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Eddie Murphy Accepts Mark Twain Prize With Unexpected Bill Cosby Jokes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Eddie Murphy - he's one of the most successful comedians of all time. A former cast member of "Saturday Night Live," he spent the bulk of his career making movies - blockbuster comedies like "Coming To America" and "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Shrek" and their sequels. But many of his fans have missed the work that made him a start - standup comedy.

Well, last night, Murphy was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center, and he surprised the crowd with a few jokes, a mini set with an unexpected target for punchlines - Bill Cosby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE MURPHY: No 'cause I know there was a big outcry from people. They was trying to get Bill to give his trophies back. You known you [expletive] up when they want you to give your trophies back.

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: He should do one show where he just come out and just talk crazy now.

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: I would like to talk to some of the people who feel (laughter) that I should give back my [expletive] trophies.

CORNISH: Here to talk more about Murphy is Geoff Edgers. He's national arts reporter for The Washington Post. He's profiled the actor. Welcome to the program.

GEOFF EDGERS: Hi there. Thanks for having me here.

CORNISH: So you were there last night. What other jokes did Eddie Murphy make?

EDGERS: Well, he spoke, in total, for only seven minutes, and some of that was just the, thank you very much; this is quite an honor. And then he started revving up a little. And I wouldn't even say they were really jokes. He was talking about the prize - the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor - and how he was a little bit surprised to find there was no money coming with it and said, you know, they should call it the Mark Twain Surprise, as in, surprise - you're getting no money.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

EDGERS: That started it. But I got to tell you. When he got into Cosby, you know, the guy next to me was like, oh, my. I mean, people were shocked and then just delighted.

CORNISH: And of course, we're saying shocked. Lots of people actually have been making jokes about Bill Cosby the last couple of months. But Eddie Murphy is notable because on "Saturday Night Live," doing the big anniversary episode of the show, he didn't perform. He bypassed a request to do jokes about Bill Cosby. So what happened last night?

EDGERS: Well, I don't know exactly what changed this. But I talked to Arsenio Hall, his good buddy, 'cause Arsenio has been begging Eddie to go on for years and do some standup. And then on Saturday, in a hotel room, Eddie tried this material out on Chris Rock and Arsenio. And they said, this is funny; you sure you want to do this? And we got the answer.

CORNISH: So you actually talked to Eddie Murphy in advance of this event. And did you get any sense from him that he might want to ever return to standup comedy?

EDGERS: Well, I talked to him. I went to his house about a month ago, and I spent more than three hours with him. I kept nudging him. When're you going to do this? When're you going to go up there? And he didn't say, I'm not going to. In fact, he said, I think I will someday. But every time I said when and what are you going to do, exactly, he kind of, like, hemmed and hawed and just kind of went back on it and said, I'm not exactly sure. He had talked about just going to a club secretly and going up as his brother, Charlie Murphy, who's a standup comic who's on the circuit, and pretending to be Charlie until people realize what was going on.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

EDGERS: But in reality, he has not gone up there and told a joke in 28 years, since I was in high school. And I'm a 44-year-old man now.

CORNISH: This is the highest award for American comedy. What do you think Eddie Murphy's influence has been?

EDGERS: Well, I mean, we saw the influence last night on that stage. We saw Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Jay Pharoah. These guys all said, to a T, we wouldn't be here - Dave Chapelle - we would not be here if it hadn't been for you. You know, when Eddie went on to "Saturday Night Live" in 1980, there was, you know, Richard Pryor - African-American comedian in the movies. But otherwise, this was before "The Cosby Show" This was before Oprah. This was a different universe, and Eddie didn't just go on that show and perform well. He saved that show. He changed that show. And I think he changed American entertainment.

CORNISH: That's Geoff Edgers with The Washington Post talking about Eddie Murphy's acceptance of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last night. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

EDGERS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.