“SNL 40”: Fortieth Verse, Similar to the First

Last night’s Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special began with a musical tribute to the show’s iconic characters performed by two of its most currently camera-ready stars. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake “History of Rap”-ified forty years of surreal catchphrases and gross-out gags before intoning the show’s now-infamous opening salvo.

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

And although it wasn’t really Saturday night according to the calendar, it was according to the spirit of the special’s subject. Anyone who went in expecting three and a half hours of unadulterated comedy gold would have been sorely disappointed. But no one who’s ever seen an episode of Saturday Night Live went in expecting gold. Each episode offers patches of gold, a bit of rust and a lot of material that might be silver, platinum or something else entirely. The proportions vary, but the formula is the same.

It’s fitting, then, that the fortieth anniversary unfolded in similarly uneven fashion. Some bits really landed, like the welcome returns of “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Wayne’s World.” Others fell flat, like the much-anticipated return of Eddie Murphy and the interminable “The Californians.” Most segments fell somewhere in between. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey meshed well with Jane Curtin at the Weekend Update desk, but the impersonations of famous characters by former hosts didn’t take off until Bill Hader’s Stefon intruded on Edward Norton’s. Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and Chris Rock lent famous charm to the monologue, and Paul McCartney duetting with Paul Simon was something to behold, but the timing of the entrances was off.

The best segments paid emphatic and ecstatic tribute to the show’s positively overwhelming history of classic comedy bits. My favorite featured Martin Short as Prince and Maya Rudolph as Beyonce introducing a bevy of old favorites, including Bill Murray’s love theme from Jaws, Steve Martin’s “King Tut” and Jason Sudeikis’ Running Man in “What’s Up With That?”

“Wayne’s World” paid loving tribute to the unsung forces that shape SNL on a weekly basis, from the costume and set designers to the guy who dutifully flips the cue cards.

Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler’s Digital Short homage to the show’s best “breaks” struck the perfect balance of sweetness and self-congratulation.

And the random celebrities proselytizing about the virtues of SNL in between bits lent a refreshing earnestness to a night that might otherwise have succumbed to the “Saturday Night Dead” snark of old.

At three and a half hours, filler was inevitable. Unlike at the Oscars, though, the clip reels actually offered something of value – an opportunity to glimpse different iterations of the show side-by-side. And in the case of the auditions, never-before-seen footage offered a look into the rough beginnings of the show’s most polished performers.

Last night’s musical moments were largely superfluous, but music on SNL is rarely more than a disruptive aside. And the performances themselves were nothing to sneeze at. Paul McCartney’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but “Maybe I’m Amazed” was touching. Miley Cyrus lent her eminently capable pipes to a solid cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and Simon closed the show with an elegant rendition of “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

And if that roster seems a little conservative, Kanye West did his best to challenge the establishment. He started his performance lying on the ground and ended it kneeling while Sia, shrouded in her cloak of onstage secrecy, wailed next to him. There was a time when SNL regularly employed artists on the cutting edge of the American music landscape, and West’s gonzo ambitions fit right in with that tradition.

The night’s most disappointing moment was the much-ballyhooed return of Eddie Murphy, whose first SNL appearance in 31 years amounted to little more than a slightly aggrieved walk-on. Murphy looked a little lost, even as he said he was proud to be there. And Chris Rock’s rambling intro, touching as it was, smacked of “too little, too late” repentance. (For those wondering why this incredibly rich and famous person is so bitter, Mike Ryan outlined Murphy’s SNL history in this piece five years ago.)

The conservatism that characterized Murphy’s early time on the show hasn’t entirely gone away, and it reared its ugly head a few other times last night. Jerry Seinfeld’s response to Ellen Cleghorne about the absence of black women on his legendary sitcom was gross  It’s going to take more than a few halfhearted monologue digs for the show to atone for employing a white majority over forty years of shifting casts. And topical humor was almost nowhere to be found last night, though it’s probably a myth that SNL was once a hotbed of biting satire anyway.

The night served as an unexpectedly melancholy reminder that time passes and even the most spry comedians begin to fade. Lorne Michaels constructed this special in such an ambitious way that it’s a miracle there weren’t more slip-ups. But that’s what makes SNL special. It’s perpetually perched on the edge of calamity, rescued by the valiant efforts of America’s brightest comedic minds working really hard to make you laugh. If the anniversary show only skimmed the surface of its history and that of the nation, it provided a dose of the show’s original appeal. Anything can happen when you’re live in New York on Saturday night. Even when it’s Sunday.

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