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'SNL' at 40: Celebrating the past, struggling into the future

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The Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special made for an amusing lazy Sunday, but not the Andy Samberg/Chris Parnell awesome kind of “Lazy Sunday.”

The show should have taken a cue from that seminal bit—arguably the big bang of the viral comedy age—by being a tighter, more compact blast of pop nostalgia. Instead, it was a rambling production that started strong (the opening Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake history-of-catchphrase duet; a solid “Jeopardy” sketch emceed by Will Ferrell’s hilariously exasperated Alex Trebek) that became more tedious and inchoate the longer (and longer) it slogged on.

By the time we got to the Jerry Seinfeld audience Q&A—in which the millionaire comedian bantered brilliantly with Larry David about striking it rich during the twilight of traditional broadcast television (and sparred awkwardly with Ellen Cleghorne over the lack of black faces on the sitcom that made him fabulously wealthy)—the increasingly restless (and tipsy?) affair had taken on the vibe of a particularly sloshy Golden Globes. I guess you can’t blame NBC for giving over its entire prime time block to celebrate this storied franchise’s history; it’s not like the network has much in the way of “Must See TV” these days anyway, a jab that the special itself made a couple times. (NBC has allowed its funny people to make this dig so often over the years, from David Letterman to 30 Rock, that it’s now more sad than funny. It’s like being a perennial screw-up—an actual not ready for prime time player—has becomes the network’s brand identity. Maybe it’s time for Stuart Smalley to stage an intervention and rebuild NBC’s self-esteem.)

Regardless, ka-ching for NBC: The ratings for the special were ginormous.

And kudos for ambition. The special could have simply been an epic clip package, using its plethora of A-list guests and illustrious alumni merely to introduce “best bits ever” segments. But Lorne Michael and company actually tried to put on a real show—a show about SNL itself. 40 years in review, presented as revue.

The results were mixed, which is no surprise. What was surprising was what hit and what didn’t. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin hosted a Weekend Update segment about Weekend Update that should have killed; it clunked. Fey didn’t seem all that game; the three didn’t have much chemistry together; the tribute to character players was undermined by poor set-ups. Fey’s crack about the many different generations who’ve embraced SNL over the years—including “the little dummies who are live tweeting this right now instead of watching it”—might have been the least media savvy joke she’s ever told: My guess is most of those “little dummies” were actually equally tech-addicted Gen Xers, who grew up on SNL and perhaps remember it most fondly—those who came to know the show as that naughty thing their parents watched, which they couldn’t wait to get old enough to watch themselves.

Mike Myers and Dana Carvey revived Wayne and Garth to do a “Wayne’s World” top 10 list about what makes SNL so special. I braced myself for something painful: The spectacle of watching actors perform characters from their wilder, younger days isn’t always flattering. But Myers and Carvey slipped into their old wigs and ripped jeans skins with effortless ease, producing one of the night’s sweetest, most self-effacing tributes. The biggest blunder here belonged to Kanye West for not seizing the ‘mea culpa’ opp Myers and Carvey were creating for him to change the conversation about last week’s Grammy’s folly—the old redemption-via-self-deprecation bit. Where West didn’t disappont one bit: His musical performance, an art piece that had him framed by and trapped within a metaphorical box—huffing and puffing, humbled or defiant or both, depending on your interpretation. Yeezy may be a jerk, but most geniuses are. Miley Cyrus—my pick for Least Deserving Celeb To Be On That Stage—also stared down my/our incredulity with grace, delivering a winning country-rock cover of “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” complete with semi-ironic Elvis lip curl.

The most spirited and successful stretch was the sequence saluting SNL’s music-based comedy, hosted by Martin Short (playing a broad version of himself) and Maya Rudolph (playing a broad version of Beyoncé). Everyone was good, including Joe Piscopo—a rare Piscopo sighting!—reviving Frank Sinatra. Everything that could have been terrible was brief, like Steve Martin resuscitating his King Tut; he couldn’t get back into that sarcophagus fast enough.

But Bill Murray, reprising Nick the Lounge Singer to perform the heretofore unknown love theme from Jaws, was certifiably great. From the moment he warbled that “JAWWWWWWWWS!”, you knew this had the potential to be another Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars classic—and I dare say Murray delivered. It was the night’s one transcendent pop moment, with Bradley Cooper making out with Betty White running second.

Murray also emceed the “In Memoriam” section. He executed the function with a mix of somber ceremony and a wry lack of ceremony, and also delivered the great punchline about Generalissimo Franco still being dead. The notoriously mercurial comic actor would have been one of my top candidates for Former Cast Member Most Likely To Have A Bad Attitude About Being There. Instead, he seemed to enjoy himself, and while I’m not sure he was looking to play the role of august SNL elder statesman, he played it well nonetheless. (Ditto: Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, and Curtin, who were clearly having a grand time perform again.)

The effort and energy that most everyone brought to the stage made those who didn’t come off as real party poopers. Chris Rock gave a glowing tribute to the greatness and influence of Eddie Murphy, whose breakout turn helped save the franchise at a tender moment in its young history. Rock’s ode to his idol included a recollection of how Murphy once filled out a show that was running short with some impromptu stand-up, including a “your mama” joke. He was clearly setting up Murphy to do something similar—and remind us anew of his comic genius. But Murphy didn’t take the bait when he came to stage greeted by a standing ovation. Instead, he did all he could to dodge the spotlight and push the show along. Humble to a fault? Cold feet? Whatever the reason, Murphy’s inaction produced one of the night’s biggest misses.

It has become fashionable (again) to say that SNL ain’t the scrappy, subversive thing that it used to be, that what started as an exciting counter-culture enterprise—the hazy spirit of ’60s rebellion haunting the fringe of mainstream culture like a pesky, needling poltergeist—is now just another zombie-headed pop monolith. Basically, SNL used to be The Joker, a why-so-serious? agent of cultural chaos. Now, it’s Batman, only not as cool. So Superman, I guess. I’m not sure that I really believe in that narrative, but I can’t say SNL’s 40th anniversary did much either to disprove it or to argue for its merit. For as much as it did and didn’t do well in the ample time it was allowed, the special squandered an opportunity to make a case for SNL’s relevancy at a time when cable and web competitors can do all the things SNL has always done, except harder, better, faster, stronger (to crib from West by way of Daft Punk), and every day—if also smaller and niche.

Yeah, the history of pop culture over the past 40 years runs through SNL, and it will likely continue to do so for awhile more. Size does matter, and living legacy does count for something—like, say, coaxing Jack Nicholson out of the Hollywood Hills, or getting a Rolling Stone to introduce a performance by a Beatle. Good luck making those kind of pop moments, Larry Wilmore, et. al.

Still, the anniversary had an amazing chance to make a case for SNL as a still-in-the-game 21st century comedy powerhouse by giving the current cast more to do. It could have found ways to broker validating, pass-the-torch moments between the previous generation and the new one. Instead, the mega-talented likes of Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong were only used as players in old, dusty bits. They should have showcasing the future of SNL, not servicing the commemorative embalming of its past.

What I will remember most were the unintended metaphors for the current state of the SNL franchise that the special gave us. A show struggling to see itself in the mirror (“The Californians” sketch); an embattled icon wheezing in a box (the Kanye performance); the fact that its most exciting performance came from one of its legends putting new gloss on a bit as old as the show itself. It was nice to look back; if only it had tried to look forward, too.