Two “SNL” legends are essentially facing off against one another: Eddie Murphy and Will Farrell. Does “More Cowbell” exhibit more comedic perfection than “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party”? Some preliminaries: Murphy, of course, had a falling out over the years with the show as a result of David Spade’s brutal takedown of him on Weekend Update (“Look, a falling star”). Murphy, as a result, absented himself from reunions. Any friction between Murphy and the show essentially ended when, in 2011, the movie star came back to host the show to promote “Tower Heist.”
Bushwick-born Eddie Murphy, influenced by Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, goes up against Will Ferrell, master of the over-the-top impression (Janet Reno, James Lipton) and the sketch. Murphy is credited with providing fresh energy to the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time players in the 80s; Ferrell is credited for doing the same in the mid to late 90s. This is an epic match up; both skits are the stuff of legend.
Eddie Murphy sends up of James Brown’s ability to make anything, even something as mundane as relaxing in a hot tub, epic. Also: Murphy is making fun of the fact that as enormously entertaining as James Brown is, he is often — how does one put this precisely? — difficult to understand. The skit, essentially, is a vehicle for Murphy’s talents as an impersonator and singer. Ferrell is playing essentially a sweaty man-beast — furry beyond all measure, obsessed with his own disgusting percussions — all swagger and man-boobage. “More Cowbell,” now a term in the American lexicon, sends up VH1’s Behind the Music, more than ever, a significant pop-cultural artifact.
And the Winner is …
“Cowbell.” It could not have been otherwise. Will had me at the muffin top. Yes, Murphy’s gold mankini is spectacular, a shocking, tragic visual. But it is Will Ferrell’s arch, barely fitting split-pea soup colored top that arrests the viewer’s attention at the outset and that ultimately prevails. One of Ferrell’s strengths is the amount of emotional range — passive aggressive to, essentially, flat out aggro cowbell playing — that he brings to his performances. His way, way over-the-top act outshines even Christopher Walken, who is no stranger to over-the-top performances in his own career. Finally, the chemistry of all the players involved — Jimmy Fallon, Walken, Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz — adds to the allure of the skit. Ferrell was always a team player, and when he shined everybody in the skit shined — even Fallon, who, at about 3:42 into the skit, starts to crack up in one of his most legendary on air crack ups. Hot Tub is an excellent vehicle for Murphy; Cowbell is an excellent ensemble skit in which Will Ferrell shines. It is, in retrospect, hard to think of a more accurate metaphor for Will Ferrell than as a comedian who plays well with others but who beats to the tune of his own peculiar cowbell.