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Saturday Night Live’s 40-year anniversary celebration: The good, the bad, the awesome

saturday night live 40 year anniversary special breakdown nbc snl intro fallon timberlake
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Seriously, who hasn’t been on Saturday Night Live before? After watching the 3.5-hour star-studded event to celebrate the show’s four decades on television, it was amazing to see how many familiar faces either served as a cast member at one point in time, or used to write for the show. But most amazing was watching how many people came back to commemorate the milestone, including several Hollywood elite that have, at one point in time, hosted the program.

The special, which aired this past Sunday night, highlighted some of the most notable skits, characters, and cast members that appeared through the show’s four decades on the air (and counting). This included both those who are sadly no longer with us (Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, and more), those who still remain staples in Hollywood (Chevy Chase, David Spade, Will Ferrell, Dan Aykroyd, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Crystal, Kristen Wiig, Adam Sandler, and more), and those who seemed to have fallen off the radar of late, like Mike Myers, Darrell Hammond, and Tim Meadows. But it seems the who’s who of Hollywood was there, too, including Michael Douglas and John Goodman, the latter of whom has hosted 12 times (behind only Steve Martin who holds the record at 13), plus some of the best hosts in recent history, including Justin Timberlake (who teamed up with Fallon, of course, to open the show with an awesome musical montage that highlighted some of the best sketches) and Alec Baldwin.

It’s tough to cram 40 years worth of entertainment into one show, but they did a decent job, showcasing everything from Radner’s famous Roseanne Rosannadanna character, to Bill Hader’s Stefon, the Blues Brothers (Aykroyd and Belushi), Wayne and Garth (Myers and Dana Carvey) from Wayne’s World, Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, Sandler’s Opera Man, androgynous Pat (played by Julia Sweeney), and Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat. Murphy, by the way, wins the award for looking the most unhappy to be there. Following a long speech from Chris Rock that was full of praise for Murphy’s work on the show (Rock, by the way, is also a former cast member) Murphy appeared on stage to deliver a 30-second “thank you” and awkward attempts to fill the silence with audience applause. It is well known that Murphy has not been back to the show for more than 30 years after a falling out.

The special really brought to light just how many characters and sketches have stuck with us through the years, and how much of a staple the show has been in pop culture since the ‘70s. Aside from the many actors whose careers catapulted following stints on the show (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Robert Downey Jr., Ferrell, Fey, Wiig, Rock, Spade, Chase, Sandler – the list goes on) so many of the show’s former writers found massive success, too – Conan O’Brien, Larry David, and Bob Odendirk (Better Call Saul), just to name a few.

We often forget how many catchphrases originated from that show, too: “Jane, you ignorant slut”; “living in a van down by the river”; and“I’m good enough, I’m strong enough, and doggone it, people like me.” That’s SNL. Any ‘90s kid knows what “Schwing!” and “Party on” means. Or what it means to be “verklempt” and smooth like “butta.” What about pumping (beat chest) you up? Chopping broccoli? And I’mmmmmm 50! And, of course, who can forget more cowbell? We need more cowbell! Go back a few decades, and you have two wild and crazy guys, yeah, that’s the ticket, and you look mah-velous. For great video footage of some of these catchphrases, check out this Mashable post that highlights the 28 best.

When it comes to the new generation, there was a lot of attention paid to some of the more successful new characters, including Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island’s awesome viral digital shorts, like Dick in a Box (co-starring knock-it-out-of-the-park every time host Justin Timberlake), or I’m on a Boat with T-Pain; current cast member Kate McKinnon’s amazing Justin Bieber impression; and the hilarious fictional soap opera The Californians.

Best moments? Mine included the reincarnation of Celebrity Jeopardy, which I believe is one of the best — if not the best — skit ever to come from the show (“I’ll take the rapists for $500, Alex” says Hammond’s Sean Connery to Ferrell. “That’s therapists, Sean.”); Sandler’s Opera Man; Wayne’s World’s top 10; Maya Rudolph as Beyonce; the appearance of Betty White doing just about anything; and Fallon and Timberlake’s amazing opening number.

Where did they miss the mark? As a ‘90s kid, I really missed more attention being paid to some of my favourite characters, like Myers’ Dieter from Sprockets; Sandler’s Canteen Boy; Coffee Talk with Linda Richman (Myers); and some memorable skits like Timberlake, Paul Rudd, Samberg, and Bobby Moynihan in body suits and heels dancing to Beyonce’s Put a Ring on It. 

But overall, it was a great show that honoured creator Lorne Michaels’ work over the past 40 years, along with the many cast members who have the show to thank for helping launch their careers (or who can at least count it on their resume as a stint on their way to the top), musical artists who got noticed, and all of those who have worked on the show, from the crew to the band.

Funny enough, every few years, there’s some article or critic who tries to call the demise of the show – the reigning headline is “Saturday Night Dead.” Yet the show perseveres, despite comments that it’s “no longer funny” (how many years have we heard this being said?) or that it can’t survive now that so and so has left, or it’s tired, or old, or no one cares anymore. Seeing a flashback to the live episode that aired right after 9-1-1, when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani urged Michaels to go on with the show because America needed to move forward, proved just how important an institution the show is, regardless of how many try to dismiss it’s impact. “Can we be funny?” Michaels asked Giuliani. “Why start now?” He jokingly replied.

Check out this Rolling Stone ranking of all 141 SNL cast members, from worst to the best. Hint: Downey Jr., who was only on the show for one season, doesn’t get much love. Well, isn’t that special?

Christine Persaud
Christine has decades of experience in trade and consumer journalism. While she started her career writing exclusively about…
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