As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his review, last night’s 40th-anniversary special of Saturday Night Live was patchy with some undeniable moments of magic. So to highlight which moments were the most patchy and which were the most magical, Vulture has ranked the evening. Specifically, we ranked everything that felt like a full bit (so no intros, no touching Tracy Morgan tribute, no musical acts). Here is everything from the Eddie Murphy tribute to the Digital Short to ESPN Classic to the Super Bass-O-Matic, listed from worst to best.
14. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s Cold Open
Sure, these guys are good at being cute, but this felt more like a celebration of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show than Saturday Night Live. We admire Lorne Michaels’s cross-promotional savvy as much as the next pop-culture blog, but this felt arbitrary and hokey. Nice to see Debbie Downer, though.
13. Eddie Murphy Tribute
Murphy famously hasn’t been back to SNL in 32 years. (He recently said it was always a timing issue, though many speculate it’s because of a joke David Spade made about him during a Hollywood Minute segment.) This could have been special, and Chris Rock’s terrific intro made you think it was going to be, but then Murphy just came onstage, got a little standing ovation, waved a few times, and said thank you. It was easily the night’s biggest letdown.
12. The Californians
It’s been less than two years since we’ve seen a “Californians.” Regardless of the content, I can’t imagine there is a person alive nostalgic for it. As a result, it didn’t have the luster of the rest of the evening. Not to mention “The Californians” is a sketch built on breaking, which really wasn’t going to happen because everyone was taking the event so seriously. The sketch had a lot of celebrity cameos, which I guess is nice for the certain subsection of the SNL audience that watches for the celebs. As Jonathan Chait noted, it was truly great to see Laraine Newman reprise her own Californian stereotype character, but it wasn’t enough to save the sketch. The absurd attempt to include the “Buh-Bye” flight attendants could’ve been brilliant, but sadly it was too clumsily performed.
11. ESPN Classic
This was kind of funny, but more than anything it was very surprising. Of all the show’s characters — hell, of all of Jason Sudeikis’s and Will Forte’s characters (sorry, people hoping for a reprise of the potato chip sketch) — we get Pete Twinkle and Greg Stink. No one would’ve predicted it. It reminds of when I interviewed Bill Hader a while back and he told me that he never saw Lorne laugh harder than he does at Will Forte — maybe that’s why it made the cut.
10. Chevy Chase Tribute
This could’ve been a mess, but doing it like a “News for the Hard of Hearing” bit was a good nod to the early seasons. Bonus points for Norm Macdonald seemingly taking advantage of it being live and going rogue.
Traditionally there are three types of monologues (assuming a comedian isn’t going to do stand-up): a song, audience Q&A, and celebrity walk-on. As you can tell from their placement on the list, I’ve always been more partial to the first two. Still, Steve Martin is my favorite SNL host, and in my opinion he does smug and overly confident better than anyone, so it was a joy seeing him talk down to a bunch of greats. Also, there was this pretty perfect opening joke: “Tonight is like an enormous high-school reunion — a high school that is almost all white.”
8. Audience Q&A
This felt a bit long, with a 50:50 hit-to-miss ratio. But the stuff that hit — Ellen Cleghorne, Tim Meadows, John Goodman — really hit. And, come on, how funny was the Larry David bit (especially with Vanessa Bayer’s unstoppable smile in the background).
7. Super Bass-O-Matic
Of the many reasons Saturday Night Live was revolutionary when it debuted, one was it felt like it was the first show created by and for a generation who grew up watching television. Infomercial parodies were never really seen before. That’s why it was nice to see the show very faithfully reprise the Super Bass-O-Matic from the first season. Added bonus — because of the advent of HDTV — the sketch is now way grosser.
6. Wayne’s World
For nearly as long as people have cared about SNL, they’ve cared about how SNL is made and the conversation around it. The Wayne’s World sketch ended up being one of the best moments of the night by being by far the most insider-y. The top ten list impeccably skewered the show and how it’s talked about. The best part, of course, being their dueling Lorne Michaels impressions. Ironically, I don’t think any one joke got a bigger laugh than Mike Myers doing his Lorne saying, “Well, it got a laugh, but did it get the right laugh.”
5. Music Medley
It was during the 15-minute, 18-comedian musical medley that I first thought, Jesus, this thing must’ve been impossible to produce. SNL always had an endearing “Hey, let’s put on a show” quality, and this segment of the special most embraced that. It was very rough around the edges but filled with so much great stuff. I know I personally didn’t expect Bill Murray to bring it so hard.
4. Weekend Update
There was something undeniably powerful about seeing Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler together, and it helped that literally all of their jokes killed. Then it shifted to the desk piece segment, in which they got celebrities to act as their favorite characters from throughout the show’s history: One was admirable and expectedly charming (Emma Stone), one was a slight disappointment (two Stefons), and one was truly inspired (Melissa McCarthy).
3. Celebrity Jeopardy
Famous former cast members weren’t the only people who were invited back to work on the show — so were the writers. “Celebrity Jeopardy,” beyond featuring some greatest hits of SNL impressions, also had super-funny jokes. Seriously, both “Whore Ads” and “Le Tits Now” were great, as were the “N-word” bit and the Andre the Giant runner. It felt like an instant classic.
2. Digital Short
Unlike “Celebrity Jeopardy,” which you knew was coming and you had a sense of what to expect, you knew there was going to be a Digital Short but had no idea what the show was going to do. Boy, this was such a Digital Short: There was a slight parody of an early-’90s song, a saxophone, a midway introduction of another character who joins in the fun, a breakdown that makes no sense musically, and a postmodern part of the song in which one of the characters breaks to say something like “Why did you say that?” Mostly, it was really, really, really funny, finding, with breaking, the ideal SNL trope to send up. This literally made me cry in so many ways: laughter, nostalgia, the tears that come whenever I see Gilda Radner.
1. In Memoriam
Speaking of, you knew there was going to be an in memoriam, and you knew (especially when you can see the tears welling up in Bill Murray’s eyes when he simply introduced it) that they were going to end with Gilda. But then they didn’t. After showing dear, sweet, hilarious Gilda, they showed the charmingly unlikable and very much alive Jon Lovitz, calling back Steve Martin’s joke from his monologue that Lovitz was one of the cast members who we’ve lost. It was some truly brilliant, beautifully orchestrated comedy.
And then the camera cut back to Murray. He said some nice words before adding that there was one person they missed: “This just came in from Spain … Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” calling back one of the show’s first catchphrases from the first season, which was used to mock how the news media at the time covered Franco’s impending death for weeks.
Over the course of three and a half hours of television, a lot of very funny things happened, but together, these two beats felt like the one moment that really captured the irreverence and attitude that has made the show what it was. It celebrated SNL, the living and breathing thing, that is as relevant as it has ever been. SNL 40 wasn’t perfect, but, at its best, it did really feel like Saturday Night Live.