Middle Aged SNL Hits, Misses

Kelly Pien, News Editor

The big 4-0 birthday is a momentous date. A 40-year-old straddles the gap between young and old, still capable of pulling off hip trends, but also seasoned enough to discuss the interests of the aged (whatever those are).

Saturday Night Live is, in many ways, a 40-year-old. Its scripts are living documents that change up until airtime. The show is multi-faceted: sketches can be brilliant satires, commentary on social trends and Hollywood, raunchy, or just plain silly. But they can frequently make mistakes or hit the wrong note: from last year, an awkward slave joke and a stiff Kim Jong-Un parody come to mind.

In other words, SNL is only human.

SNL held its 40th Anniversary Special on Sunday, February 15. It was chaotic and unpolished, like a weird cross between a high school talent show and reunion. This is typical though, and the whole birthday bash ran like one supersized episode, except it celebrated and lampooned itself, instead of its normal fare, society and public figures.

SNL also amazingly managed to cover a lot of ground, condensing 40 years of history into 3 and a half hours. The show paid tribute to the older stars and sketches, reminded us of the 2000’s, and submitted that, contrary to many critics’ views, the show is still funny and talent-filled in 2015.

And at times, SNL’s 40th Anniversary Special felt like it was trying to appeal to both young and old. All the themed highlight reels included top sketches and shorts from the last few years in addition to the classic ones from decades ago. The “cold open,” where the show starts with a scene or sketch without explanation, featured two younger performers, Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. It was followed by an opening monologue with 15-time host Steve Martin. A “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch starred two characters from the late ’90s, Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery, and Kate McKinnon’s more recent Justin Bieber. A digital short featured goofballs from two different eras, Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. Even the musical performers varied in age, from Paul McCartney to Miley Cyrus.

The highs of the show were the old and new characters seamlessly blended into recreations of famous sketches. “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “The Californians” did this well, invoking the iconic parts of the old sketches while integrating guest stars and newer characters who weren’t in the original sketches.

More standouts included iconic features tweaked to be about the 40th anniversary special. Weekend Update featured past anchors Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin, whose lively chemistry could serve as a good role model for the current anchors. Samberg and Sandler’s digital short, which paid tribute to cast members who broke character and laughed on air, made me smile. “Wayne’s World” and various celebrity monologues poked fun at the show’s racially and sometimes even gender-ly homogenous, drug-filled past.

The lows occurred either when there wasn’t enough or when there was too much star power in one sketch. The “cold open” consisted of a rap song performed by Timberlake and Fallon. Yes, I understand that Timberlake and Fallon are important parts of SNL history. After all, Timberlake is part of the 5-timers club (when a star hosts SNL five times, a rare feat) and Fallon is one of SNL’s greatest success stories as the current host of The Tonight Show. But whoever wrote this opening seems to have forgotten the very long list of talent, showcased in the opening credits, that they have on hand. Instead, Fallon and Timberlake played every character, except for 2 welcome cameos from the characters Mary Katherine Gallagher and Debbie Downer. The cold open is the first act of the show, and I think it should be appropriately big and star-filled.

As if to make up for the dearth of stars in the cold opening, the rest of the special tried to fit characters and guest stars in places where they weren’t needed. In the tribute to musical sketches, old and new characters were forced together into one long talent show. Separately, Garth and Kat, Opera Man, Marty and Bobbi Culp, and the like, are awesome. All together, not so much.

Likewise, in place of regular Weekend Update characters, past celebrity hosts brought back former cast members’ classic characters. The impressions of characters were good, but I felt like they were thrown in just so the show could say they had an additional couple of celebrities present.

The same feeling was replicated during basically every monologue that introduced a video montage. Each monologue featured an old white guy who has hosted the show before. The feeling came back during Jerry Seinfeld’s Q and A session.

In addition, the show’s tributes to Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy were awkward and felt forced and anticlimactic. However, the “in memoriam reel” and tribute to Tracy Morgan, who is recovering from a car accident, were better.

Two major tributes were missing: montages about the show’s writers and about the legendary Lorne Michaels.

Of course the actors have to sell the sketch on air, but sketches like the Palin/Clinton cold open wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without lines like “I can see Russia from my house!” Leaving the writers out of the show seems like a missed opportunity to me.

Creator, executive producer and talent finder Lorne Michaels is the heart of the show. The enigmatic Michaels, as I expected, wasn’t in the show much – a few camera cuts to him in the audience, a flashback to when he offered the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show, a mention in the opening monologue – but they were enough to remind us that Michaels is a key part of SNL.