‘SNL 40’ Review: The Stars Come Home

After 40 years, Saturday Night Live may be the only remaining “watercooler comedy” that everyone still has something to say about. Whether it’s “The first five years were the best,” or “Bring back Victoria Jackson!” (just kidding, no one says that), we all have our opinions on what is or isn’t funny on the show… not just us nerdy online reviewers. SNL is, after all, one of the only shows we grew up with that’s still on the air – those of us under 40 haven’t lived in a world without it – and we each have a personal connection to the first incarnation of it that spoke to us. For me, it was Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond in the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches. For others, it was Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as the “wild and crazy guys!” For at least one of you out there, it was Victoria Jackson’s hilarious handstands.

With that nostalgia for our era sometimes comes an indifference to others. I’ll sincerely giggle at Stefon losing it at “Sidney Applebaum,” but I struggle to whip up anything more than appreciative nods when the Church Lady sighs, “Well, isn’t that special?” Don’t get me wrong – Dana Carvey is my hero, and as someone who writes about SNL a lot, I understand the comedic greatness of the iconic routines and characters from the show’s first two decades. But they didn’t belong to me. Wayne Campbell and Buh-Weet were the inside jokes at a party I was too young for. I knew them better as Austin Powers and Professor Klump, and those younger than me know them as Shrek and Donkey. (I know, ugh.) Older viewers exhibit this bias as well, bragging that Richard Pryor’s “Word Association” would never air on today’s SNL, while bemoaning the show’s descent into the mainstream and over-dependence on low-hanging fruit gags to go viral online.

But last night, that generational rivalry disappeared. SNL’s 40th anniversary, a three-and-a-half-hour telecast (seriously, has NBC just given Lorne Michaels keys to the building at this point?) showed an extended family united in the tradition they were once part of, celebrating each other on stage, in retrospective footage, and in star-packed revivals of classic sketches. It was an SNL nerd’s wet dream, and as Stefon would say, this had everything. “Celebrity Jeopardy.” “Wayne’s World.” Jane, Amy, and Tina hosting Weekend Update. Melissa as “Motivational Speaker Matt Foley.” Martin and Maya throwing to “Nick the Lounge Singer” and “Choppin’ Broccoli.” Eddie returning to a standing ovation.

Sure, everything ran long, the cameos were a bit much, the highlight reels were redundant, and all the jokes were inside baseball. But this wasn’t a normal episode of SNL intended to please fair-weather viewers, or fit neatly into our “what hit” and “what missed” watercooler chats. It was a homecoming that we were lucky to peek in on. And as we’ve seen before on this show, something magical happens when the family comes home to make each other laugh for a change.

Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake Cold Open. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake opened the show with the kind of rap medley they’ve made famous on The Tonight Show – but here, the lyrics were all references to iconic SNL catchphrases, with Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer on hand to pad the self-deprecation: “Sadly, history has taught us that opening the show with a musical number leads to a sharp drop in ratings. (wah wah…)” The open was exactly what’s great (or frustrating) about Fallon’s humor, depending on how you feel about the guy: more fun than funny, relying heavily on sick beats and nostalgic references.

Steve Martin Monologue. After some beautifully edited opening credits, with Darrell Hammond wheezing through dozens of cast members and stars, Steve Martin strolled out on home base to take lead on the monologue (an honor bestowed to Tom Hanks at the 25th anniversary). Like pretty much everything we would see this episode, the bit hinged on walk-ons by VIPs in attendance, representing the variety of hosts the show has seen over the years. Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy, and Chris Rock each traded one-liners with the signature smug Martin – (to Baldwin) “Don’t you mean those of us who excel at drama, comedy, and media skirmishes?” – while Peyton Manning and Miley Cyrus threw a wrench into it just as they did in their episodes (Manning bullying kids not included). Luckily, Billy Crystal arrived just in time to save it – “It’s Steve, right?” – and Paul McCartney and Paul Simon sang a Beatles song, which is always Lorne’s way of saying I don’t care if you laugh, these guys are fucking music legends and they’re my best friends and you’re welcome.

