Saturday Night Live's 40th Anniversary Special: The Best and Worst Moments

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  • Justin Timberlake
    Justin Timberlake
    American artist and businessman
  • Jimmy Fallon
    Jimmy Fallon
    American comedian

Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special

On Sunday evening, NBC reserved four and a half hours (including an hour-long red carpet precursor) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, and given that unbelievably long amount of time, there were bound to be equally as many highs and lows. In case you had other plans, or simply didn't want to park yourself on the couch for one sixth of the day, I'm here to run down some of the best and worst of moments from SNL big birthday bash. Here we go:


BEST/WORST: Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake vamp through SNL history


It's hard for me to overly criticize Jimmy and Justin's schtick because it's so inoffensive and full of joy, and they did a fine job of running through SNL's 40 years. However, I couldn't help but imagine opening the anniversary special with literally anyone else. How about some more respected cast members from days of yore, instead of NBC's current golden boy? Just a thought.


BEST: Darrell Hammond reads all the names in the opening credits

One of the best parts of the night happened roughly eight minutes into the main show, when Hammond, the SNL's current announcer, had to role-call an extended list of guests. Sure, he needed a few built-in breaths, but there was something truly funny about how long the credits went on, and how sturdy he was throughout.


WORST: A disjointed, jam-packed opening monologue

A lot of people have hosted this show, did you know?


BEST: Steve Martin's high school reunion joke during the opening monologue

"Tonight is like an enormous high school reunion—a high school that is all white." This quip, along with Ellen Cleghorne's incisive "question" to Jerry Seinfeld about the lack of black women on SNL and everywhere else, brought the show's race problem to the forefront. It was, however, a little odd that those jokes in particular did so well with an otherwise awful crowd. Speaking of that...


WORST: The crowd

Good on SNL and NBC for inviting everyone loosely associated with the show to this celebratory bash, but it turns out when you let a slew of celebs sit in the audience, they don't bring the kind of zeal for the sketches as normal audiences. The crowd was dead from the very beginning, barely chuckling at notable-but-not-quite-famous characters and only showing real enthusiasm for the obvious stuff. That the crowd no sold Jane Curtin's riff on Fox News during the Weekend Update sketch is criminal. Ban celebrities.


BEST: Celebrity Jeopardy


The first actual sketch of the night was absolutely the best. Celebrity Jeopardy thankfully gave the show an opportunity to bring back some beloved characters, both old (Hammond's Sean Connery and Norm MacDonald's Burt Reynolds) and new (Kate McKinnon's Justin Bieber and Jim Carrey's Matthew McConaughey, I guess). But more importantly, it truly played like a normal (if familiar) sketch instead of just half-hearted celebration. Will Ferrell, Hammond, and MacDonald slipped back into their characters with ease, and every gag ("Let It Snow" as Le Tits Now!) landed nearly perfectly.


INDIFFERENT: Montages, forever

The SNL crew can certainly cut a great montage and after 40 years, there are certainly enough highlights to pull from. And I guess we couldn't expect the show to churn out one reheated sketch after another—not everything can be Celebrity Jeopardy. Nonetheless, if you're even a casual fan of the show, the anniversary special's montages were full of stuff you've seen time and time and time again. The send-up of NYC, politics, sports, and "short films" (both fake ads and digital shorts) were all lovely enough on their own, but I was hoping to see more original content and performances.


BEST: Audition tapes

Though not original in the traditional fashion, the early montage of audition clips (from both cast members and a few famous folks who never made the cut) was perfect material for event like this. What was most impressive—other than how young everyone looked—was that so many great SNL characters existed in the minds of future SNL performers long before they made it to the show.


WORST: Famous people paying homage to the dead during Weekend Update

The Tina Fey-Amy Poehler-Jane Curtin Weekend Update segment ran far too short and yet was still far too long, and it was further limited by the decision to let famous people perform some of their "favorite" SNL characters. No offense to Emma Stone or Melissa McCartney, but their performances as Roseanne Rosannadanna and Matt Foley were just... weird. Everyone knows that Gilda Radner and Chris Farley are long gone, but on a night where the pain of their deaths was likely on the audience's mind, these moments didn't so much as honor those we've lost as simple make me wish they were still here.


