Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SNL40 felt like an ending when it could have been a new beginning

I am about to express an opinion that may prove to be unpopular, and it feels like I’m in college again, sitting with a friend who just did a terrible monologue for an audition and has asked me how I honestly thought it went. It feels like I’m burning a bridge before I even cross it. But a part of me believes I am not the only who felt this way, and that it should be okay to talk about something like this if need be.

I did not like Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special.


Of course, there were parts I absolutely loved. There were parts that landed.
But, like a typical SNL episode of the last 40 years, it had strong moments, just overall was simply an acceptable offering. There’s a reality to SNL that we as its audience never really talk about. It’s the fact that SNL traditionally does not feature strong episodes. Instead, the talented cast will often entrench themselves into one or two highlight sketches. Weekend Update is always consistently strong, and then maybe once in a while there’s a breakout sketch from the late spot, like Wayne’s World. But in a show that often features closer to 10 or 11 sketches, that’s not a great average. Of course, the other sketches will contain some highlight lines or performances but for the most part, my original point still stands: you won’t find people naming off their favorite episodes. You will find people who gravitate toward certain sketches. You will have people acknowledge that when certain people host it elevated a lot of the sketches (like Justin Timberlake) but it’s rare to find an overall solid episode, with every sketch a hit.

And you know what, that’s fine. In fact, it should be expected. I think that people who rag on the show’s declining quality since its inception are ignorant of this fact. You watch every week not because you hope it’ll finally be better. You watch every week to see those one or two standout sketches, and maybe you’ll be surprised along the way. There are performers that you will stick around for because they’re the feature. For me, it was Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen, and later on Bill Hader. If it was their character holding together the proceedings, I’d stick out a lackluster sketch just because their performances were consistently transcendent.

SNL40 felt much like a drawn out episode: some sure-fire highlights, but overall a forgettable, forced affair. Frankly, a lot of its booking simply boggled my mind. And with its extensive runtime, I find that even harder to believe that it was put together so inconsistently.

Let me start by saying I do give major kudos for everyone attempting to put together an actual episode. They could have gotten by with simple intros to montages of clips and be done with it. Personally, if they had gone that route, I would’ve liked to see something more linear, with the original cast introducing the first five or six years of the show, talking briefly about it, and then throwing to the montage. The entire original cast was there, yet we never once saw them together onstage, which was incredibly disappointing. They don’t talk about those 5 years without Lorne much on the show (although they did reference quite a bit during this special) but I would’ve liked to see some of the cast from that era reunited on the stage, especially with both Piscopo and Murphy present for the first time in ages.

But the unfortunate part of this 3-hour+ runtime was that every segment felt interminably long. Even more solid offerings wore out their welcomes a bit. It was marvelous to see Celebrity Jeopardy again, a staple of the 90s/00s when I most watched SNL. I welcomed all the random switching to get more celebrity impressions in there, and ultimately my problem with it was that it didn’t go far enough. On a night when practically every single performer is available to you, I wanted to see more highlights from the sketch. Absent were Amy Poehler’s Sharon Osbourne, any of Fallon’s impressions, any of Dana Carvey’s impressions, and they’d already squandered a straight use of Tom Hanks. The Californians sketch featured a tacked on Total Bastard Airlines reprisal with David Spade and Cecily Strong that they cut off anyway. I continually found myself asking why, on a night with a three-hour runtime are they still pressed for time. They seemingly cut off Dana Carvey’s Choppin’ Broccoli by Derek Stevens during the musical number. Everyone was very brief and stilted in their introduction of segments and during their acknowledgements. Both Seinfeld and Murphy (though I have to believe the latter was a callback bit) seemed to be done and the crew anticipated their segments being longer.

