Saturday Night Live: “40th Anniversary Special”

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live: “40th Anniversary Special”

If you’re old enough to have seen a reunion concert by one of your favorite high school or college bands, then you know the feeling.

They look so old! Like maybe its good they broke up when they did, because they sure don’t look like rock stars anymore. (Did they ever?) They’re fat. Even the drummer. A bigger shirt can’t hide the fact that the sexy lead singer has settled into his “adult body” and day job haircut. But. When they play…after the first song jitters and grinding through some of the rust, it’s like we’re all back there: young and beautiful and happy.

Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary Special unapologetically returned to its good old days, bringing back dozens of veteran cast members and guest hosts to replay many of its greatest hits (“Bass-O-Matic,” “Celebrity Jeopardy,” “Wayne’s World”), having a few funny famous people cover hits for those who’ve left us (Melissa McCarthy’s “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” was one of the evening’s best moments), and even giving us some new bits (a digital short called “That’s When You Break,” Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s cold open, Martin Short and Maya Rudolph’s musical montage).

This was not just a self-congratulatory clip show. It was an honest to goodness live, in-studio episode of SNL—with a few small trips and gaffes to remind us that what we were watching was, in fact, happening now. But it was something else, too. SNL’s 40th Anniversary Special was a private reunion party shared with us, the television audience. There was a palpable sense throughout the broadcast that the show had been primarily written for the people who would be in the room…to make them laugh.

Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s “Wayne’s World” send-up of the show’s creator and producer Lorne Michaels is case-in-point. This was office party boss parody. Not that we minded, but duly noted. SNL40 invited us to watch it celebrate itself, but it certainly wasn’t overly concerned if we liked it or not.

This was not a paint-by-numbers, network-supervised “television event.” In retrospect, it feels like Saturday Night Live got away with something last night (something bigger than a couple of Brian Williams and Bill Cosby zingers). Which is fitting. The story of SNL is, itself, a heist story…the counter-cultural turned mainstream comedy show that has managed to get away with being the riskiest show on broadcast television for four decades now.

A few live highlights: Aykroyd purées a bass, every moment of “Celebrity Jeopardy,” Steve Martin smugly dismissing Paul and Paul during his opening monologue, JACK NICHOLSON!, Betty White making out with Bradley Cooper in “The Californians,” Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin’s Tracy Morgan salute, Jerry Seinfeld’s wry audience Q&A, Emma Stone’s joyful Roseanne Roseannadanna, Tina-Amy-Jane’s “Weekend Update,” and Wayne and Garth’s “Top 10 Things About Saturday Night Live” list.

The only obviously botched moment of SNL40 was Eddie Murphy. After a brilliant introduction by Chris Rock, Murphy hit the stage without a thing to say. Then stood there, floundering. We needed Eddie Murphy to kill with some new jokes, but he seemed just fine being looked at, clapped at…like a figure in a celebrity wax museum. No doubt, SNL offered to write material (hell, Chris Rock would have been all over that monologue), so it is curious why he demurred.

The evening’s musical performances were solid (surprisingly, Miley Cyrus’ Paul Simon cover was best-in-show), but never upstaged the comedy. Paul McCartney and Paul Simon both seemed a bit under-prepared. Kanye’s performance was artistically respectful, but Beck would have been a better choice. The 80s/90s seemed a bit under-represented, musically. Was Aerosmith busy? Madonna? But props to SNL for not making this a music show. (Maybe NBC will spring for a live SNL40 music special for the fall?)

It’s been said before: the SNL cast you became a fan of in high school or college will always be your favorite SNL cast…with newer iterations being increasingly “Saturday Night Dead” to you. My favorite cast happened in the late 80s, early 90s, the moment in Saturday Night Live history when Lorne Michaels returned to Studio 8-H and locked in the show architecture that continues to this day. Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Jan Hooks, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, the recently deceased Jon Lovitz (sic)…this was my cast. Still, those who followed have held me in thrall (and sometimes fury), too.

The 40th Anniversary Special reminds us all that Saturday Night Live has mattered and continues to matter not because of its cast, but because of the chances it takes every week—the fact that the show is written fast (too fast) and produced fast, and stubbornly insists on happening live…the fact that failure is built into the show’s eccentric creative process…this is why those of us who do, stay with it year after year. Saturday Night Live is comedy sports of the highest order. And with that aspiration, that gamesmanship, comes, on occasion, white-hot flashes of comedy art.

Cheers, SNL. Keep it risky, keep it tricky, keep it hungry. We’ll keep watching.

SNL NEXT: Dakota Johnson, February 28

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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