Nearly seven dozen guests and 210 minutes are big numbers, but they weren’t enough to adequately convey the vast and colorful history of “Saturday Night Live” during its 40th anniversary special Sunday night.
The show has launched dozens of cast members into careers in film and other television shows. Before the dawn of cable television and Comedy Central, SNL was a primary source of influential political humor.
“SNL 40” was broadcast live from New York, the show’s home since its debut in October 1975.
It provided plenty of laughs, opening with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake paying tribute to the show’s many catch phrases, characters and other touchstones: “Two wild and crazy guys”; “Isn’t that special?”; “We want to pump. You up”; “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger”; “More cowbell”; “Schweddy Balls.”
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What followed was a feast for short attention spans, like the footage of auditions for the show, which included “failures” by Stephen Colbert, Zach Galifianakis and Jim Carrey; like the medley of political skits, which showcased cast members’ portrayals of presidential candidates, from Chevy Chase’s bumbling version of Gerald Ford to spot-on caricatures by Phil Hartman (Bill Clinton), Will Ferrell (George W. Bush) and Tina Fey (Sarah Palin); like the medley of sports stars who have hosted the show, clips that included Peyton Manning cussing out an 8-year-old and Derek Jeter and Charles Barkley in drag; like the footage of the many musical guests who have been on the show, including Elvis Costello, Nirvana and three Beatles; and like the tribute to those who have died, which opened with a skit featuring the late John Belushi — the first cast member to go — as an octogenarian in a cemetery, visiting the graves of his former cast members.
There were funny live moments, too, like the “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit featuring Carrey as Matthew McConaughey and Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds under the pseudonym Turd Ferguson; and like the tribute to the show’s fake musical acts featuring Maya Rudolph as Beyonce.
Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin all sat down again as anchors for a “Weekend Update” skit, in which Curtin wisecracked about being the “only pretty blonde woman” to read fake news, but “now there’s a whole network devoted to that” (accompanied by a picture of a Fox News logo). They were interrupted by Melissa McCarthy playing motivational speaker Matt Foley, a beloved Chris Farley character, complete with the terrible suit and breaking of furniture.
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey put on wigs and relaunched “Wayne’s World.” And the soap opera spoof “The Californians,” featuring Taylor Swift, was revived. It ended with Bradley Cooper making out with Betty White. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
But there were lapses. Chris Rock delivered a heartfelt introduction to Eddie Murphy, persuasively crediting him for salvaging a show that was listing and on the verge of sinking when Murphy arrived. Then Murphy came out and gave a very brief and almost lukewarm “thank you” — a big disappointment.
Bill Murray’s role was limited to a short revival of lounge singer Nick Ocean singing the theme to the movie “Jaws” and to introducing the “In memoriam” segment.
And Jerry Seinfeld spent a little too much time taking canned questions from the celebrity-filled audience, including the real Sarah Palin — time that could have been better spent.
There were some curious music choices, too, none more than Miley Cyrus singing one of Paul Simon’s more middling songs, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
Paul McCartney sang one of his best songs, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but not very well.
Kanye West was back on camera, performing “Jesus Walks” — lying on his back. He was then joined by Sia and rapper Vic Mensa on a new song, “Only One.”
It was provocative but felt out of context in a retrospective that was supposed to honor the legacy of a show as known for its musical guests as it is for its humor. This evening, the music was the weakest part of the show.
Paul Simon redeemed things with a version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” that showcased some of the amazing musicians in the SNL house band, especially sax player Lenny Pickett. Simon got the band members to stand and take a bow to applause from the crowd. It was all well-deserved.
Tributes are a slippery pursuit, especially those restricted by time. Anything that has lasted 40 years has accumulated more memories than can be faithfully represented in 3 1/2 hours (minus commercials).
For the most part, producers of “SNL 40” aptly captured its essence and its import. It would have been more satisfying to see more time spent on those who rendered deeper influence during their stay. More Murray, Belushi, Farley, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman would have been nice.
According to my social media feeds, lots of people watched this special and rightfully so. There was a time when “SNL” was must-see TV and when you could name every cast member. Things have changed.
Its quality has waxed and waned, it has been eclipsed by other comedies and its best performers tend to leave for other pastures.
Ultimately, “SNL 40” was a whirlwind but cursory reminder of how this brand became so popular and how, at its best, it mocked, needled and reflected four decades of pop culture.