Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary Special

What do you get a television show that has been often subversive, usually chuckle-worthy, definitely iconic, sometimes just hit-and-miss, sometimes brilliant, yet somehow through thick and thin, through mediocrity and magnificence, has become a cultural and television?

Why, an often subversive, usually chuckle-worthy, definitely iconic, sometimes just hit-and-miss, sometimes brilliant, anniversary special, of course!

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Last night’s three and a half hour Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary special was a fitting tribute to the show; a slightly bloated mish-mosh of mediocrity and maddening brilliance. If it sounds like I’m hating on it, that’s only a partial reaction. If anything, the skitzy nature is keeping in lockstep with the varying degrees of quality of the show that has happened over the past four decade. (As for which is which, I leave that decision to you gentle reader: Everyone has their own favorite period and to say that particular period sucks is cause for rioting).

Anyway, here are my random thoughts about what we saw:

– First and foremost, for a show that has always proclaimed at the start “Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night,” it’s rather a shame that a lot of the bits for the night were pre-taped. I’m not talking about the vintage clips shown but the newer sketches for the night.

– While I thought it was rather odd to see them re-do the Ronco Blend-O-Matic sketch live, it was great to see Laraine Newman and Dan Aykroyd still have it, and how.

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– For all the hype built around it, Eddie Murphy’s return to SNL after his time in the 1980s, first appearance on the show since he hosted in 1984 was a let down of epic proportions. What should have been a historic and electric moment – the prodigal son of SNL finally coming home – just fizzled. Chris Rock’s introduction before Murphy’s appearance was a moving tribute to the comedian and a hell of a lot more compelling.

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– Jerry Seinfeld’s Q&A session with the audience (made up of former cast members, former guest hosts, and more) was hilarious, especially when Larry David came in. In my ideal world their Seinfeld co-hort, and former SNL alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus would have popped up at that moment and joined in.

– The Celebrity Jeopardy skit was surprisingly funny as it was stuffed to the gills with so many impersonations. Starting with Will Ferrell’s iconic take on Alex Trebek, the show was filled to the teeth with sharp work (especially Kate McKinnon’s take on Justin Bieber).

– The audition montage was surprising not for how young everyone looks (and hot! – and yes I am talking about Zach Galifianakis) but just how much talent the show has gone through.

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– While Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s History of SNL opening was cute, I was a bigger fan of the full on musical montage. Kicking off with Martin Short duetting with Maya Rudolph’s iconic Beyoncé (complete with wind machine which nearly blew Mr. Short off stage), it then led to a killer medley with Operaman (Adam Sandler), Marty and Bobbi Mohan Culp (Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer) Derek Stevens (Dana Carvey singing “Choppin’ Broccoli” !!!), DeAndre Cole (Kenan Thompson), King Tut (Steve Martin) and the Blues Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, filling in for his late brother John). This sketch was a celebration of the surprising amount of musical talent the show has had among the cast.

 – And while everyone in the sketch was on fire, first among equals though was the great Bill Murray. Accompanied by original SNL music director Paul Shaffer, Murray recreated his lounge singer persona Nick Ocean singing the love theme from Jaws. In that one bit, Murray’s hilariously nuanced performance reminded everyone why he is still one of the most beloved cast members of all time.

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– For my money there were two great moments in the show. The first is the one that everyone is talking about; the return of “Wayne’s World.” Seeing Mike Myers and Dana Carvey back as Wayne and Garth was a sweet touch of nostalgia. The fact that Myers and Carvey’s chemistry is still on point after all of these years lifted what could have been a sweet piece of late 80s / early 90s nostalgia into one of the funniest sketches of the night (and in the show’s history to be honest).

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– That said, I cheered after the “Weekend Update” sketch. The Weekend Update has always been the pinnacle of the show, and thankfully for this anniversary special it was everything I could have hoped for. With all due deference to Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller, Norm McDonald, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, et al., the fact of seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the chairs made me smile. Even better, in the third anchor seat was none other than the great Jane Curtin (who paved the way for Ms. Fey and Ms. Poehler and had the best line of the night; in referring to Fox News, she said “I used to be the only pretty blonde reading the fake news. Now there’s a whole network for that.”). Seeing the three of them together was amazing and I would pay good money for them to have a news / comedy show together (paging The Daily Show). Even the reprised bits from the other “reporters” were on point. Bill Hader returned as Stefan, Melissa McCarthy loving channeled Chris Farley’s motivational speaker Matt Farley, and Emma Stone surprised the hell out of everyone with an on-point recreation of the late, great Gilda Radner’s iconic Roseanne Roseannadanna. (even Ms. Curtin, who was there with Ms. Radner on that news desk back in the early seasons, was startled by the accuracy of Ms. Stone’s portrayal).

The 40th anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live is up now online at NBC.com and it’s worth checking out not only as a vital history of comedy in general (and television comedy in particular) over the past four decades, but as a messy yet brilliant tribute to a messy yet brilliant show.

PHOTO CREDIT: NBC

Originally Published on 16 February as part of “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile.

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