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02.16.15 7:00 AM ET

‘SNL’ 40th Anniversary Review: A Long Night of Sheer Comedy Bliss

The Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special was a star-studded trip down memory lane so brilliant not even Taylor Swift could ruin it.

Steve Martin did King Tut. Bradley Cooper and Betty White made out. Paul McCartney and Miley Cyrus were musical guests—and you’ll never guess which one sounded better. 

One week before the Oscars, the most star-studded event of the year, and maybe even in television history, took place in Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H, celebrating Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary. It was beautiful. It was weird. It was self-congratulatory and provocative and hilarious. 

It was so freaking long that I’m not 100 percent certain that it’s not still going on. And I loved all 210 nostalgia-packed minutes of it.  

There are very few times that you can say you are watching indisputable brilliance, or witnessing history happen right before your eyes. But Sunday night’s special was just that, with 40 years of cast members and guests from what might be TV’s seminal cultural institution gathered in one room to perform, pay homage, and sear into our memories—through their bliss to just be in the room and talent that bounded out of it—why comedy has been and will always be important.

It was a night of sketch comedy that not even Taylor Swift could ruin. Though girlfriend sure did try.

The special began, what seems like days ago, with a musical number from Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon (with cameos from Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer and Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher!) that sang through a roster of the show’s best characters, sketches, and one-liners. The song-and-dance duo had the honor of delivering the “Live From New York” intro, while Darrell Hammond announced the names of all the celebrities and SNL alumni that would be appearing during the special.

Steve Martin opened the monologue. “Tonight is like an enormous high school reunion,” he began. “A high school that is almost all white…” SNL achieved its hallowed status with its reputation for needling the establishment and blistering takedowns of sociopolitical tomfoolery. How fitting that, on its 40th anniversary, the show’s first target was itself. 

Martin was soon joined by a red carpet’s worth of celebrity walk-ons: Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Rock, Peyton Manning, Miley Cyrus, Billy Crystal, and Paul Simon—an utterly (and so typically SNL) random gathering of celebrities that I’d imagine will be greeting us all at heaven’s pearly gates. Or maybe hell. That’s SNL’s thing, isn’t it? Making those divinely politically incorrect jokes that we all feel like we’re booking direct tickets to hell for laughing at. 

Clip retrospectives ran early and often, with montages of iconic sketches, musical numbers, sports moments, and political satire interrupting the occasional revivals of sketches. There were clips of old skits that made you laugh so hard you cried, and clips of sketches featuring Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, and too many others that just flat-out made you cry, because it’s just bullshit and unfair that their genius left us so soon. 

It was shrewd to revisit some of the classic sketches from throughout the decades, particularly the ones that easily lent themselves to a parade of celebrity guest stars. 

Who didn’t revel in seeing Will Ferrell don his Alex Trebek mustache for another rendition of “Celebrity Jeopardy,” become positively giddy when Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery requested a category (“I'll take Whore Ads for $200”), or squeal with glee when Norm MacDonald and his big hat showed up as Burt Reynolds/Turd Ferguson. While “The Californians” and its ill-advised spotlight granted to Taylor Swift’s questionable comedic chops dragged on forever, a tribute to SNL’s musical sketches led by Martin Short and Maya Rudolph was so perfect I never wanted it to end. 

First of all, there needs to be a variety show starring Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé. And that’s the whole show. But add in Sunday night’s mix of Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen’s deliriously batty Kat and Garth, Joe Piscopo as Sinatra, Adam Sandler’s Opera Man, and Steve Martin as King Tut, and you have sketch show nirvana. By the time Bill Murray came on as Nick Ocean to sing the “Love Theme From Jaws,” I had wondered whether I had ever been happier in my entire life. 

Sometimes, particularly during the self-referential Wayne's World reboot, it felt like they were really just performing for the cast and crew in the room. Normally that would be annoying, but here it was sublime. Why wouldn’t we be excited to see the sharpest, most creative minds in SNL history laugh down memory lane and maybe engage in a bit of comedic mutual masturbation?

