable, but back then, its use was utterly unremarkable. In my experience, the adults who used it did so, to be totally honest, in the same way they used the Yiddish words for 'gentile.'  Not so much as a pejorative, but to underline our own separateness from everyone else. Which is not to claim it wasn't used in a more overtly racist way, but only that that wasn't my experience.

I grew up on Long Island, and, to understand Long Island, you have to understand that it's one of the most segregated places in the country. Eddie Murphy grew up partly in Roosevelt, one of the few heavily African-American towns on Long Island. It wasn't always that way, of course. In the 1950s, rather than allow African-Americans into the neighborhood, almost all of the white residents sold their houses and took off, aka 'white flight.'

If you're a real Long Islander, you know that, aside from Eddie Murphy, the most notable product of Roosevelt* is Howard Stern. Stern claims his white, liberal, Jewish parents refused to leave the neighborhood out of a sense of principle

In this light, you can read Murphy's joke about the ghost of the Jewish man in his new house as a comment about the despicable history of racial restrictions and housing covenants, legal devices meant to enforce segregation in housing. Eddie Murphy may have become a millionaire who could afford to buy a house in the fanciest, whitest part of Long Island, but you better believe that there will always be someone to remind him that as an African American man, he doesn't belong there. The ghosts of Jim Crow are always there, even in supposedly enlightened New York. It's also a reminder to white, American Jews that, very often, they were more than innocent bystanders in the story of American segregation.




Two years later, Eddie Murphy returned to Saturday Night Live and performed in 'The Family in the Attic.' The problem with 'The Family in the Attic' is that it's not just offensive, it's unfunny, which frankly, is even more unforgivable. It's also weird to think that this aired only four years after the death of Otto Frank.




The one intriguing aspect of the skit is that Mary Gross plays what one supposes is the 'Anne Frank' character, now a grown up woman, and sex crazed from being hidden in the attic for decades. 

It's well known today that the standard edition of Anne's diary was censored and that all her references to sex and her own sexuality were removed by her father, Otto. Did they have an awareness of what had been removed from the diary when the sketch was written in 1984? Or was it just kind of obvious that someone cooped up in isolation for decades, whether man or woman, would be pretty desperate?

And then we come to Broadway Gumby Rose, SNL's takeoff on the then new Woody Allen movie, Broadway Danny Rose. I believe this is from the same night as 'The Family in the Attic.' A bunch of old 'Yiddish' showbiz types are bullshitting at a deli when in comes Broadway Gumby Rose. Eddie Murphy does his angry Gumby shtik, but with a Yiddish flavor.




It's mildly funny, I guess?

Eddie Murphy brought out his old Jewish guy shtik again in 1988, for Coming to America, this time with astonishingly realistic makeup by SFX king, Rick Baker.

According to this video, Baker based the makeup on his father in law, Nestor, who is not Jewish. You can even spot him in the background of a couple of shots.



There's really no earthly reason 'Saul' needs to be in Coming to America except to show off Eddie Murphy's virtuosity as a mimic. Inadvertently, 'Saul' foreshadow Murphy's later box office success in such vehicles as his Nutty Professor remake, where he disappeared into elaborate makeup once again.

Also, I'm sorry, yes, this joke may be a thousand years old, but it's still funny:


Anyway, I'm curious what you, dear readers, think about Eddie Murphy and Jewface. Is there anything more to it than a comic falling back on instantly recognizable, and tested, 'funny' voice?



*Bad on me for slighting Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. Apologies.

1 comment:

  1. Off topic (sorry) but I thought you might be interested to learn that Frank Press, the distinguished science advisor and former head of the National Academies of Science who just passed away, came from a Yiddish-speaking home, according to this Washington Post obit:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/frank-press-guiding-force-in-us-science-policy-for-years-dies-at-95/2020/01/31/f73768ae-442f-11ea-b503-2b077c436617_story.html

    Frank Press was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 4, 1924. His father, who worked in the wholesale grocery trade and later in auctioneering, and his mother, a homemaker, immigrated to the United States from Minsk and spoke Yiddish in their home.

    ReplyDelete