When ‘Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood’ Premiered on ‘Saturday Night Live’
What happens when you take a beloved children's television program and add a heavy dose of the ghetto? You wind up with "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood," an urban reworking of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and one of the funniest recurring sketches of Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live tenure.
Murphy first broke out the character on the Feb. 21, 1981, episode, a few months into his first season on the show.
Each segment of "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" opened with a shot of a tenement with Murphy walking through the door of his run-down apartment and singing the opening lines of the Mr. Rogers theme song while changing from jacket into cardigan, shoes into sneakers.
Then Murphy took the song in a different direction, adding, "I always wanted to live in a house like yours, my friend / Maybe when no one's home, I'll break in!" and sometimes putting in a few more lines that detailed more nefarious behavior: "So come out with some folks and a smoke / You bring the stash, ’cause Robinson’s broke."
From there, Mr. Robinson addressed the boys and girls in the viewing audience, asking them to learn the Word of the Day, which in this case was "bitch" ("Did Mommy slap you? Then you said it right!"). Then came a knock on the door, with Robinson being visited by Mr. Speedy (Gilbert Gottfried), who delivered what he called a "chemistry set." Robinson warned that kids "should never play with chemicals unless you know what you’re doing, boys and girls. Can you say 'Richard Pryor?'"
It ended with Robinson describing the difficulties of getting a taxi in his part of town, before he destroyed a toy cab with a Coke bottle.
Murphy played Mr. Robinson eight more times during his SNL tenure, and again in December 1984, when he returned to host the show.
Even though Mr. Robinson's language and petty criminal behavior ran contrary to the kindness and gentle wisdom offered on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the real-life children's-television icon had no issues with Murphy's portrayal. In 1982, Fred Rogers was a guest on Late Night With David Letterman, which taped in the same building as Saturday Night Live, and someone suggested that he and David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, pop in for an unplanned visit.
"Fred knocked on Eddie's dressing room door," Newell recalled. "When Eddie opened it, he took a step back, surprised, then got a big smile on his face and said 'The real Mr. Rogers!' and hugged Fred."
Coincidentally, the episode where "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" premiered was notable for two other moments, both in the show's closing half-hour. First, Prince made the first of his SNL appearances, performing "Partyup." Then, an earlier sketch that parodied Dallas' "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger -- with SNL cast member Charles Rocket getting shot -- was attempted to be resolved when Rocket dropped an f-bomb on live TV. The incident not only hastened the departure of Rocket, but also producer Jean Doumanian, who was replaced with Dick Ebersol.