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Occasionally, the fawning was a bit much. OK, exactly one time it was excessive. Do you think Eddie Murphy only agreed to appear on the show if his ass was kissed for six minutes first? The smug, rather pathetic adulation stopped the special’s momentum right in its tracks.

Other times, the pats on the back were a pure joy to watch. After all, these are some pretty talented backs. 

A clip package showcasing the auditions of cast members they hired—and some now-famous performers who were passed over—might be one of the most entertaining montages I've ever seen, featuring the first glimpses of Seth Meyer’s Hugh Grant, Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady, Kate McKinnon’s Penelope Cruz, and Dana Carvey’s Church Lady. There was footage of doomed auditions by Jim Carrey, Zach Galifianakis, Stephen Colbert, Kevin Hart, and Andy Kaufman, who weren’t hired after their tryouts. 

That Carrey wasn’t hired for his Nuclear Elvis character, based on the two seconds we just saw, might be the biggest mistake SNL ever made. (I hear his career turned out OK, though.) 

Then there was the special’s ultimate highlight: an homage to Weekend Update fronted by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin. The instantaneous “God, yes” from every person watching at that moment was so reflexive and earnest you could almost hear it echoing in the ether. The trio of women was flawless, and, more importantly, funny. And they were a crucial reminder that, though it has an undeniable and unfortunate misogynistic history, SNL has still been an indelible platform for women in comedy. And that platform is, thankfully, only getting bigger and sturdier.

Here was a comedy special that brought Molly Shannon back on my TV. That had Laraine Newman back on TV. That had Ana Gasteyer dressed as an old woman singing about “booty” back on TV. There was an entire televised red carpet event before the special started that all of these legendary women walked down, and the only person who was asked who they were wearing was Andy Samberg. How lovely. How reassuring. How freaking about time. 

But as it built toward the debut of a new (and very funny) Digital Short from Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler, the success of the special was its careful and almost incessant reminder of SNL’s groundbreaking, pre-viral video roots. As a culture, our memory is fleeting, often lasting only as long as it takes to walk back to our desks from the water cooler. For all of the obsessing over an SNL appearance by Sarah Palin or a new Lonely Island song, too many of us are forgetful—and in some cases ignorant—of what came before.

The brilliance of Sunday night’s special was that it reminded us that before a dick was ever put in a box, Fred Garvin the male prostitute was driving the ladies mad. And before Stefon ever announced the opening of New York’s hottest club, two wild and crazy guys already had their pulse on the Big Apple’s swinging nightlife.

So much has changed about SNL. Even the way we consume the show has changed. When SNL started, they were the Not Ready for Primetime Players. Now, there barely is a primetime. Sketches are consumed piecemeal on Sunday and Monday mornings, when you stumble upon the video on Gawker or all of your high school friends post links to it on Facebook. 

But while sketches may live or die these days by the popularity of the hashtag they inspire, some things will always be the same. Forget the insufferable and needless think pieces written each year about “Saturday Night Dead,” how the show isn’t as funny as it used to be, then how the show is making a comeback, and then how the comeback is too white, or too male-driven, or too politically-focused or not politically-focused enough. Never has the show lost its importance. Its edge. Its position as a hotbed of talent. Its status as TV’s most demented funhouse. 

On the red carpet before the show, Sigourney Weaver said, “I think they do the world a great service by making fun of everything.” Sometimes that skewering has been controversial. Sometimes it’s been tone-deaf. And sometimes it's been necessary. (“Can we be funny?” “Why start now?”)

SNL, for 40 years, has seemed to exist in a different, dark, and neglected corner of show business, allowed to do as it pleased because the misfits and perverse minds that engineered its weekly broadcast were the kind the ‘biz’ typically ignores. They’ve always played by a different set of rules. For an overlong, overjoyous three and a half hours on a Sunday night, it was a pleasure to get a glimpse at some of that rulebook.  

After witnessing during this 40th anniversary special both how acutely of-the-now and truly timeless SNL has always been, there’s no doubt that the sketch show will be around for 10 more years, yielding another riotous celebration.

Until then, I’ll be waiting in my van down by the river