Everyone likes to complain about “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not a nit-picky thing or a pretentious thing; it’s simply a result of the show’s cultural import. “Saturday Night Live” was, at some point in time, likely important or at the very least funny for every television viewer. As the show rotates through writers and players, it’s bound to lose some sense of charm for specific viewers.
But it’s hard to believe that “SNL” is still the towering institution that it is, especially after 40 years. If nothing else, Sunday night’s “SNL 40” tribute special and the general fanfare surrounding the event certainly speak to the show’s status. Dozens of guests! Musical performances from Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Kanye West! The return of legends like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey! Any “SNL” devotee would be shaking in their pants. It seemed like a unique opportunity for dozens of the world’s most talented comedians to do what they do best.
So it’s disappointing that the “SNL 40” special chose to trot out some of its most tired sketches and remake some of its most memorable. The first of the night, a remake of 1976’s “Bass-O-Matic,” had some chuckles, but lacked the surprise of the original. “Celebrity Jeopardy” returned and scored some laughs in the form of Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery, Norm MacDonald’s Burt Reynolds, and Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek, but it turned tired, unable to sustain a whopping eight-minute runtime.
It was a pleasure to see Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin behind the Weekend Update desk again, but appearances from Emma Stone as Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna and Melissa McCarthy as Chris Farley’s Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker slightly disjointed the segment. Both Stone and McCarthy are incredibly gifted performers, but Radner and Farley were such comic juggernauts that it’s difficult, perhaps, to see anyone else in their shoes.
“The Californians,” perhaps unfortunately, made its prerequisite appearance in anything related to “SNL” alumni. It’s a sketch that has its moments, but is essentially divided into two sets of jokes: Californians use uptalk, and they have a convoluted road system. As a concept, it’s actually quite funny, but as a recurring sketch often falls on its face.
This installment was full of talented performers: the standard Armisen, Wiig, Hader, Thomson, Killam, and Bayer, along with appearances from Betty White, Bradley Cooper, Larraine Newman, Kerry Washington, and Taylor Swift. And a lot of them were funny, given the circumstances: Betty White’s “deaths” and Cooper’s poolboy character elevated the exaggerated soap-opera melodrama of the sketch. But the material doesn’t necessarily work stretched out for over five minutes, and by the time Taylor Swift showed up for a subpar appearance, things had totally fallen flat. It’s a sketch that often feels more fun for the performers than the audience.
In spite of those duds, however, a great deal of the sketches and monologues spoke to a very real sentimentality and energy. Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon opened the evening with an opening monologue and musical performance that delightfully referenced essentially every cultural touchstone and catchphrase that the show has produced, from “Lazy Sunday” to “Dick in A Box” to “Gilly.” Bill Murray returned with a “Love Theme From Jaws” that speaks to his perennial talents as a comic performer. Monologues and opening remarks from celebrities like Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Zach Galifianakis, Jerry Seinfeld, and Maya Rudolph were brief yet poignant. Montages of classic sketches, ranging from political cold opens to the utterly gut-busting “Colon Blow,” were some of the best tributes the show produced in the special’s 3.5-hour runtime. And a series of audition tapes from former cast members and future stars (like Stephen Colbert and Andy Kaufman) was an especially charming look behind-the-scenes.
If there was one consistently engaging element of the proceedings, it was the musical performances. Paul McCartney, sounding as vital and vibrant as ever, performed a powerful rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Miley Cyrus’ cover of “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” was surprisingly moody and atmospheric. Frequent guest Paul Simon even closed out the evening with a gorgeous cover of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” But not a single musical performer could hold a candle to Kanye West, the evening’s MVP, performing a medley of “Jesus Walks” (performed entirely on his back), “Only One,” and the brand-new Vic Mensa- and Sia-featuring “Wolves.” His performance was livelier than any other, full of light, movement, and crushing emotion. He is one of a rare breed of “SNL” performers, joining The Replacements, Elvis Costello, and Sinead O’Connor in his refusal to let a conventional performance slot stay conventional.
It’s not that “SNL 40” is a bad special. In fact, much of it serves as a reminder of how powerful, sharp, and zany the show is and can be. And it’s a nice celebration of 40 years of legendary performances. As a tribute to an iconic show, it accomplishes exactly what it was setting out to do. It’s only disheartening, then, that the end result of “SNL 40” was hardly as subversive or engaging as the television landmark it’s honoring.