The monologue would lead into the first of many clip reels throughout the night, which began with the first episode’s cold open – Michael O’Donoghue and John Belushi in “Wolverines” – and continued with highlights through the decades. Not surprisingly, the reel practically swept the early 1980s under the rug, following the popular abridged history that deifies Eddie Murphy and pretends Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid never happened. (Though they would receive jabs later in the show.)

Bass-O-Matic. At this point, the night was still sticking to the standard episode format, with a commercial coming after the monologue. In this case, it was Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman reprising the classic “Bass-O-Matic” infomercial, purely to stoke those nostalgia coals, apparently. I love seeing Aykroyd do anything on SNL, and kudos to him for holding things together when that blender jammed (that mustard-yellow hue suggested it hadn’t been used since 1975), but I do wish the anniversary found a better use for the guy than this commercial and, later, a Blues Brothers duet with the wrong Belushi. (Yes, I know they tour together, but it has always felt wrong to me.)

Celebrity Jeopardy. My teenage heart jumped for joy as the night delivered the goods with a “Celebrity Jeopardy” reunion. Of course, this is the third time we’ve seen the sketch since Will Ferrell left the show in 2003 (and fifteenth overall), but this anniversary wouldn’t feel quite right, for me at least, without Darrell’s Sean Connery insulting Mrs. Trebek and deliberately pronouncing “Who Reads” as “Whore Ads.” But they weren’t alone – Alec Baldwin accompanied them as his always-enjoyable Tony Bennett and Jim Carrey gave us a live rendition of his perfect McConaughey. Current cast members Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, and Kenan Thompson got to join in on the fun too, though the crowd seemed more delighted to see the old-timers slip back into their classic roles so easily. Norm may be slower and more unhinged these days, but man, it was as if Turd Ferguson never took off that oversized hat.

Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones introduced the next clip reel – highlights from various cast members SNL auditions – which for me was the only reel worth watching. While Jimmy Fallon, Phil Hartman, and Dana Carvey’s audition tapes have been widely circulated, the never-before-seen footage of Amy Poehler nervously introducing herself and a baby-faced Will Forte as Tim Calhoun were priceless images that the show needs to put online in their entirety right now.

Following that was Robert DeNiro throwing to a reel celebrating SNL’s love affair with the city of New York – Belushi ice skating in Rockefeller Plaza and Giuliani saying “Why start now?” with Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” underneath – all of which matters a lot more to people in New York City than the other millions of people who watch SNL. As a Californian, I would have to wait a little while longer for my tribute.

Proceedings took an Academy Awards-style turn when Jack Nicholson – another Hollywood royal without any real connection to the show – came out to honor SNL’s great moments of satire. To me, the clips leaned too heavily on the show’s broader political humor (cast members’ funny impressions of presidents and candidates) than the harder hitting examples of commentary, like some of Robert Smigel’s cartoons or the “Really?!?” segments on Weekend Update. But you gotta love that dog barking at Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney.

The Californians. “The Californians” holds a record for over-saturated recurring sketches (six instances between 2012 and 2013), but a little time away from this mockery of SoCal culture was all we needed to love this bit again. Armisen’s slurred speech seems even funnier with the knowledge that it’s an impression of Dana Carvey’s impression of his teenage son – something Bill Hader recently brought to light. Going with a huge cast actually paid off here, with the laughs increasing as more and more bodies piled in front of the mirror. And with Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, Betty White, Laraine Newman, and others crowding the stage, the fact that Taylor Swift was the only dud was nothing short of a miracle.

This sketch ended with a tag featuring David Spade (joined by Cecily Strong) as his “Total Bastards Airlines” flight attendant saying “buh-bye” to cast members as they left the set. The bit seemed criminally short but was at least aware of it: “We wanted to be in the show. It was this or nothing. Buh-bye.” I was hoping the night would play around with sketch structure more in this way, with other classic characters merging worlds and popping up where they didn’t belong. But alas, my fantasy Falconer-Coneheads crossover wasn’t meant to be.

