37 Years Ago: ‘SNL’ Kills Buckwheat and Skewers the News Media
On March 12, 1983, Saturday Night Live made the surprising decision to kill off one of its most popular characters, Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat.
This grown-up version of the Our Gang character made his debut in 1981. During the Season Seven episode, Buckwheat, with his noticeable speech impediment, performed several classic songs for a compilation album. Murphy’s delivery of tunes like the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady" -- here titled "Fee Tines a Mady" -- had viewers rolling with laughter.
"I have a very specific memory of typing the first Buckwheat sketch and almost falling off my chair because it was so funny," production assistant Robin Shlien recalled in the book Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. "Having been at the show and knowing what it took to have a great character and get a big response, I remember thinking, 'They nailed it. This is going to be huge.'"
Shlien’s hunch was correct, as Buckwheat quickly became the most popular character on SNL. Public demand brought the frizzy-haired character back on multiple occasions, as the show’s writers searched for new ways to place Buckwheat in sketches.
Eventually, his popularity became too much for Murphy to deal with. The comedian, leery of being seen as a one-trick pony, was determined to leave Buckwheat behind.
In January 1983, Murphy approached SNL producer Dick Ebersol and expressed his frustration. "I want to kill Buckwheat. I can't stand it anymore,” Ebersol recalled the comedian saying. “Everywhere I go people say, 'Do Buckwheat, do this, do that.' I want to kill him."
Understanding the situation, and not wanting to upset his show’s breakout star, Ebersol agreed to kill Buckwheat.
Watch Buckwheat Sell Some Jeans
SNL’s March 12, 1983, episode seemed innocuous enough. Actor Bruce Dern served as the show’s host, with singer Leon Redbone as the musical guest. When Buckwheat was featured in a jeans commercial spoofing designer Calvin Klein's campaign, it appeared to be yet another appearance by the popular character.
However, moments later the program was "interrupted" by a special report from Ted Koppel (played by Joe Piscopo), who announced that Buckwheat had been shot upon leaving 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
The news report featured amateur-style video of Buckwheat greeting fans outside the building, only to be gunned down by an unseen member of the crowd.
Watch Buckwheat 'Buy the Farm' on SNL
"We staged it downstairs at Rockefeller Center," SNL writer David Sheffield recalled. "We shot it two ways on tape. We actually brought in a guy from special effects to place squibs on Eddie's body so that we had blood gushing from each shot. But just as an afterthought we said, 'Let's shoot one without the blood, for safety's sake.' And that's the one we used. And it was lucky we had it, because the blood just looked too real to be funny."
SNL writers used Buckwheat’s assassination as an opportunity to lambaste the media’s sensationalist coverage of news events (a trend that's only heightened in the decades since). Piscopo’s Koppel is seen milking every emotional drop out of the Buckwheat story, endlessly re-showing the shooting footage and pressuring hysterical loved ones to comment on the events. The coverage even had a corporate sponsor, the fake Texxon Corporation, whose slogan "Life goes on, and Texxon is there" gets changed mid-show to "Because Buckwheat would have wanted it that way."
Saturday Night Live’s parody of over-dramatized -- and oftentimes tasteless -- media coverage managed to be both funny and poignant.
In the shadow of such real-life tragic events as the assassination of John Lennon (in 1980), as well as attempts on the lives of President Ronald Reagan (1981) and Pope John Paul II (1981), the SNL Buckwheat killing was a harsh reflection of modern society. Factor the advancements in television coverage at the time -- CNN, the world’s first 24-hour news network, had launched in 1980 -- and the sketch took on even deeper meaning.
"It was possibly the best piece of satire in the four or five years that I was there," Ebersol later opined.
Watch America Mourn Buckwheat's Death
Despite his death, Buckwheat would make several more SNL appearances. The character was seen the week following his assassination, when the late-night show continued the story arc with further “news coverage” of Buckwheat’s killing. In a Saturday Night News segment, celebrities and world leaders mourned the fallen star. Later that season, Buckwheat appeared as a ghost.
When Murphy, who left SNL in its ninth season, returned as host on Dec. 15, 1984, Buckwheat again made an appearance. In the sketch, the character revealed he had faked his death years earlier. Fellow Our Gang personality Alfalfa then proceeded to kill Buckwheat (again), an act of revenge stemming from a grudge the former child star had apparently been harboring for years.
Murphy stayed away from Saturday Night Live for 35 years, finally returning to the show as host on Dec. 21, 2019. The comedian brought back many of his classic characters that night, including Buckwheat, who appeared in a sketch spoofing the popular reality game show The Masked Singer.
Watch Buckwheat on 'The Masked Singer'