Saturday Night Still Alive

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It was an irony of sorts, I guess, that the special program commemorating 40 years of Saturday Night Live aired on a Sunday night. (Also quite a few months premature; SNL actually debuted on October 11, 1975.) But for those of us in the northeast battered by relentless snow and cold, the show provided some respite, all three and a half hours of it (not including an hour-long “red carpet special” beforehand). If you want to know why the show went all out to mark its 40th instead of waiting for its 50th, it’s likely because many of the original talent might not be around by then. In 2025, show producer and creator Lorne Michaels will be 80. Dan Aykroyd will be 72. Bill Murray will be 74. Chevy Chase will be 81, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco will still be dead.

The show, I guess, is still alive. I don’t think I’ve watched it at all this season, or last, but then I’ve never been quite loyal to SNL. My college years were my (sporadic) SNL-watching years. So I missed a fair bit of what the 40th Anniversary Special served up as “greatest hits.” Did anyone ever laugh at the Californians, and did that deserve to be re-animated here along with Wayne and Garth, Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic, and Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer? I suppose it was a good excuse to get Kristen Wiig in there somehow, but by my lights she’s becoming more interesting as a comedic-dramatic actress than as the farceur she was on SNL.

I didn’t mind the special’s self-indulgent sprawl, though a lot of it smacked too much of white male baby-boomer self-congratulation. The ghosts of the original cast have haunted Studio 8H for at least 35 of the show’s 40 years, and a viewer’s estimation of SNL’s peak depends on when he or she started watching. (Even the now-revered comedy godhead Murray was once regarded as a poor replacement for Chevy Chase.) It was touching to see Emma Stone pay her respects to Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and interesting to see that the character Melissa McCarthy felt worthy of emulation was Chris Farley’s bull-in-a-china-shop Matt Foley. I didn’t resent the newer performers for their attempts, but I did resent Death for taking Radner, Farley and too many other cast members too soon.

Belushi was the first to go, and his notoriously ironic short film “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (with Belushi as an old man reflecting on all his castmates who beat him to the cemetery) kicked off the special’s In Memoriam segment, which was about the only time we saw acknowledgment of any of the writers. (During a mildly funny q&a bit, Jerry Seinfeld explained that a tribute to the writers was tossed out in favor of “Randy Quaid saying something.”) Michael O’Donoghue appeared onscreen by virtue of his sharing the show’s first-ever sketch with Belushi (“I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”), and of course Tina Fey got her share of stage time, but no other writers who weren’t also performers were deemed ready for prime time.

In brief, the special was overlong, flawed, riddled with weird choices (Kanye doing whatever that was; Eddie Murphy marking his return to the show after decades by saying not much of anything), and occasionally funny, which puts it one up on a lot of the actual SNL episodes that had all those qualities except for the funny. Mostly I sat through it and didn’t mind it: I didn’t mind Miley Cyrus’ cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (if nothing else it probably scandalized the baby boomers), I didn’t mind Martin Short doing his smarmy-show-biz specialty while Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce vamped, and I didn’t mind seeing old friends like Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks again. Lorne Michaels sat out the special until the very end, which could signal fatigue or modesty; let’s hope it’s the latter. However iffy my allegiance to SNL has been over the years, and even if I usually don’t make it to 11:35 most Saturday nights, it’s comforting to know that it, and Lorne, are still there.

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