For 40 years, “Saturday Night Live” has been a lot of things. An institution. A punching bag. A voice of anarchy. A voice of conformity. A breeding ground for incredible talent. A place where mediocrity can also find a home. The only reason Alec Baldwin and Sarah Palin should ever be in a room together. Something people take for granted. Something that can make a person immortal.
Those are a whole lot of things, and for three-and-a-half hours on Sunday night, pretty much all of the show’s most notable living alumni were present in Studio 8H, which tried like hell to pay tribute to all of them.
Important reminder: Jon Lovitz is not dead. Neither is Garrett Morris, Ellen Cleghorne or Laraine Newman. Only one of those people let their relative obscurity be mined for comedy, but all were given the most minute of opportunities to make their presences known.
Each time that minor opportunity occurred, it was fascinating but also disappointing. Because perhaps the biggest difficulty going into this thing was understanding its point. Sure, it was a celebration of the show’s legacy — less an awards show for surviving 40 years and more a birthday party for Lorne Michaels’ baby. But even a birthday party could use a little structure, a structure you start to long for sometime after the two-hour mark.
And it’s a bit horrifying to realize that out of a three-and-a-half hour show devoted to sketch comedy, there were only perhaps five sketches worth remembering (a worse batting average than the standard hour-and-a-half “SNL” episode, at times).
Of course, that’s because there weren’t really more than that many sketches in total: Much of the night was consumed by clip packages and commercials pushing upcoming NBC Universal properties (including “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Dakota Johnson’s upcoming guest host stint on February 28). But still, during the red carpet coverage Maya Rudolph promised something on the order of “‘SNL’ fantasy camp,” and while all the potential players were there, the closest the special came to true cross-pollination of casts and guest stars was the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch.
And that was also the only bit that gave a performer from the current cast an opportunity to shine: Kate McKinnon reprising her Justin Bieber impression was both modern and perfectly in sync with the well-loved Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery impersonations on display. (Making it super-disappointing when McKinnon’s Bieber was replaced halfway through by Taran Killem doing his half-decent Christoph Waltz, for… No, there’s no good reason for why that happened.)
It’s worth noting that if “Saturday Night Live” didn’t want to have fingers pointed at it for showcasing a lack of diversity, it might have let women or people of color command the stage for significant chunks of time. (And it might not have let the weirdest moment of the night, the Eddie Murphy “tribute,” go down like it did.) There were exceptions to this, of course, but especially at the beginning, it felt like the show was a dazzling array of white guys in suits.
Every once in a while, someone would comment on it — such as Steve Martin in his opening monologue, or Jerry Seinfeld during his “Oh, hey, lots of great writers did a season or two on this show at one point” talkback with the audience. But casual acknowledgement of the criticism, or dismissing it with an aside like “We did not do all we could to cure society’s ills,” isn’t actually all that helpful.
Here’s the thing: The reason we expect more from “Saturday Night Live,” as viewers, is because there are so many aspects of it we love. (Love enough to lure 23.1 million viewers into watching live.) Perhaps one of the night’s most beautiful and pure moments was the Weekend Update section: Not just because Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin are the comedy trio I’d like to see rule the world someday, but because it was by and large one of the places where real genuine love for “SNL’s” legacy shone through. Emma Stone as classic Gilda Radner character Roseanne Roseannadanna was enough to bring tears to the eye, but to follow it up with Melissa McCarthy as Chris Farley’s Matt Foley? For God’s sake.
And sandwiched in the middle there was Edward Norton paying tribute to Stefon, which was less sentimental but just as hilarious. (On a personal level, I’m really happy that Stefon and Seth Meyers are still together, if only for the sake of the children. Marriage is hard work, guys. Don’t give up.)
There was also the Martin Short-and-Maya-Rudolph-as-Beyonce musical comedy extravaganza, but to call it a sketch assigns it an awful lot more coherence than it deserves. It was wonderful to see such a crazy range of characters from the show’s run make quick appearances, but coherence was not a factor.
Musical numbers represented a lot of missed opportunity, primarily in the opportunity for collaboration: Paul Simon was in the building when Miley Cyrus covered “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” but rather than make the most of it, they saved him for a closing rendition of “Still Crazy After All of These Years.” Sia joining Kanye West for his set was perhaps the only major surprise, and did lead to a great Zack Galifianakis sight gag, but was ultimately underwhelming.
But the In Memorium section, which honored everyone from the men who held the cue cards to legends like Phil Hartman and John Belushi, was both exactly the sort of thing that the entire show should have been dedicated to doing, if also a bit weird and off-putting. The saving grace: Gilda Ratner getting the second-to-last beat of that montage, with the last moments dedicated to some perfectly-timed callbacks that might have been the most hilarious of the night. Gilda would have approved.
Despite the pacing problems that made sure a not-short program felt awfully long, #SNL40 included some solid laughs and friendly familiar faces. It had a few surprises. It played it safe while also taking a chance or two. It was fun. It was, you know… It was an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” A format that’s proven itself to be enduring on a scale we’ll probably continue to take for granted, for many more anniversary specials to come.