"Saturday Night Live" celebrated its 40th anniversary with an overlong, inconsistent 3 1/2 hour special to rival the Oscars (complete with a joke from Dana Carvey about how long the show was running, which is never funny). Still, for all of the self-congratulation, sloppiness and bagginess, it was a strangely endearing and touching episode, if not the tightest handful of hours in show business.
Things got off to a slow start with a protracted opening monologue from Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake, who launched into a faux-Beastie Boys rap full of "SNL" references that never amounted to more than "hey these things were on the show once." It wasn’t the only rough patch: Chris Rock’s glowing appreciation of Eddie Murphy was one of the more sincere moments on the show, but it ended anticlimactically with Murphy – who hasn’t been on the show in 30 years – standing up, giving a low-energy "it’s good to be back" and disappearing from the rest of the show. And of all of the sketches the former Not Ready for Prime Time Players could have resurrected, surely there was a better one for Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen to spend their time on than "The Californians," a soap opera sketch that was always tolerable for thirty seconds before it quickly became endless – more so by the overextended nature of each of last night’s sketches, which seemed intent on cramming as many people into the show as possible (Betty White’s fierce makeout session with Bradley Cooper was a mitigating factor).
But things did get better, with a handful of downright inspired moments. Will Ferrell’s "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketch wasn’t quite as clean as it was in the old days, but it made up for it with some welcome comebacks (Norm Macdonald as Burt Reynolds/Turd Ferguson, Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery), amusing cameos (Jim Carrey as Matthew McConaughey, proving that he can be twice as funny if he moves his face half as much as he usually does), and the first-ever use of the oft-referenced "Potent Potables" category as a chance for one of the better Kenan Thompson Bill Cosby jokes in the show’s history (Ferrell’s Trebek: "Oh god – we filmed that in June!"). Better still was a "Weekend Update" reunion of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler… and Jane Curtin, back as an anchor after thirty years, making an easy but funny dig at Fox News ("I used to be the only pretty blonde woman reading the fake news. Now they’ve got a whole network").
Other highlights included a running joke about Jon Lovitz’s untimely death (cut to Lovitz looking bemused), a Digital Short from Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler about the times when "SNL" members break and bust up laughing ("And here’s another one of Fallon and Sanz!"), and Bill Murray reprising his role as Nick Ocean, Lounge Singer, singing "The Love Theme from ‘Jaws’" ("Jaaaaws/Won’t you leave me as I am?"). Still, some of the better moments came from when the cast stopped angling for too many laughs and tried to turn it into a heartfelt appreciation for the 40 years of always-inconsistent, frequently hilarious times. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s "Wayne’s World" reprise became a thanks to the crew, while the many montages brought back reminders of how brilliant Phil Hartman and Gilda Radner were in their prime; it might have done a better job than the In Memoriam, which made the grave error of not muting the audience, turning it into the dreaded Applause-o-Meter situation that awards shows often fall into.
But Murray brought things back up with a reminder that "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." And while musical performances were also inconsistent (Kanye West debuted "Wolves" memorably while Paul McCartney proved that "Maybe I’m Amazed" is kind of a tough song for a 72-year-old), it came to a fitting end with Paul Simon’s "Still Crazy After All These Years;" one might wish that Elvis Costello interrupted at some point for "Radio Radio," but it’s probably better to end on a moving note. The special was long, inconsistent, and sometimes painful for all of the gags that hit. In other words, it was more or less what the show has always been, and no less welcoming because of it.
Also, Rob Schneider never showed up, which is just fine by me.
More reviews of "SNL 40"
Monica Castillo, The International Business Times
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler returned to the Weekend Update desk with original “Not Ready for Primetime Player” Jane Curtain. Celebrity guests came on to recreate their favorite characters, including Emma Stone, who played a convincing iteration of Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and her fellow “Birdman” co-star Edward Norton appeared as Bill Hader’s Stefon. Hader joined Norton to correct his impression, when former Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers showed up on-stage jealous over Stefon’s lack of loyalty. But it was Melissa McCarthy’s tribute to Chris Farley’s Matt Foley, motivational speaker, that brought the house and desk down. Read more.
John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter
Many noted the high-school-reunion vibe prevailing at 30 Rock this week, as Not Ready for Prime Time-ers young and old pulled familiar skits out of mothballs for our enjoyment. Some played better than others. A "Jeopardy parody" early on promised great things, with Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek suffering through celebrity misbehavior both time-tested and (with Kate McKinnon playing Justin Bieber) au courant. But "The Californians" was more pedestrian, despite the novelty of seeing Bradley Cooper make out with Betty White; the skit might have merited inclusion in a regular week’s broadcast, but was out of place here. Read more.
Brian Lowry, Variety
That’s not to say the evening was without moments. With so many talented people and that much time, how could there not be – from “Celebrity Jeopardy” and the audition-video clip package (including a few eventual stars who weren’t deemed Not Ready for Primetime) to Bill Murray belting out the “Jaws” theme, from the Adam Sandler-Andy Samberg song about cracking up during skits to Chris Rock’s warm riff about Eddie Murphy, even if Murphy came out and had nothing much to say. Read more.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Even a three and a half hour is barely going to be able to scratch the surface of the rich, complicated history of "Saturday Night Live." Last night’s anniversary show wasn’t an exhaustive dissertation of four decades of medium-altering comedy, but it did capture much of the spirit of that history — even the awkward Murphy and Chase appearances reflected their uneasy relationships with the show that made them famous — and created throughout an experience very much like watching a longer, more star-studded episode of the show itself. There’s never going to be a perfect way to do an "SNL" anniversary show, but it’s also rare that there’s been a perfect regular episode of the series, so this seemed about right. Read more.
Kate Erbland, Rolling Stone
"SNL 40"’s big draw was its massive guest list, which proved to be bloated enough that the show added on an extra half an hour just days before the show hit the air to serve them all; announcer Darrell Hammond sounded suitably winded by the time he completed announcing the show’s talent roster. The show’s real monologue man, Steve Martin, pronounced it "like an enormous high school reunion, a high school that is almost all white." (The show’s diversity issues were given lip service later on, but point taken.) Martin’s monologue eventually gave its way over to the show’s unofficial theme – hey, a lotta people here, right? – with "America’s Tom Hanks," Alec Baldwin, McCarthy, Billy Crystal, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Chris Rock, and Miley Cyrus all showing up to yell about who was a better host. By that time, the stage had already gotten crowded enough that collapse seemed almost imminent — the biggest surprise was that the stage did not collapse.Read more.