SNL 40 Was a Celebration of Triumphs and Failures


Public opinion on Saturday Night Live tends to lean in one of two directions: Either a.) it was better when you were a kid (sure it was) and is entirely unwatchable now or b.) its comedic legacy is so profound that you couldn’t possibly speak ill of it. SNL is aware of both arguments and will spend a full three and a half hours letting you know that yes, it’s goddamn legendary and no, it doesn’t care if you agree.

Last night’s SNL 40, NBC’s marathon tribute to forty years of Saturday Night Live, was a celebration and homecoming for SNL cast members, writers and crew, past and present (audience spotting has never been more rewarding). Through endless-seeming montages and cameos, the show highlighted the series’ greatest triumphs—from memorable sketches (Will Ferrell’s beloved Celebrity Jeopardy got a particularly fun re-birth) to the best hosts to its most successful breakout stars (with Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon being chief among them).

Even when viewing it through our most cynical lens, Saturday Night Live has a lot to celebrate. Watching last night’s show, I couldn’t help but well up when considering the brilliance of the late Gilda Radner and Chris Farley or cheer at the resurgence of old favorites like the ever-earnest choir teachers, Marty and Bobbi Mohan-Culp. Shown back to back, the series’ accomplishments are indeed remarkable and its place as a cultural touchstone feels entirely deserved. This is the show that gave us The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, after all.

But for every character or sketch that hits, there are 20 that don’t and—what with self-deprecation being a large part of any successful comedy—a good portion of SNL 40 was devoted to highlighting the show’s own failures. During one bit, Melissa McCarthy made a crack about the overwhelming presence of old white men being honored that night and Chris Rock joked about his severe underuse by writers during his time on the show. Jon Lovitz was prematurely killed off in the In Memoriam reel, Louis C.K. wondered why they even attempt to do the show live at all and Chevy Chase was scripted to appear separately from the other former Weekend Update hosts—supposedly because he’s the most special, but I say it’s more likely that the other cast members couldn’t stand being in the same room as him.

Where SNL 40 went wrong (in addition to its insane length) is when their in-joke shit talking crossed over from charming to smug and self-congratulatory. At one point, Steve Martin remarked that the event was like a reunion at “a high school that’s almost all white.” The joke, particularly in the hands of someone as capable and adorable as Martin, could have developed into some interesting and humorous cultural commentary, but instead it was just left to hang there as a reminder of yes, this show’s history is very, very white. The end.

Later, an appearance by cast alum Ellen Cleghorne during a Jerry Seinfeld q&a turned from a funny bit about the lack of representation of black women in general to a bit about the lack of black women on Seinfeld (still good) to a bizarre dismissal by Seinfeld himself. “Good point, Ellen, we did not do all we could to cure society’s ills, you are correct. Uh, mea culpa,” he said. “Other questions?”

Thankfully, there was enough worthwhile highlights during the special to come away with an appreciation for the show, even if some bits have aged better than others…

Truth is, I—as full-on comedy nerd—will put value into anything that has given us the gift of such talented and inspiring female comedians over the years. From Gilda, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman in season one to Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon and beyond, this show, even when actively failing its actresses, has provided the world with remarkable talent.

If that (and Will Ferrell) is not a gift from God Lorne Michaels, I don’t know what is.

Image of Emma Stone as Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna via NBC.

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