Paying tribute to 40 years of Saturday Night Live, mostly thanks to Lorne Michaels

I had a vision in the hours leading up to Saturday Night Live‘s massive SNL40 celebration on Sunday night of what it could be — a series of live tributes presented by past cast members and delivered to the current cast members onstage who have taken their torches and run with them. A way to flip the script on tribute/anniversary specials by focusing on how much this 40th season of SNL has exemplified in many ways, what every season before it has demonstrated, moments of great heights in topical impersonation work, characters with winning catchphrases and unique insights into social commentary. Delivered by young comedians who were not yet “ready for prime-time” but usually became famous enough for it after a career performing live in late-night on the same stage in 30 Rockefeller Center. See more vividly the line of succession from Gilda Radner to Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph to Kristen Wiig to Kate McKinnon, for example.

Of course, SNL40 didn’t play out that way.

Because SNL was never my vision. It’s almost always been Lorne’s. Lorne MichaelsĀ has held that baton as creator and executive producer for most of the time since SNL first aired in 1975, save for a few seasons in the early 1980s.

And Lorne served up an actual cavalcade of stars — not just culled from the SNL casts but also from past hosts, plus A-list celebrity appearances and musical performances that had 24 million Americans glued to their TVs for three-and-a-half hours Sunday night. Just as any episode of SNL, not everything worked. There were moments of brilliance. A couple of choices in retrospect that might not have needed to be there. But the gala, and if you noticed most everyone arrived and remained in black-tie, brought everyone to the ball and invited them all on the dance floor.

It seemed, by the end, like a retirement party, although even at 70, Michaels has made it clear publicly time and again that he has no intentions of leaving his iconic comedy baby under anyone else’s care anytime soon. No, proud papa Lorne basked in the glow of seeing so many stars reunite for one night on the one stage they all shared so many good times before.

Michaels successfully made Jimmy Fallon a star, and then convinced him to come back to the late-night TV flock after a few movies and shepherded Fallon into now the biggest star with the kids who watch what airs in the weeknight late-night block. So Fallon kicked things off with recent SNL super sub Justin Timberlake for the cold open.

There have been many great and popular guest hosts, and most of the ones you’re thinking of showed up onstage, beginning with Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin, then extending into other members not yet worthy of the “5-Timers Club.”

Fake ad in the fake ad slot? Sure. In fact, it’s a live fake ad brought back to life four decades later, word for word by Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman for the Bass-O-Matic.

It might not have clicked on all cylinders as well as it had back then, but an A for Effort.

An A+ all around for the Celebrity Jeopardy tribute and reboot, with Will Ferrell reprising his Alex Trebek alongside the classic faves of Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery and Norm Macdonald as “Turd Ferguson” Burt Reynolds. Plus a chance for more recent impersonations such as Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber to join the fun.

Other things that worked out great…

Seeing more of the rare footage from the auditions of famous cast members, and some who never got the call from Lorne but became famous anyhow. We’ve seen some of this before, thanks to DVD extras and YouTube, but oh my, knowing that someone as great and special as Amy Poehler could show her nerves just makes her more great and special in retrospect.

The SNL musical act portion — not the guest performances (which I’m not embedding here), but the musical characters created by the cast — received a 15-minute live medley that began with Martin Short as himself and Maya Rudolph still being Queen Beyonce, and ended with Bill Murray nearly stealing the whole show while cussing out a new lounge singer rendition of the theme for Jaws. With Steven Spielberg watching from the audience, among all of the other A-listers.

There also was a music video, introduced by Zach Galifianakis and starring Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler, in a new “Digital Short” poking fun at cast members who broke out laughing in live sketches.

Plenty of montages and homages padded the night. Louis CK made fun of SNL by introducing its great selection of other digital films from throughout the years, noting that it’s always been more fun and funny than the live sketches. An odd choice to bring back The Californians sketch, speaking of breaking, was only made memorable by a make-out session between non cast members Bradley Cooper and Betty White.

Odder still, the trilogy of ways to remember the legacy of Weekend Update, from a great trio of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and original cast member Jane Curtin that brought in celebrities to impersonate dead SNL cast members, to an introduction by the men who used to helm Update that didn’t include Dennis Miller bringing up Chevy Chase, who almost stumbled onto stage a la Gerald Ford and almost stumbled over his lines.

The much-ballyhooed return of Eddie Murphy turned out to more of a lifetime achievement award with a thank-you than a speech or jokes, which meant this fell short of anything he got your hopes for after similar turns at The Comedy Awards and a Spike TV tribute in recent years. There’s more to this story that nobody’s telling us.

Jerry Seinfeld, never a cast member of SNL, came out to take audience questions. OK. It did, however, go smoother than most guest host monologues that choose this route, thanks largely to the talent of the audience members and the interchange between Seinfeld and Larry David.

This end of the show Wayne’s World reunion went about as well as anyone could have hoped for, really. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey have brought Wayne and Garth back together a few times since leaving the SNL-prompted movie franchise behind, but this time really served to glue the whole tribute together.

And in the end, just like any SNL, they all gathered onstage to say thank you and good night. This goodnights was like none other, though. Just look at ’em all! And thank them for the memories.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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