One thing a couple friends said to me was that the special was pure fan-service, and I don’t even know if it was that. I’m a huge fan of the Californians, but what an incredibly out of place sketch on this night. Weekend Update featured the three female anchors of the segment’s history (it should be four, but they seemingly have swept Cecily Strong’s brief run under the rug) and three of its strongest performers in Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Jane Curtin yet their timing was off, their jokes were flat, and they just didn’t seem that into it. When Curtin mused, “This is fun, I wish we didn’t have to stop,” I sadly felt the opposite. Nothing warranted the existence of this, and I found the celebrities as their favorite Update characters just dumb. You still have a plethora of performers who have done notable Update characters at your disposal, it didn’t do me any service to see Melissa McCarthy trotted out to do Matt Foley or Emma Stone as Rosanne Rosannadanna. In fact, quite the opposite. Those characters’ original performers are no longer with us, and I’d like to believe those characters went with them. It almost felt disrespectful to me.

Even the montages felt incredibly rushed and thrown together. It was flashes of memories, bits from segments we no longer remember the context of, and mostly silent appearances from hilarious cast members all set to music that overpowered the clips. At this point, I think a more effective use of the legacy of SNL would be to highlight some of the more memorable moments, and play those clips in entirety. With a three-hour runtime, in place of overly long sketches written to the cameos of the scenes instead of the characters we fell in love with, we could have seen some of the more important sketches from history. I mean, they didn’t even play the Michael O’Donoghue/John Belushi ESL sketch in its entirety, breaking the rhythm of Chevy Chase’s appearance in it. You couldn’t spare two more seconds to preserve Chaes’s entrance into that scene? You couldn’t somehow acknowledge that this was the very first thing audiences saw the show do in 1975? There have been some incredible moments that truly emphasize how special the show is, and that it’s live and unpredictable. They showed the highlight of the Coffee Talk when Barbra Streisand randomly showed up, but I think the build-up of that sketch is what makes that moment, and we never get to see it in its entirety, despite how often it makes its way into the show’s highlight reels.

And perhaps that’s the other problem of this show. There was no ground previously untreaded here. We’ve seen a Weekend Update tribute before, we’ve seen a tribute to the women, to those who have passed on, to the athletes who appear on the show, the political figures who appear on the show, the musicians, montages of commercials, montages of celebrity walk-ons during the cast member’s impression of them, the digital shorts and filmed segments of the show, even my idea of cast members throwing to important clips has been done, particularly at the 25th anniversary special. My complaint here I guess is that as fan-service it’s redundant. I know all these things, and my friends know all these things. If you’ve seen the other specials before (and I’ve watched the 25th anniversary countless times) then you’ve seen these clips before. It’s a little like how I feel with origin stories for superhero movies. I wasn’t the least bit sad in the Spider-Man reboot when Uncle Ben died this time. I’ve seen it so many times.

You know what ground really has never been acknowledged, and they even made fun of that fact? The writers. The list of writers for that show reads almost as famously as the cast. Michael O’Donoghue, Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, Larry David, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Al Franken, Don Novello, Alan Zweibel, Paula Pell, Patrick O’Brien, Heather Anne Campbell, Steve Higgins, Max Brooks, Jack Handey, Jim Downey, Robert Smigel, Tim Herlihy, Stephen Colbert, Lauren Kightlinger, Jay Mohr, Sarah Silverman, Herb Sargent, Whitney Brown, Rich Hall, Mary Gross… Seinfeld highlighted this fact during his segment, and yet they still weren’t acknowledged. My question: during this Q&A segment (incidentally a recycled bit from the 25th, with Tom Hanks in place of Seinfeld) why weren’t the members of the audience asking Seinfeld questions the writers? The idea of Mulaney, Higgins, Smigel, and Franken all verbally sparring with Seinfeld like Larry David did is a delicious concept. As it was, the segment was fine, but played out better in its first incarnation (bolstered by appearances by Christopher Walken and Victoria Jackson).

