SNL Sketch Showdown: James Brown Hot Tub Party vs. Buckwheat Dead


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Welcome to the “Saturday Night Live” Sketch Showdown. Every weekday, an IFC writer will determine the winner of a matchup between two classic “SNL” sketches. You can check out the full bracket here.

Classic Eddie

“Saturday Night Live” has launched numerous actors into the mainstream, but none of them have flaunted the unholy trinity of cockiness, talent and popularity quite like Eddie Murphy did. Too many bad recent family comedies may have tarnished his reputation, but in the early ‘80s Murphy was a dangerous, wiry young guy whose big toothy grin barely hid his sometimes-antagonistic demeanor. At a time when racial inequality was still rampant, especially in regards to who we saw in movies and on television, Murphy came across on “SNL” as the embodiment of what undoubtedly some white viewers assumed African-Americans to be: intimidating, smooth-talking punks who were ready to upend the traditional power structure. Murphy’s genius was to both play into that impression but also to subvert it, delivering a funny, smart take on black life in America that melded Bill Cosby’s charm with Richard Pryor’s fearlessness. But beyond all that, he was just a hell of an entertainer — arguably the greatest pure showman of the program’s early years.

The Match Up

Where other “SNL” cast members were simply funny, Murphy was that and much more: a star. You don’t need to look any further than “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party” to see him in his element. The sketch’s concept isn’t much, Murphy playing James Brown and milking the singer’s Hardest Working Man In Show Business bluster — complete with call-and-response backing band. But at just over two minutes, “Celebrity Hot Tub Party” is bliss perfected, combining the pleasure of Brown’s ecstatic funk with Murphy’s gleeful impersonation and kinetic charisma. It’s not that the sketch is all that hilarious — it’s just that Murphy absolutely nails the essence of a pop culture icon and then adds his own little indelible twist on top of it. As much as we love Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” we’ve always been surprised that this song parody didn’t take off as well.

But if you want the barbed, satiric Murphy, you should check out “Buckwheat Dead: America Mourns” from early 1983. A few years earlier, Murphy had introduced his spoof of the marble-mouthed “Our Gang” character — “Hi, I’m Buh-weet, remember me?!” — who had grown into an adult that sang contemporary pop hits, mangling them hysterically in the process. But in “America Mourns,” the bit went darker, imagining Ted Koppel (Joe Piscopo) doing a special report on the man who shot the beloved entertainer, a loner named John David Stutts (also played by Murphy). A timely takeoff on the assassination attempts (some successful, some not) of John Lennon, President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, “America Mourns” is an incredibly biting attack on the way the media covers (and capitalizes on) horrible tragedies, turning psychopaths into celebrities and sensationalizing every tawdry element imaginable. (For extra sting, the segment is sponsored by Mutual Life, whose recurring ads keeps reminding us, “Because you could die tomorrow.”) These are laughs that keep getting stuck in your throat — as Stutts, Murphy plays the loopiest version of these lone gunmen, the humor cruelly undercut by the shock that such people actually exist in our world.

And The Winner Is…

These two are so evenly matched it goes into overtime. But, eventually, “Celebrity Hot Tub Party” squeaks out the win in a nail-biter. True, “America Mourns” is the sharper, more ambitious piece, but it’s also got some dull, dated spots. By comparison, Eddie Murphy strutting around and singing like James Brown will simply never get old. You can see “Celebrity Hot Tub Party” as one of the true precursors to Andy Samberg’s musical Digital Shorts, which equally owned the styles/genres they were aping. Too hot in the hot tub — and so much fun that even Murphy has to keep from cracking up a couple different times during the bit.

Did the right sketch win? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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