Review: ‘Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special’ is ‘SNL’ in microcosm

Some thoughts on last night's “Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special” coming up just as soon as I assume Jon Lovitz is dead…

Last week, I wrote about the history of “SNL,” which has been filled with incredible highs, uncomfortable lows, and a mixture of things that either didn't work or simply outlived their usefulness.

Perhaps intentionally – Lorne Michaels used to joke that the word “uneven” would be on his tombstone – or perhaps because it's inherent to any three and a half hour special with this many moving pieces, the special was “SNL” in a microcosm. Much of it worked spectacularly well. Some of it was disappointing and/or puzzling. And the whole thing went on much longer than it probably should have.

Unlike the show's previous anniversary specials, which were largely driven by clips and testimonials, the 40th was conceived of as a super-sized, all-star installment of the show itself, with a monologue, sketches, Weekend Update and musical numbers. Each of those sequences was designed as both a tribute to the show's rich history and as something that could take advantage of all the huge stars – whether actual “SNL” alums or former hosts – who were in Studio 8H and willing to play.

The monologue, for instance, opened with quintessential host Steve Martin, but quickly expanded to include Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Rock, Peyton Manning, Miley Cyrus, Billy Crystal, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. Individual components were wonderful, from the continuation of Martin and Baldwin's feud over who's the more important host to the two Pauls briefly dueting on “I've Just Seen a Face.” It probably went on too long, but also served as a signpost of what was to come for the rest of the night.

So we got a new “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch with a rotating group of contestants, from usual suspects like Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery and Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds as Turd Ferguson, to other familiar “SNL” impressions like Baldwin's Tony Bennett, Kate MacKinnon's Justin Bieber and – in a moment recalling the franchise's early commitment to provocative comedy – Kenan Thompson as Bill Cosby discussing his favorite potent potable. As a fan of both this recurring sketch and many of the impressions within it, I could have easily watched another five or ten minutes of it.

But a show with such a long history means everyone is going to have their favorites, as well as the ones they could do without, and that looooong “The Californians” sketch(*) qualified as the latter for me, even with the additions of Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, Taylor Swift and original castmember Laraine Newman (who used to do a Valley Girl character, not that anyone in the studio audience seemed to recall this, or even recognize her, based on their reaction to her versus the celebrities). And the medley of musical “SNL” characters was fun whenever someone I loved was performing (highlighted by Bill Murray predictably blowing the roof off with Nick the lounge singer singing a love song from “Jaws”), and an opportunity to check my email when it was someone I never cared for (Garth and Kat).

(*) Bringing back David Spade's “buh-bye” flight attendant character at the sketch's conclusion was a nice nod to the way the show so often comments on itself, with the actors wondering why they were bothering with this bit, as Cecily Strong explained that Spade just really wanted to be in the show somehow.

Murray killed it as Nick, and Jane Curtin was terrific co-hosting Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but not all the vintage pieces and tributes landed. Having Dan Aykroyd and Newman do the famous Super Bass-O-Matic commercial pretty much word for word sucked the life out of it – evoking that time the show asked guests John Cleese and Michael Palin to do the Monty Python dead parrot sketch and it bombed – whereas the special's best new sketches had some element of new material, even as characters got to recite their catchphrases. You would think Mike Myers and Dana Carvey still playing Wayne and Garth in their 50s would seem sad, for instance, but the “Wayne's World” top 10 list about the best parts of “SNL” was both sharp (including Myers getting a few digs at his nemesis Kanye West) and sweet.

The special's most anticipated moment was the return of Eddie Murphy to the show that made him famous after decades of estrangement. Chris Rock's did a great introduction that captured Murphy's impact on the show – noting that without Murphy's singular star power, the franchise would have died shortly after the original cast left, and “Tina Fey would be the funniest English professor at Drexel University” – but then Murphy himself came out and couldn't have seemed less interested in being there. Even if he didn't want to do James Brown or Gumby or Mr. Robinson, his remarks could have at least talked more about that imperiled period in the show's history and what it was like to be a 19-year-old kid with that kind of showcase. His appearance was nearly as brief and stilted as Chevy Chase's (an obligatory appearance by the show's original – but universally despised by everyone in the franchise – star). As it was, a montage would have been more satisfying than the man himself.

That the show had already done two big anniversary specials (15th and 25th) likely made Michaels averse to repeating the exact same clips and tributes, but that meant he had to find other ways to pay homage to the show's history. Often, that involved having the alums get back into character, but at other times it involved former hosts doing it. The show opened with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake doing a medley of “SNL” characters and catchphrases in the style of their different History of Rap bits, and Weekend Update invited Emma Stone, Melissa McCarthy and Ed Norton to play, respectively, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Matt Foley and Stefon. The latter was the most successful, mainly because Bill Hader interrupted Norton to explain how to actually play the character: “You don't cover your face; you make a teepee for your secrets.”

At times, it seemed the show was doing this as a salute to deceased castmembers (see also Jim Belushi filling in for his older brother John as the Blues Brothers closed out the musical characters sequence). At others, though, it seemed the show was more impressed by all of the famous non-castmembers who came than by the folks who spent years as part of the franchise. Jim Carrey's Matthew McConaughey is fun, but couldn't his slot in “Celebrity Jeopardy” have gone to Lovitz or some other cast alum who otherwise didn't get much to do? Jerry Seinfeld got to do an extended version of the device where the host takes audience questions, only this time from the likes of Michael Douglas, Sarah Palin and James Franco(**).

(**) In fairness, it also included former castmembers and/or writers Tim Meadows, Ellen Cleghorne, Bob Odenkirk and a delighted Larry David. David and Seinfeld's smug riff on how “Seinfeld” was the last hit of the big tent broacast network era – Seinfeld: “It's like we had the last two tickets before Disneyland burned down” – had nothing whatsoever to do with “SNL,” but was funny.

And while musical performances have always been a part of the show, doing four of them – McCartney, Miley, Kanye and Simon – felt unnecessary (though Simon's “Still Crazy After All These Years” was a fitting capper for the event), especially when that time could have been spent on more extended tributes to the departed members of the “SNL” family. That the In Memoriam montage included both crewmembers and lesser lights like Charles Rocket and Danitra Vance was a nice touch, but longer salutes to Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks and Chris Farley were probably in order. (Again, the fact that the show has already done two anniversary shows no doubt influenced this: all but Hooks, who died last year, got individual recognition at the special for the 25th.)

Mostly, though, the special was a fun trip down memory lane, often finding clever ways to pay tribute to multiple aspects of history at once, like a Digital Short where Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler sang about the show's tradition of actors breaking character in mid-sketch, done mostly to the tune of “Simply the Best.” There were various moments in the montages that I wish could have played out at greater length, but there's 40 years of that stuff, and most of it's available online.

Even a three and a half hour is barely going to be able to scratch the surface of the rich, complicated history of “Saturday Night Live.” Last night's anniversary show wasn't an exhaustive dissertation of four decades of medium-altering comedy, but it did capture much of the spirit of that history – even the awkward Murphy and Chase appearances reflected their uneasy relationships with the show that made them famous – and created throughout an experience very much like watching a longer, more star-studded episode of the show itself. There's never going to be a perfect way to do an “SNL” anniversary show, but it's also rare that there's been a perfect regular episode of the series, so this seemed about right.

What did everybody else think? Which sketches and tributes worked best? Were there certain actors or characters you were excited to see again? Which ones could you have done without?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at