I laughed. I cried. I yawned. And if that’s not like your life, well, you’re way ahead of me. I’m talking, of course, about life — everyone’s life, apparently — as seen through the lens of the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary show.
It was an event, and the reviews reflected as much.
It was funny, except when it wasn’t. It was endearingly mediocre, except when it wasn’t. It was perfect, except when it wasn’t.
Everyone did the not-as-good-as-it-used-to-be joke. Everyone wondered why Eddie Murphy couldn’t be bothered to tell even one joke. And I’m sure everyone was thinking that if you can remember the first time Dan Aykroyd did the Bass-o-Matic bit, you might not last for the entire show.
If you watched — and the ratings were good — the show was all of those things, which is why you kept watching. Steve Martin captured the moment early in his monologue, saying that the show was like a high school reunion, in a high school where nearly everyone was white. What amazed, though, was that in this world where everything is divided into Twitter-sized fragments, how everyone’s high school reunion happened at exactly the same time.
The show was a test of how many TV generations can fit into 40 years, and how long you could watch before you felt the zeitgeist slipping away — I mean, I get the Kanye West jokes, but I don’t care about the Kanye West jokes. The real joke behind Saturday Night Live’s entire life is that it was always better in memory, when every sketch was Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood and every impersonation was na-ganna-da-it.
But who didn’t appreciate the self-mocking, self-congratulatory self regard of the anniversary show, and who didn’t think that just when you were ready to turn the damn thing off, there was Bill Murray doing Nick Ocean and, yes, it is everyone’s high school reunion?
I don’t know which got to me more — trying to digest the 3 1/2 hours or trying to figure out why Jack was there. Of course everyone was there, which is the essence of the whole 40-year thing. It was the Grammys, the Oscars, and the sketch-writers’ Hall of Fame combined. It was Seinfeld vs. Larry David, Steve Martin vs. King Tut, Tina Fey vs. the Land Shark, Melissa McCarthy vs. the memory of Chris Farley. There was the shock of Adam Sandler being funny, of Paul McCartney grown old, of Paul Simon and Paul McCartney’s game-saving mini-duet of “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
The genius of SNL 40 was that, as it time-traveled from era to era, they mixed the stars and the bits and the memories so completely that it was always the same era. Everyone has his or her own Saturday Night Live. You get a generation, maybe two, maybe even three if you’re slow.
But if you’re a child of the ’60s, and you were there from the beginning — from back in the ’70s, when much of the ’60s actually happened — you’re sure that the edgy irreverence of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players was unmatched.
My favorite sketch was Aykroyd as the shoulder-hunched, sweaty-lipped, dark-eyed Nixon in a scene taken from Woodward and Bernstein’s Final Days. Nixon/Aykroyd, full of self pity, is walking down the White House halls and comes upon a portrait of Lincoln. He looks up and says, “Well, Abe, you were lucky. They shot you.” Rolling Stone just ranked the 50 greatest sketches, and Final Days was all the way back at No. 48. And so it goes.
I don’t know when I lost track of the show, or when it was no longer a must-watch (If Tina Fey was doing Palin, there was YouTube on Monday to fill me in) or when the long, slow bits became unbearably long and slow or when I’d see the latest SNL star in a movie and say to myself, hoping no one else could hear, “So that’s who that is.”
I do know that the moment in SNL 40 that got to me — and I assume everyone else — was Tom Schiller’s 1978 short film, Don’t Look Back in Anger. They showed it to begin the In Memoriam section, which, after 40 years, is no longer a short. The camera follows a wizened Belushi visiting the Not Ready for Prime Time cemetery. He’s the only living member of the cast.
“They always said I’d be the first to go,” Belushi says. It’s the dead of winter, the ground snow-covered, Belushi walking with a cane, no one knowing when the movie was shot that Belushi would, of course, be the first to go. He tells how each of the players died and wonders how he outlasted his friends. And then comes the Belushi look. You know that look. “I’ll tell you why,” he says. “Because I’m a dancer.” He throws away the cane and dances, as only Belushi could, across the snow.
It was perfect. And if you do yourself a favor and watch the entire 5-minute short, you’ll remember why you couldn’t help but stick around for the entire three-and-a-half-hour show.[Original cast photo via Pinterest.]