BEST: Bradley Cooper and Betty White in The Californians


You guys know how I feel about The Californians. I saw a lot of groaning on Twitter about the anniversary special pulling out this much-maligned recurring sketch for such a grand occasion, but if there's one thing I can say for The Californians, it's that it has room for a lot of performers. That's a good thing. Also good? Bradley Cooper's turn as the braindead pool boy, capped off by his full-on make-out session with Betty White. National treasures, those two.


WORST: Taylor Swift in The Californians

You know who didn't do as well within the framework of The Californians? Taylor Swift, America's Try-Hard. Imagine how much better that little bit of the sketch would've been with Miley Cyrus (who did a nice job in the opening monologue and slayed in her performance of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover").


BEST: Maya Rudolph and Martin Short hamming it up during the music celebration

The show's musical observance could have gone so poorly, but Short and Rudolph (as Beyonce) were so good that they simply wouldn't let it die out there on the stage like it probably deserved to. Why NBC hasn't given Rudolph more episodes for her variety show is completely beyond me. In a night full of huge stars, she was one of the best.


WORST: Eddie Murphy's "return"


Before the show, Murphy's return was one of the most anticipated moments. The actor's unwillingness to appear on SNL has come to define his relationship with the show, and the thought that he'd come back for this big moment was almost too much to handle. Unfortunately, it seemed like it was too much for Murphy as well. After Chris Rock paid great respect to Murphy with an extended (if awkward) introduction, Murphy walked out on stage to great applause and then... nothing.

Murphy clumsily thanked people for their support and briefly noted the special place SNL holds in his heart, but that was it. The sequence was so undercooked that it clearly caught the crew off guard. Murphy asked them to go to commercial, but it was obvious that he was intended to speak (or perform) for at least a few moments longer. Instead, after 30 years of waiting, we received 70-some seconds of odd graciousness. Surely that's not what many viewers had in mind.


BEST: "That's When You Break"

In true contemporary SNL fashion, the pre-recorded digital short was the most enjoyable part of the special. Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler's '80s-rock ode to the mysterious art of laughing uncontrollably during a sketch was self-reflexive in the best of ways—including the needling of Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz, the all-time leaders in breaking. It also did something that I haven't seen in a very, very long time: It made Adam Sandler legitimately funny. Bonus points to the last-minute appearance and enthusiastic head-bobbing from Bill Hader.


INDIFFERENT: Wayne's World

Wayne and Garth are two of the best SNL characters ever, but this segment felt especially insular while watching at home. It was really just a way to thank the crew for all their great work—and they absolutely deserve it—but I'm not sure the special needed nearly 10 minutes to get to that. Additional awkwardness brought to us by the weird "reunion" of Kanye West and Mike Myers, who of course have quite the history on live television.


WORST: White guys introducing white guys and other things at the end

Apart from "You're Gonna Break," the last 75 minutes of the special were quite the slog. For a long time there, it felt like SNL was simply trotting out white guys to introduce other white guys, so they could graciously accept the praise of the crowd of white guys. Combined with Murphy's weird behavior, a lack of real sketches, and an In Memoriam segment that was ruined by too much clapping, the second half of the special simply didn't have the energy of the first half. Maybe three and a half hours was too much? Who would have guessed?


THE VERDICT

Some of the big moments hit (Celebrity Jeopardy and the digital short), and many fell flat (Eddie Murphy, Wayne's World), which is pretty fitting for SNL. While the special was a lovely celebration of Saturday Night Live and it was great to see some of the cast, the telecast was far, far too long. I can't imagine what SNL will do when it turns 50—a six-hour multicast across the entire NBCUniversal family of networks, perhaps? But I'll leave it to you folks now. Did you make it through all three and a half hours, plus the red carpet? What's on your best and worst list?


What did you think of SNL's 40th anniversary special?