hustle

See What Sticks: Innovation Lessons from Eddie Murphy

innovation nm postAt nearly 29 years old, there aren't many things I can say I've been doing reliably for twenty years. But one of them is, "watch Saturday Night Live." Each Saturday around 11:25, my whole family gathered in the living room (sometimes playing Scrabble too, sometimes not), and we laughed together. The Marfos are a funny family, and memories like this always serve as a good reminder of that fact.

So I dove into Live From New York, the 2002 anthology of the show with the same fervor and excitement with which someone might explore their own family history. I expected to learn more about the interpersonal relationships between clast members, the frenetic pace and schedule of the writing, and the experiences of several hosts during their "tours of duty" in Studio 8H. But I also learned something exceptional about what hard work and team play can get you.

I've always had a difficult time balancing impulses to innovate and creating, with the need to be able to "fit" into a corporate, hierarchical structure. The more I foster the former side of my personality, the harder complying with the latter seems to be. But I've learned from several years of practice: you earn the ride to bend the rules when you spend time following and learning within them. SNL has had no greater beneficiary of this strategy than Eddie Murphy.

Brought on during Lorne Michaels' five-year absence as showrunner, Eddie Murphy proved a bright talent from the start, but struggled from underutilization (in large part because the showrunners in place had little experience with comedy). Though he was young (hardly twenty), he worked hard to get noticed and contributed strongly to the success of the fill cast. As we know, he went on to become one of the show's most successful alumni, with franchises such as Beverly Hills Cop, The Nutty Professor, and Shrek to his name, as well as a notable dramatic turn in Dreamgirls.

So what can we learn from Eddie Murphy's meteoric rise, even during what was considered a time of creative crisis for the show?

Work Hard. One of my current favorite motivational quotes is, "The dream is free. The hustle costs extra." It's not Shakespeare, but it gets the point across: wanting anything of significance requires hard work. Eddie Murphy wanted to be successful, and everyone on the show knew it. Talent coordinator Neil Levy noticed an interesting relic of Murphy's desire: bathroom graffiti saying "Eddie Murphy, No. 1." The more success he gained on the show, and eventually in movies, the bigger the words got. He erased, he wrote larger, he switched to pen. That belief in his talent extended to the full-time writers, who spent the most time with him:

All you had to do with eddie at that time was be a real good stenographer. Because you'd get him in the office and he'd have the character down, and he'd have the voice down and then if you had a good ear, you could figure it out and give him the stuff right back and he would just kick ass.

Lesson: dreams don't work unless you do. And even when he wasn't his very happiest, Murphy put in the time and energy to earn the camera time. Most would say it paid off!

Create Strong Alliances. Part of Eddie's rise to reliable utility player didn't come until he found the right writers to partner with. David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein. After a strong start transforming a random idea of Sheffield's into a sketch that, as he put it, "jumped off screen," they kept the relationship going-a relationship that spawned iconic characters like Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson.

But his dedication to creating strong characters didn't end with himself. Having spent time feeling underused on the show, he stood up in the writers room for castmates who were feeling the same way. Even as his starpower rose, cast members like Brad Hall remember him for his commitment to ensuring it wasn't all about him.

Lesson: who are the people around you that have the blend of talent and personality to elevate your work? Seek out these people, ally yourself, and create a product where you all can shine. Then, find the people who need you in a role to elevate their work, and do that too.

Then, Push. Once you've done the hard work to get established and learned the organization, and added value for those around you, then you can start to bend some established rules. Some organizations, the more attentive ones that will recognize this in you, may help you in that bending of the rules. In Murphy's final year as a cast member, he was being wooed away with major movie deals and film shoots. But as a strong producer and collaborator, NBC brass wanted to keep him. So he was offered an unprecedented deal to work on only half the season, filling in gaps with pre-recorded segments that would stretch his presence. Additionally, he remains the only cast member to serve as host in the same season that he was a cast member, taking over the role after a previously scheduled host backed out.

Lesson: once your value is proven, you can start to gently buck the norms that have been set for you in your role. as long as you can prove that value to the organization.

Another one of my favorite work-fueling quotes is, "Work hard and be nice to people." My desire to balance a challenging and creative work schedule, while appreciating the people that help me make it happen, strongly informs my definition of success. While Eddie Murphy's returns to SNL are infrequent, he truly does credit and appreciate the show's role in his stardom. And it was that combination of work, collaboration, and gratitude that helped him break free from the show's standard operating procedure- and could do the same for you!