Maybe in place of these interminably long sketches written to cameos, there could have been some sort of feature sketches from the casts of different eras. Hey, you guys from roughly this era, pick like 3 favorite sketches. You’re gonna talk about them on the air for a bit, and then we’ll show it. Maybe not in its entirety, but the majority of it, you know? The problem with a lot of the montages was that without context, they are not funny, and for a remarkably long-lasting show that created such remarkably indelible characters, with remarkably funny segments, this show was remarkably devoid of genuine laughs. It’s a symptom of the show’s shift of emphasis over the years, where things are written to the celebrity cameos, and celebrities are shoe-horned into segments they don’t belong, often being unnecessarily added to a legacy character (like when Chris Martin or Gwenyth Paltrow were added to the Garth and Kat segment. WAIT A MINUTE, Martin and Paltrow!? Aww, how sad). And these “new” sketches (the Californians chief among them, but also that hosting segment near the top of the show) was written with so many walk-ons, instead of relying on the strength of writing and character, that everything fell flat and wore out its welcome.

Was it all bad? Of course not. A lot of it just felt awkward. It felt like when the Tony’s or the Golden Globes go wrong.

But there were some amazing moments. Keith Richards introducing Paul McCartney. I know a lot of younger fans may not grasp the irony of that moment. But you got a Rolling Stone to introduce a Beatle on live television. That’s just fantastic.

Chris Rock talking about Eddie Murphy was electric, and Rock seemed to be one of the only performers comfortable with standing out there on that stage being himself. New cast member Pete Davidson standing alongside Leslie Jones did not fare so well later on in the show (I mean, Jones was fantastic, Davidson looked uncomfortable). Kevin Nealon, Norm MacDonald, Seth Meyers, and Colin Quinn introducing Chevy Chase were also uncomfortable (although that’s always been MacDonald’s bit, but Meyers attempting to diffuse the tension didn’t seem to go over well). It’s too bad that Murphy’s return was not as triumphant as Rock built it up to be. It would have been truly special to hear some humor come from the normally now-reserved Murphy, but he didn’t say much and the segment ended awkwardly. As did the Update segment, introducing Chevy Chase. A lot of younger fans again may not realize that it’s been 30 odd years since Murphy was on that stage, and it’s been a good few since Chase was banned from the show, so to have them both back and make such reserved appearances is rather unfortunate.

What’s also unfortunate is that one thing the show managed to do, perhaps inadvertently, was highlight the age and the passing of time for a lot of the performers. One friend brought up the grim idea that the decision was made to do a 40-year celebration, because many people might not make it to 50. Looking at some of the performers last night while I watched, I was not moved to think any of them are going to die soon (God forbid) but they all looked much older, and moved much changed from years past. There was something incredibly sad about Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd descending the steps as the Blues Brothers, arm-in-arm, and proceeding into a pretty low-key performance as what was decades ago the most electric musical performance on the show. Chase looked even older than he had on Community. Curtin looked older than I’d remembered her. Even “younger” performers looked older than I’d remembered: a remarkable Jim Carrey looks like Ace Ventura’s father, Alec Baldwin’s hair has gone a bit gray, Seinfeld and Darrell Hammond, and even Quinn, Nealon, and even Meyers and Pohler, look more mature than the kids they once were on the show in years past. All comic heroes of mine, I was reminded of the passage of time, and as much as I hate to think it, there may have been some truth to my friend’s words.

One person who has aged extremely gracefully (not to say the previously mentioned have not aged well) is Laraine Newman, who was extremely spirited in her appearances. Another is Bill Murray. While looking much older as expected, Murray I think gave the standout performance of the evening, belting out the previously unreleased love song from JAWS. It was fantastic getting to see him reunited with Paul Shaffer. This was an example of playing on nostalgia done correctly. In fact, a lot of that musical montage was quite good. From Martin Short and Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce (both always top notch) introducing everyone, to Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer reprising Bobbi and Marty Culp, to the aforementioned Murray as Nick Winters. A couple of the others were mostly miss, but I think overall that segment was fantastic.