Weekend Update. The night reached its peak as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin took over Weekend Update to deliver some SNL-themed two-liners. (Sorry Cecily Strong, I guess your term was too short.) Jane in particular had an excellent read here: “I used to be the only pretty blonde woman reading the fake news. Now there’s an entire network devoted to it.” The segment led into a playful series of celebrities doing impressions of their favorite SNL characters, with Emma Stone as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Edward Norton as Stefon (“You make a teepee for your secrets,” Hader’s Stefon instructed), and Melissa McCarthy as Motivational Speaker Matt Foley – a perfect match, considering Melissa is the most physical performer SNL has seen since Chris Farley. The bit could have been deemed in poor taste, and perhaps would have if an alum cast member did them, but Gilda and Farley’s characters have been so immortalized on the show that invoking them is more of a tribute (though at 26 years old, I doubt Emma Stone grew up watching a bit from the 1970s).

And as Melissa crashed through the desk and Tina got eaten by the Land Shark, Amy threw to a Weekend Update highlight reel that made it abundantly clear how superior previous hosts were – notice how effortlessly Chevy Chase and Kevin Nealon hit their punchlines – while managing to find at least one good line from Colin Jost.

From there, male Update hosts Kevin Nealon, Norm MacDonald, Seth Meyers, and Colin Quinn (the show was done with Jimmy Fallon after the open, apparently) lined up for an awkward introduction to Chevy Chase, which quickly fell apart as Colin beautifully flubbed his joke about flubbing jokes and Seth cracked up at Norm’s ad-libbing. Then Chevy stood on home base to graciously thank the crowd (as Garrett Morris echoed him ala “News for the Hard of Hearing”). Miraculously, Chevy didn’t insult any female or gay staff members.

The night would feature two classic commercial sketches: “Colon Blow,” with Phil Hartman famously perched on a mountain of high-fiber cereal, and “Mom Jeans.” I can think of a few other commercials that SNL purists would prefer – “Happy Fun Ball” or “Old Glory Insurance,” perhaps – but it was nice to see at least a little of Hartman during the night.

Martin Short and Beyonce (Maya Rudolph) on Musical Sketches. I was thankful to see the clip reels set aside for this tribute to SNL’s iconic musical sketches, with Martin Short teaming up with Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce (accompanied, of course, with her hair-blowing fan). The two formed an amusing pair, Maya giving it her all while Martin got blown back by wind and made cracks about hosting only once: “You know who else has hosted the show just once? Robert Blake.” Seeing the various musical bits return was one of the night’s highlights. Fred and Kristen giggled through their sing-as-one Garth & Kat improvisations, Will and Ana revived Marty and Bobbi Culp with “Uptown Funk” and “All About That Bass,” and Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer crooned about Jaws (with Paul Schaffer on keys): “Jaws… get away from me! Jaws… you goddamn shark!” I could have done without the rest, but then again, Dana Carvey’s shrug at the crowd after “Choppin’ Broccoli” was hilarious, and I’m willing to tolerate anything to see Sudeikis jump from the heavens in that tracksuit.

Chris Rock followed with a heartfelt tribute to Eddie Murphy, whom he credited with saving the show from cancellation in the early 1980s, suggesting that if SNL hadn’t hired him, “I would’ve been the funniest UPS delivery man in Queens, and Tina Fey would’ve been the funniest English professor at Drexel University.” It was a series of pointed truths the room needed to hear: whatever contributions any one of them may have made to the show, no cast member carried as much weight on his or her shoulders as Eddie Murphy did. Then, Eddie walked out to a standing ovation (his first return to the 8H home base in 30 years), gave a polite speech, and threw to commercial. And that was it. No returns of “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” or “White Like Me,” despite how well those would hit in 2015. While it felt like a missed opportunity, I suppose a cameo is the most we can expect from a guy the show once cruelly called “a falling star.”

