I grew up in a Saturday Night Live household. My parents watched, or taped (!), the show pretty much every week. Certain characters infiltrated our daily lives: Toonces the driving cat, Pat the ambiguously gendered shop clerk, anything Steve Martin did. (The Jerk, though not an SNL persona, is to this day is my dad's favorite movie. He likes to go up to any chair and say: "All I need is this chair," doing his best Navin R. Johnson impression.)
So it was to my dismay (but not to my surprise) that the three-and-a-half hour long 40th-anniversary special NBC put on last night played out much like a Texas science textbook: there was heavy focus on a certain godlike species (the male) and not so much on another (the female).
Granted, the show's intended audience was likely those who could remember the day it launched, in 1975: boomers. Those who thought, and think, that whatever comedy John Belushi participated in creating was funny (it hasn't aged well). Those who remember that it was a radical act to hire Eddie Murphy (and Leslie Jones and Lakendra Tookes, just last year). SNL hasn't always been great at pushing any agenda forward; but it has served, to moderate success, as a reactionary platform.
The original cast of the show, however, was weird group, almost prohibitively so to the point where the comedy is either inscrutable or sophomoric. The show remained this way until Eddie Murphy was cast in the early '80s. In the early '90s, the cast began to coalesce; despite almost being canceled several times in the middle of the decade, the show obtained some of its most memorable hires: Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Mike Myers. Despite the show's perpetual near-death existence, its ability to attract rare talent only increased.
But last night's bloated special sleepwalked on the edge of banality. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake opened the show with a truly embarrassing rap-summation of SNL's history that I ended up watching under a blanket. From there, it was man in tux after man in tux, introducing mashups of archival clips or bringing back vintage sketches. "Congratulations to @nbcsnl on 40 great years. You've officially made your mark on our city," Bill de Blasio tweeted. Oy.
SNL has always been at its best when it's at its weirdest and most provocative. Its greatest treasures are those actors who can make the weird mainstream without being total divas—Tina Fey, Dana Carvey, Rachel Dratch, Bill Hader, Steve Martin, Kristen Wiig, Julia Sweeney, Jan Hooks, Tracy Morgan. Most of these players went underrepresented last night, in favor of "magical moments" between Paul McCartney and Paul Simon and an overemphasis on the "amazing" cast of season 10 (can anyone remember if SNL 1985-86 was good?).
Stars will be stars; people love them. How many people were watching last night for DeNiro, Nicholson, Jeter, Manning, Seinfeld, Baldwin, Rock, the list goes on? The guest stars are usually the worst part of SNL because they are bad. The great parts are when you can tell the actors like each other and are having a good time doing the sketches. They think what they are doing is fun and funny. Maybe they can't stop laughing. Before Jimmy Fallon became too famous for his own good, he and Rachel Dratch had phenomenal chemistry whenever they were onstage together. You could tell they were having a blast.
None of this was really evident last night. It was mainly an event for starfucking, and the fucking was going on between straight men, so it was pretty gross.
Miley and Kanye were good, though.
[Image by Jim Cooke]