Another segment that worked was when Andy Samberg got to produce another Digital Short for the occasion, and joining him was Adam Sandler, to sing about when people have broke on the show and laughed during a sketch. The revelation at the end that the melody was Simply the Best by Tina Turner was great.

And finally of the sketches, the one that surprised me the most, which should come as no surprise, was Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising Wayne and Garth. My whole thing about comics aging did not apply here. The two appeared ageless, unchanged, and slipped easily right back into these characters as if they’d never left the late spot on the show. The Top Ten list was the perfect mix of nostalgia, banter, catchphrase, running joke, and congratulation to the show’s achievements.

The musical performances were also great. McCartney and Simon are still on top of their games. Say what you will about Kanye as a person, but as a performer, he’s surprisingly moving. Same goes for Miley, who seemed a bit out of place on the show, but gave an awesome performance as well.

The in memoriam was also wonderful. Classy, dignified, and I was appreciative of the crew and staff getting acknowledgements as well. You could also hear people in the audience saying their names when they’d come up and that was very moving to me. I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s such a family there, and the crew is so important to any production. Also, the running joke of Jon Lovitz dying was hilarious. His reactions were great. As classy and dignified as the segment was, I thought the closing jokes were wonderful.

What the show was sorely missing for me was something new. SNL has a long-lasting legacy and if it were to end tomorrow, it would still be remembered forever. It’s truly touched so many people, and influenced so many comedians to get into comedy and changed the direction of comedy for years not just on TV but in film and all media. But I think they hung back for this special. When The Simpsons Movie came out, they pulled out all the stops. They didn’t just hang back on nostalgia, they gave us a new, longer, ambitious episode. They gave us top-notch comedy, a fun, zany plot, and succeeded in giving back some of the characters’ hearts (Lisa and Homer in particular). In short, they insisted on their own relevancy by going above and beyond what they needed to do. What the SNL40 special failed to do for me, in my mind, was insist on its own relevancy. A few sketches here and there have pushed the envelope again, and many fail to make air. The show doesn’t always need to be edgy, dangerous, envelope-pushing, but it does need to not become so self-referential and recycled that it comes to exist purely in a bubble of nostalgia and celebrity cameos. I think SNL40 could have been their chance to highlight the next generation, to have the current cast meet some of their heroes, to maybe generate some new material with the unlimited and amazing abilities of almost every talented performer and writer on hand. The one glimpse of that was Cecily Strong paired with David Spade as the TBA flight attendants. The live audience seemed to miss her amazing lines. She was great! She was suddenly holding her own with David Spade, a man who made his career on barbs and snipes like this. There needed to be more of that. There simply wasn’t enough. The current cast was either non-existent, or playing bit parts while the more recognized work-horses of the show were given prominence. That’s all well and good, but for the show’s legacy to continue to shine, these work-horses should have been given something more to do with the next generation. Not enough passing of the torch was had, and SNL seemed comfortable with its legacy as it stands, not needing to add anything new. It could have been kind of a new beginning for SNL, with the enormity of its legacy backing it, but they didn’t grasp the opportunity.

Solid music, a stand-out appearance by Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Laraine Newman, and Maya Rudolph, a strong opening number from Fallon and Timberlake, a great digital short, and a surprisingly strong closing sketch. That’s a pretty strong average episode of the show. If Weekend Update had worked better, it’d be an above-average episode. But it wasn’t an average episode. It was supposed to be a celebration of 40 years. It felt like what should have been an ending, but a combination of its rushed nature, its crammed cameos, and SNL’s repeated celebration of itself over the years made this somehow feel less special than it could have been. So even as an ending it didn’t work. I hope SNL continues to run for many years to come. I hope that this night inspires the upcoming generation of the cast to strive and push for something new and make the show what it has been for the better part of these 40 years. I hope that while it could’ve been more evident in the special’s proceedings, I hope it is taken as a new beginning for the show. And finally, I hope somehow, it inspired one more kid out there somewhere to be a comedian, as the show once did for me, many years ago, way past my bedtime, laughing at gods and giants of comedy.