Just as the night started to produce its first yawns, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning set up a clip reel showing all the athlete hosts and sports humor we’ve seen on the show. (I began to wonder if the night would end with a supercut of the supercuts we saw throughout the 3.5 hours.) I found it interesting that SNL would include Tim Meadows’ OJ Simpson writing “I did it” on the screen, but no clips of the actual OJ Simpson hosting in 1978. But ultimately this led us to the delightful tag of Sudeikis and Forte as “ESPN Classic” commentators Pete Twinkle and Greg Stink, as always ending the bit with a gross tagline: “Unsightly hair growth can be a drag, so when you’re munching carpet, don’t let it be shag!”

Jerry Seinfeld Audience Q&A. Jerry Seinfeld took the stage to more or less fill in any remaining cameos the show needed to hit, with Larry David mentioning his one-year stint as a writer and gushing about how much they cleaned up with Seinfeld, Sarah Palin teasing to run in 2016 to give the show comedic fodder, and Dakota Johnson there to remind us she’s hosting the show in two weeks.

Digital Short: That’s When You Break. After Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin’s tribute to Tracy Morgan’s ongoing recovery, and Kanye’s musical performance that freaked out anyone with claustrophobia, Louis C.K. introduced a clip reel of the various film shorts in the show’s run – from Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller to the Lonely Island and Good Neighbor, including shout-outs to Deep Thoughts and TV Funhouse. Afterwards, Zach Galifianakis wore a Sia wig to throw to a new digital short from Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg (as natural an SNL pairing as any). “That’s When You Break” was an enjoyable roast of the times cast members cracked up in sketches – specifically Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz – with Samberg’s hilarious discovery at the end of why the song’s melody sounds so familiar.

In Memoriam. A choked up Bill Murray hosted the tribute to the stars and crew members who passed away, which opened with John Belushi’s surreal “Don’t Look Back In Anger” short and led through a list of names that now sadly includes Jan Hooks, Don Pardo, Tom Davis, and… Lovitz? Good to know that SNL is never too somber for a joke.

Wayne’s World. The “10-to-11:30” sketch was this Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reunion as Wayne and Garth (which they reprised as recently as 2011, but still), with the two bouncing off each other as naturally as always, using their Top Ten board to poke fun at SNL and whip out their Lorne impressions: “I agree with Paul, it was a little soft…” With all the musical talent in the building, I almost wish we did have a star cameo here (other than Kanye threatening to jump up from the audience), but I was thrilled to see the two back at it again, and to see an actual sketch in this 3.5 hour broadcast.

Also, Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West (featuring Sia and Vic Mensa), and Paul Simon performed musical acts, which were useful only in extending the show by a half hour and giving me time to write up other parts of this review. Thanks, musical guests!

Additional Thoughts:

  • When Steve Martin pulled a teary eyed Lorne Michaels up on stage during the goodbyes, it made me wonder how many more of these anniversaries the man intends on being there for. The 70-year-old said in the past that the 25th anniversary in 2000 was the first time he ever considered the possibility of retiring, and SNL 40 was the first big reunion special since then. Then again, Lorne has repeated that he has no intention of stepping down any time soon. If one thing is clear from last night, no one wants him to.
  • With so many stars in the building, the current cast didn’t get much screen time this episode. Taran, Kenan, Kate, Cecily, Vanessa, Sasheer, Leslie, and Pete stepped in when needed, while the rest of the cast was featured solely in clip reels.
  • Of the returning alums, recent alums like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen received the most screen time in live pieces. But if I needed an MVP to save in a fire, I’ll take Lovitz. The guy was brilliant in those two “I’m not dead!” reaction shots.
  • In case you were wondering why the camerawork was a little off throughout the night – the miscues during “Celebrity Jeopardy” and the shakiness during Weekend Update – the floorspace in the studio was severely reduced due to the additional seating set up for the VIP guests, forcing the cameras into inflexible angles at times. Also, Lovitz’s ghost was reportedly screwing with the wires.
  • I’ll see you on Feb. 28, when Dakota Johnson will host.

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs at the iO Theater on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

    ‘SNL 40’ Review: The Stars Come Home