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40 years of hits (and occasional misses): ‘SNL 40’

| Monday, February 16, 2015

SNL 40 WEBMary McGraw

“Saturday Night Live” celebrated its 40th anniversary this weekend with a star-studded, three-and-a-half hour special that aired, ironically, on Sunday night. SNL has always been hit-or-miss, varying wildly in quality from sketch-to-sketch. It’s just that in its four decades as a sketch comedy show, the show has racked up such a collection of highs — from Coneheads and Wayne’s World to Debbie Downer and “D**k in a Box” — that the lows start to fade from memory.

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake kicked off the special with a musical cold open, singing and rapping their way through a medley of the show’s most memorable catchphrases. As a sketch in its own right, it was unimpressive, coasting solely on nostalgia and the sheer force of Fallon and Timberlake’s combined charisma. But as an introduction to “SNL 40,” a charming, if uneven, tribute to the show’s impact on American culture, it set the right tone. The special was not perfect by any means, but fittingly enough, the highs more than eclipsed the lows.

Among the highs was Weekend Update, which featured the unbeatable trio of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin behind the famous desk. Fey joked that cocaine, “one of the show’s original producers,” was in the audience, while Curtin stole the show with her Fox News jab: “I used to be the only pretty blonde woman reading the fake news. Now there’s a whole network for that.” They then introduced a segment of celebrities doing impressions of their favorite SNL characters, including Emma Stone as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Edward Norton as Stefon. Most memorably, Melissa McCarthy did a spot-on take on Chris Farley’s motivational speaker Matt Foley, ending the segment by jumping on top of and breaking the Weekend Update desk.

The tribute to the show’s musical skits, overseen by Martin Short and Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé, was also excellent. The medley spanned the show’s 40-year history, from Steve Martin’s classic “King Tut” to Kenan Thompson’s always-funny “What’s Up With That?” Best of all was Bill Murray, in character as lounge singer Nick Ocean, singing a hilarious version of the “Jaws” theme.

Later, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey broke out their long-haired wigs for a “Wayne’s World” reprisal, featuring an SNL-themed top ten. It was thrilling to watch Myers and Carvey play off each other again, making fun of Kanye West and doing Lorne Michaels impressions like they never left the show. Even the in memoriam segment — which featured a still-living Jon Lovitz and ended with Murray cracking, “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” — managed to be both touching and funny.

The musical guest has always been an SNL staple, and Sunday’s performances were equally memorable and spanned artists from the past 40 years. West, whose “Runaway” performance on the show in 2010 is still awe-inspiring, performed a medley of “Jesus Walks,” “Only One” and “Wolves” underneath a gorgeous light installation on an all-black stage. Keith Richards introduced Paul McCartney, who sang his classic solo cut “Maybe I’m Amazed” as images of his younger self played on the wall behind him. Miley Cyrus performed a surprisingly great country cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” while Simon himself closed the show with a stirring performance of “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

The biggest disappointment was Eddie Murphy’s anticlimactic return to SNL after 32 years; Chris Rock’s introduction lasted longer than Murphy’s brief appearance. Likewise, a reprise of the soap parody “The Californians,” which drove its already tired premise into the ground, lasted an interminably long nine minutes and managed to be completely unfunny.

Yet, despite a few missteps, “SNL 40” was a surprisingly enjoyable tribute to what has become a TV institution and a reminder of why SNL is so important to so many comedy fans. From old cast members reliving their formative years on the show to the bevy of celebrities who wanted to be in on the action, “SNL 40” celebrated a show that has made Americans laugh for four decades and whose hits far outweigh its misses.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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