Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary was patchy and tried to do too many things. It had great musicians and awkward athletes. It had cast members reading off cue cards (sometimes gracefully, other times obviously) and recovering when props failed or material didn't work. It was annoyingly self-regarding yet also fundamentally humble, in that "show must go on" sense. And every now and then it did something so right that you forgave the patchiness. In other words, it was another Saturday Night Live episode, only plus-size, and on Sunday.
Most of all, it was a celebration of the indestructible contraption that is Saturday Night Live. You were reminded that Lorne Michaels's variety program had pulled off a crafty conceptual trick that managed expectations without seeming to. Because the show has always been done (mostly) live, and the cast and crew are only permitted a few days to write and rehearse the material, the quality of whatever ends up onscreen must always be judged in relation to how hard it must be to produce anything watchable under such conditions. ("Good, considering," Jimmy Fallon muttered to Justin Timberlake during their opening musical number.) When it does make magic — and it still does — you're doubly grateful. (You got more than a bit of that last night; my favorite moment was when Paul McCartney and Paul Simon came out during Steve Martin's bit and sang a little bit of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," and Chris Rock regarded the duo with a starstruck grin.) And then there's the indestructibility factor.
By now, Saturday Night Live has been around for so long that there's no chance that it'll ever go away; it's as much an American institution as any national monument, and as such, in order to draw great guests and continue to be relevant, all it has to do is exist. Performers want to be on it for the same reason they want to be on the cover of Time: to be able to say they did it. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried put it best during a red-carpet interview, finishing the interviewer's prompt "Saturday Night Live is" with "... a restaurant in a great location."
A lot of bold-faced names passed through the restaurant's doors last night. Some appearances felt obligatory: Robert De Niro, representing the spirit of New York, proved once again that even though he's one of the greatest film actors, he still can't read cue cards worth a damn. Candice Bergen, Keith Richards, and other superstars got a couple of lines (or fewer) but nothing of note to do. Others actually performed, some with panache, even though the material was too … well, I was about to say "self-regarding," but on the 40th anniversary of one of the most aggressively meta shows in TV history, what else could it be? Better, maybe. Fallon and Timberlake's opening rap packed four decades of sketch log lines and catchphrases into a few minutes, but rarely rose beyond "Hey, remember this? And what about this?" Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin (managing an instantly meme-able Fox News joke) killed on "Weekend Update." Just when I complained on Twitter that there wasn't enough Garrett Morris (look him up, kiddies), lo and behold, there he was, repeating his "News for the Hard of Hearing" bit, and making the most despised SNL cast member, Chevy Chase, momentarily bearable.
Serious self-examination was kept to a minimum: Martin's monologue compared the special to a reunion at a mostly white high school, and Melissa McCarthy interrupted the "virtues of comedians vs. actors" bit by storming the stage and asking, "What about hosts who aren't men over 80?" But as has always been the case, the show handled such moments gingerly, at times awkwardly, as if discharging an unpleasant duty. The ugliest moment was Jerry Seinfeld's (scripted) conversation with former cast member Ellen Cleghorne, who asked why there weren't more black characters in the entertainment business "in general," but especially why there weren't more on Seinfeld. "We did not do all we could to cure society's ills," Seinfeld replied, the only line of the night with an aggressively ugly undertone.
No matter what era you favor, the special contained plenty to tickle your nostalgia centers. There were cameos by members of the "Five Timers Club," including Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, John Goodman, and Alec Baldwin. Martin reprised his novelty hit "King Tut" for a couple of lines, and there were plenty of other callbacks to the show's early years, including original cast member Dan Aykroyd hawking the "Super Bass-O-Matic 2150" (and killing; he's still the best fast-talker in comedy). Bradley Cooper made out with Betty White. Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler teamed up to sing an ode to performers cracking up on camera (and offered a refreshing bit of self-criticism: allowing that it can be an easy way to save a terrible sketch). Eddie Murphy, a no-show at reunion specials for over 30 years, was given the most ceremonial of entrances — Rock's worshipful lead-in talked about him as if he were dead — and once he showed up, he brought no material, only naked neediness.
Miley Cyrus did an easygoing, smoky rendition of Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," with trills that verged on Dolly Parton-esque. Kanye West reconnected the program with its 1970s New York hipster roots, doing a medley of "Jesus Walks," "Only One," and his new song "Wolves" with help from Sia and Vic Mensa, and with demonic contact lenses, in a claustrophobic black-and-white space that required the performers to lie down, hunch, or kneel. Paul McCartney inadvertently became a Twitter issue when he performed one of his most vocally difficult songs, "Maybe I'm Amazed," in a young man's high register that guaranteed his voice would break (and it did, often). I found it touching, especially considering that it was accompanied by wall-screen images of the young McCartney circa the mid-'70s: The whole thing seemed a quite deliberate meditation on mortality. Many, however, just saw it as a performance by an old man who can't hit the high notes anymore.
There were tributes to the band and the technical crew and to members of the Saturday Night Live family who'd died; the show has been on for so long that the latter montage had to be somewhat selective, and in a sense, it started almost immediately, with a clip from the very first Saturday Night Live sketch: writer-performer Michael O'Donoghue as a man teaching English to John Belushi's immigrant character, who slavishly imitates everything his instructor says and does. The climax of the sketch has the teacher keeling over dead from a heart attack and the student following suit. Belushi died in 1982 of a drug overdose; O'Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage 12 years later. Between McCartney's quaver (and Simon's less noticeable one) and the seemingly endless list of the dearly departed, the special had a melancholy strain that will only become more pronounced as more decades roll on, and the first two or three casts go the way of Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, and all flesh.