'SNL 40': Still Crazy After All These Years

Sketch show celebrates four decades with celebrities, alumni and marathon of back-patting

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Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake
Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake in the 'Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special.' NBC

Who wants to turn 40 early?

Saturday Night Live may not officially turn the big 4-0 until October 11, but the venerable NBC sketch comedy show didn't let a little thing like that stand in the way of a star-studded, super-sized anniversary special — one that hit the air ready for primetime and live, naturally. Despite the frenetic-sounding pace of putting together a three-and-a-half-hour live show, 30 Rock's commissary/makeshift media room still hosted a mixed bag of cast members and guests throughout the special – from Mike O'Brien to David Koechner to Bill O'Reilly – who would occasionally wander in during the show for a quick drink or hello.

As ever, this SNL-on-steroids show opened with a monologue of sorts, as Jimmy Fallon and BFF Justin Timberlake appeared to rap four decades' worth of catchphrases and punchlines. These two could have feasibly covered the show's entire history with their high energy song and dance number – it certainly would have taken less than three-and-a-half-hours – but they managed to wrap things up after just one Christopher Walken impersonation, two outsider appearances (Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer, Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher) and a single demand to bring something on down to somethingtown.

SNL 40's big draw was its massive guest list, which proved to be bloated enough that the show added on an extra half an hour just days before the show hit the air to serve them all; announcer Darrell Hammond sounded suitably winded by the time he completed announcing the show's talent roster. The show's real monologue man, Steve Martin, pronounced it "like an enormous high school reunion, a high school that is almost all white." (The show's diversity issues were given lip service later on, but point taken.) Martin's monologue eventually gave its way over to the show's unofficial theme – hey, a lotta people here, right? – with "America's Tom Hanks," Alec Baldwin, McCarthy, Billy Crystal, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Chris Rock, and Miley Cyrus all showing up to yell about who was a better host. By that time, the stage had already gotten crowded enough that collapse seemed almost imminent — the biggest surprise was that the stage did not collapse.

Even with all that talent on hand, SNL 40 was preoccupied with greatest-hits clip packages organized around a theme and then introduced by the appropriate people. Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter ushered in a sports compilation, while Jack Nicholson just looked excited to be asked to intro a political pranks montage. Still, the most powerful of all the show's many memory-lane strolls walked the line between humor and heartache, including a neatly edited together package of cast-member screen tests. (Memo to Lorne Michaels: This before-they-were-famous collection could be its own show.) And seeing some of the departed faces responsible for the show's many high points – particularly Phil Hartman, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner – was both cathartic and necessary, given such an occasion. It's hard to look back without seeing some sad stuff, and SNL has plenty of losses in its history.

Shockingly, the special didn't place a big emphasis on past musical performances: Unlike the 25th anniversary, SNL 40 merely sprinkled a few clips — a Prince snippet here, an Elvis Costello and the Attractions riff there — in its main montage. It did find time, however, to heap the love on the Pauls (McCartney and Simon) and Miley Cyrus, all of whom popped up in the opening monologue, presumably as part of a deal to actually get to sing during the show. Cyrus sang Simon's own "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," with Fred Armisen accompanying her on tambourine; the entire performance was desperate for more cowbell. Kanye West opened the special's final hour by singing "Jesus Walks" while flat on his back, a stylistic choice that only 'Ye could get away with (and, yes, he did eventually stand up – surprise guest Sia and her massive white Roseanne Roseannadanna seemed to necessitate it).

SNL 40 also heaped the love on the show's own musical sketches, with Martin Short, Maya Rudolph (divine as Beyoncé), and a powerful wind machine zipping through introductions to a long line of Saturday Night Live's homegrown music numbers, from Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen's Garth and Kat to Aykroyd and Jim Belushi taking on the Blues Brothers. Meanwhile, Bill Murray shared what amounted to a love theme from Jaws in what appeared to be a cramped hallway, and it was still the highlight of the segment (and possibly the entire show).

Despite its reliance on montages, the show made time for reworked versions of a bevy of beloved sketches, including Dan Aykroyd loving revisiting his Super-Bass-o-Matic (now up to model 2150) and an infamously long take on "The Californians," which included a massive selection of additional talent celebrity talent. The show boasted an all-star take on "Celebrity Jeopardy," too, an instant classic that featured all the usual suspects (Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek, Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery, and Kate McKinnon as Justin Bieber), along with an Alec-Baldwin-as-Tony-Bennett impersonation that will likely go down as an all-timer. It was an odd sketch to play home to the show's most controversial and biting joke – a Kenan-Thompson-as-Bill-Cosby appearance that resulted in Ferrell's Trebek yelling repeatedly, "Oh, dear God no!" and attempting to apologize by way of passing it off as a pre-filmed segment – but the energy level was high enough that the gag worked, and worked well.

The inevitable "Weekend Update" segment was wisely rejiggered as a showcase for the series' female anchors, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Jane Curtin, who reported on the show itself as part of a mostly giddy outing. Appearances by Emma Stone as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Edward Norton as Stefon, and Melissa McCarthy as Matt Foley broke up the unfortunately short segment, and all went off without a hitch – including McCarthy demolishing the Update desk and Fey being eaten by a Landshark just outside the shot.

After dancing around the subject for hours, Chris Rock introduced Eddie Murphy by way of a monologue about Eddie Murphy and his most memorable SNL moments, leaving one question: well, what the hell is Eddie Murphy going to do? The answer: Besides walk out to the show's single standing ovation, not much. Murphy's much-heralded return to Saturday Night Live essentially boiled down to an extended – if not very gracious – thank you.

It wasn't the only truncated sketch of the special. Despite its planned three-and a-half-hour running time, a handful of offerings felt cut oddly short, like Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte's return to their weirdo-funny ESPN Classic anchor desk or David Spade and Cecily Strong recreating his Total Bastard Airlines send-off. The inclusion of a smattering of classic commercials – from "Colon Blow" to "Mom Jeans" – felt similarly out of place, a last minute addition to fill time. Jerry Seinfeld gamely threw to the stacks of talent populating the live audience, which at least gave James Franco a chance to make a joke about emails and Sarah Palin to pondering a presidential run. Newly minted movie star Dakota Johnson popped up to announce her own SNL hosting gig (February 28). Tim Meadows grappled with Rolling Stone's ranking the show's cast members (he hasn't taken it well).

The sense of respect for those not present at the special manifested itself twofold, first with Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey lovingly talking about 30 Rock co-star Tracy Morgan before introducing a brief Brian Fellows clip, and then later with Bill Murray ringing in a overwhelmingly – and suitably – sedate In Memoriam montage. At least it ended on a genuinely amusing note, by including Jon Lovitz. Who is notably not dead. And who was in the audience at the time.

Still crazy after all these years, indeed.

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