Live from New York: Our Notes on SNL’s 40th Anniversary Show

We share some notes and video from the SNL 40 special and talk about what makes the show a TV institution after four decades.

When the idea to honor 40 years of Saturday Night Live with a three-and-a-half-hour special was hatched, I imagine there was a brief silence in the writers’ room. It was likely similar to the uncomfortable gap in dialogue that followed Jim Carrey interrupting Matt Lauer to make a Brian Williams joke on the pre-special red carpet.

When SNL’s writers gathered their thoughts on an ode to four-decades of material the daunting first question is: Where do you even start?

The abundance of material and starpower turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for a mostly well-done night of throwback sketches, a few touching tributes, a half-assed one for Chevy Chase, Miley Cyrus singing a Paul Simon song while Paul Simon is in the building, whatever artistry Kanye West was doing and Turd Ferguson.

Now let’s run through some of the highlights of SNL 40

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Cold Open:

The collective SNL-watching universe knew it was going to be Jimmy Fallon to open the show. No one really wanted it to happen, but deep down everyone was OK with it. Even if you overlook his mid-sketch chuckles, Fallon was never really considered a fan favorite and that’s being polite. There are a couple of reasons why he was likely tapped to do the big cold open. Let’s face it, Fallon found his calling when he traded Weekend Update for Late Night. He’s a lone wolf who works great with guest stars. And there are not many guest stars, especially in the last decade, better than Justin Timberlake. Second, Fallon is one of NBC’s hottest properties and this is a network that has almost none of them. If he wasn’t going to be featured throughout the show like a Will Ferrell, then NBC was going to put him front and center to kick things off.

In the spirit of SNL’s digital era, one that has pretty much sustained the show through lean talent times, Fallon and Timberlake use some of the most popular digital short beats to set the tone for the night. It wasn’t the most creative cold open we’ve ever seen, but Fallon and Timberlake work so well together that it moved this thing along nicely.

The Host(s): 

This week we tried to pick SNL’s best hosts of all time. While there was no particular order to that list, I figured they’d tap one of those hosts for the SNL 40 monologue and by default we can consider that person the greatest ever. Or Lorne Michaels favorite. Either way, Steve Martin, who’s hosted the show 15 times, was tapped for the monologue duties and he delivered a memorable intro (“Tonight is like an enormous high school reunion, a high school that is almost all white.”) before some of the other great hosts showed up to help him out. I loved how they used the “who makes the best host” debate to pit actors, comedians, actors who are also comedians, women who aren’t men over 80, former cast members, athletes and musicians against each other. Bringing out a couple of singers named Paul didn’t hurt either.

The Sketches:

Using the Dan Aykroyd classic, Bass-O-Matic, to commence the live sketches, we were in for a few treats. The return of “The Californians” united Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. Though I was never a huge fan of the sketch, this incredibly long version gave us appearences by Kerry Washington and original cast member Laraine Newman, a Bradley Cooper/Betty White makeout, Taylor Swift haunting my nightmares and dreams and David Spade “buh-bye”ing that sketch out of our lives likely for good.

Side note: when Swift wasn’t making frightening faces, she was in the audience sandwiched between Steven Spielberg and Sarah Palin. I’d offer my next three paychecks to listen in on that conversation.

Moving along, how great was it to have Will Ferrell back for Celebrity Jeopardy? The contestants were just perfect: Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery, Kate McKinnon as Justin Bieber, Alec Baldwin doing Tony Bennett, Taran Killam as Christoph Waltz, Norm Macdonald returing as the great Turd Ferguson and Jim Carrey with the brilliant Matthew McConaughey impression.

For me, the other big highlight of the live sketches was Weekend Update with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin.

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The celebrity tributes came pouring in, with Emma Stone’s ode to Gilda Radner, Melissa McCarthy’s spot-on Chris Farley as Matt Foley impression and Ed Norton doing Stefon alongside Stefon.

In closing…

I’d need to write a 5,000 word article to touch on everything that happened last night. It was incredible to see Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer reunited to sing today’s hits. Dana Carvey is still the best at chopping broccoli and Bill Murray could sing for another three hours and I wouldn’t touch my remote.

Like the show’s often turbulent history, there were some lows. It’s well known Chevy Chase is one of the worst actors with work with, and it showed in his lukewarm introduction from the male Weekend Update anchors. Chris Rock’s heartfelt speech about Eddie Murphy’s legacy was followed by Murphy saying nothing of substance. Not even a bad joke for us to muster up a laugh at.

Still, SNL 40 did exactly what it needed to. It was a reunion, more of a family reunion than a high school one, though. The successful but detached family members, Chase and Murphy, at least showed up. We got the brothers and sisters–the Haders, Wiigs and Armisens–who grew up together and were playing pretend just like the old days. The cousins–the guest hosts, musicians, writers and other special guests throughout the years–stopped by to say hello, too.

Allow me try and sum up what SNL means to comedy, live television, and my hometown in a paragraph. I started watching daytime SNL 80s and 90s reruns on a small TV in my grandma’s house before I was old enough to understand half the jokes. So much of my comedy and popular culture knowledge comes from the show and seeing the talent blossom on the show year after year, now decade after decade is one of the great joys I have in watching and covering television. The 9/11 tribute had me thinking about what New York City means to the show, but really it’s the other way around. SNL is an irreplaceable part of the history of this city.  

If we ever lost SNL, we’d be losing the last connection we have to a time when the medium was still evolving. But we shouldn’t have to worry about that. The players may change and the ratings fluctuate, but SNL is still kicking. There’s a lot to be said on what makes that possible, but for now let’s celebrate. Here’s to another 40 years.   

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