'SNL' 40th Anniversary Special: TV Review

Eddie Murphy SNL Special Still - H 2015
There's always the 50th birthday to look forward to.

What — no cold open?!

The first minutes of the three-and-a-half-hour Saturday Night Live anniversary extravaganza, in which a genial but hardly surprising intro by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake name-checked dozens of famous sketches without doing much more, set the tone for a program that would be one part creativity to three parts awards-show self-congratulation. Longtime fans of the trailblazing comedy show would be comforted by references to favorite bits, but practically nothing newsworthy happened during a broadcast that had been shrouded in secrecy and self-importance for weeks.

Studio 8H was a friends-and-family zone tonight, with an audience composed of former castmembers, hosts and friends of the show. Rather than having a single emcee, producers trotted out a slew of veterans — not just in the 10-car pileup of an opening "monologue," where frequent hosts Steve Martin and Tom Hanks vied with less experienced colleagues, but throughout the show. Over the course of the evening, presenters including Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson would read stiff, short speeches that reminded us of this or that aspect of the show's cultural impact, be it SNL's abiding political-satire bent (cue a montage of iconic presidential impersonations) or its incorporation of athletes into skits that sometimes made fun of them.

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Many noted the high-school-reunion vibe prevailing at 30 Rock this week, as Not Ready for Prime Timers young and old pulled familiar skits out of mothballs for our enjoyment. Some played better than others. A Jeopardy parody early on promised great things, with Will Ferrell's Alex Trebek suffering through celebrity misbehavior both time-tested and (with Kate McKinnon playing Justin Bieber) au courant. But The Californians was more pedestrian, despite the novelty of seeing Bradley Cooper make out with Betty White; the skit might have merited inclusion in a regular week's broadcast, but was out of place here.

In a show that made a couple of very soft jabs at SNL's weaknesses in the diversity department, an all-female "Weekend Update" was refreshing: Three women sat behind the anchor desk — Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin. But aside from Curtin's sharp jabs at Fox News, the trio had little to do but introduce a few celebrity guests, one of whom (Melissa McCarthy, paying homage to an old Chris Farley character) was among the night's best meetings of old and new.

Other inter-generational moments yielded much less entertainment. When a handful of male "Weekend Update" anchors introduced Chevy Chase, or when Chris Rock paid extended tribute to Eddie Murphy ("Eddie saved SNL," Rock said), fans braced for flashes of brilliance. But in both cases, the comedian in question walked down the steps, made remarks to the effect of "I'm great, thanks for noticing," and left without doing anything funny at all.

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While Chase and Murphy refused to bring any gifts to the party, Bill Murray earned his keep, reprising his Nick Ocean lounge-singer character with a riotous "Love Theme From Jaws." Dan Aykroyd's return to the Bass-O-Matic, while equally welcome, didn't come off quite as well. (And did the show really need to include The Blues Brothers, an act that should have ended in 1982 with John Belushi's death?)

Music played a smaller role here than early rumors suggested. Paul McCartney's straightforward "Maybe I'm Amazed" was interesting mostly for being introduced by Keith Richards; a mediocre "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" cover by Miley Cyrus mostly made one think wistfully of old appearances by Paul Simon. (Simon popped up a few times here, and offered a lovely "Still Crazy After All These Years" at the program's end.) A performance by Kanye West, which started with the singer lying flat on the stage, was a rare moment of visual excitement in the program, drawing heavily on the staging of concerts The xx gave last year at New York's Park Avenue Armory. But if the anniversary show's actual musical numbers didn't rank among the series' best, the intro did: Martin Short and Maya Rudolph (doing a killer Beyonce impression) didn't just tell us how funny SNL can be, they showed us.

In between the many montages of old sketches, which rarely spent more than a second or two showing any single skit, the show made precious few stabs at present-tense humor. References to Bill Cosby and Brian Williams were fleeting, as if producers disliked anything that shifted focus away from the history of comic achievement being etched in stone here. But that history is well enshrined by video releases of the series' groundbreaking early years, and is poorly served by victory laps.

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Maybe 10 years from now, surviving writers and players can spend more time creating new material and less time patting each other on the back.