Last night, Saturday Night Live celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live. It was nothing if not a victory lap; for over four-and-a-half hours (including a very awkward red carpet event), countless celebrities expressed their love for the show, flubbed lines, and introduced best-of montages that ran through clips so fast that the only laughs came from recognition — "Hey, I remember seeing that when I was 12!" There were maybe a half dozen actual sketches, each one a repeat of some famous bit from years past. Falling in the middle of a season that everyone seems to agree is below average, it felt at times like an unintentionally defensive show of force — "Look at all these people who we made famous, and all these famous people who love us! We still matter!"
If anything, last night's SNL40 showcased the very best and the very worst of SNL. It was everything people both love and love to hate about the show. And that's why it worked so well.
None of that was clearer than during Celebrity Jeopardy, one of the few actual sketches of the night. It had everything SNL’s known for: Unjustifiably overused celebrity impressions; famous people making fun of famous people; messed up camera cues because, hey, it's live TV. Some jokes only worked because of the famous person delivering them. Most laughs were heightened by merit of being a callback to classic impressions. For a brief moment, it looked as if SNL had something to say about the recent Bill Cosby rape accusations, but the political bite was observational at best — the subtext of Will Ferrell's joke was "let's acknowledge the Cosby issue and then quickly move on."
SNL40 seemed to embrace some of its criticism head-on — with some notable exceptions. Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler sang about breaking character (subtext: "I'm sorry for That's My Boy"). The entire Wayne's World sketch was weirdly preachy and defensive about people critical of the show. But then there was a pre-scripted exchange between Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Cleghorne, one of only a handful of black female SNL alum, that seemed to incidentally marginalize a serious topic. It started with a nod to SNL’s diversity problem before this:
Cleghorne: "So, how many black women were on the Seinfeld show?"
Seinfeld: "Good point, Ellen, we did not do all we could to cure society's ills, you are correct. Uh, mea culpa. [He turns away] Other questions?"
What started as pointing out SNL's long-chronicled diversity problem — best showcased in last year's cold open with host Kerry Washington — turned into an awkwardly phrased "mea culpa" about comedy's diversity problem overall, before being glibly passed in order to have Dakota Johnson promote her hosting stint on February 28th. Even this morning, it remains wholly uncomfortable to watch him (and through him, SNL on the whole) brush off the issue.
At times, it felt like SNL40 wanted to acknowledge its deeper problems without saying it. Weekend Update was an all-girls affair (save for the requisite Stefon callback towards the end), bringing back Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin and supported by Emma Stone and Melissa McCarthy paying tribute to Gilda Radner and Chris Farley, respectively (meanwhile, I can’t recall seeing current hosts Colin Jost or Michael Che at all last night, except in archival footage). Weekend Update has long been an anchor for SNL, typically coming in at the halfway point after the first musical guest and before the less polished, more experimental sketches. At its best, Weekend Update is a platform for skewering politicians — so much so that in 2008 it spun out several Thursday-night specials. At its worse, the jokes are softball zingers. It remains to be seen if Weekend Update, which is still figuring itself out in a post-Seth Meyers era, can shape up in time for the 2016 presidential election.
But no show has shown the ability to turn itself around more times than SNL. I'm not going to dwell on the "SNL-is-an-institution" argument, but I will point out that TV ratings are still strong, and it’s slowly but surely learning to embrace the internet (its YouTube channel debuted just last year — almost a decade after an upload of SNL’s "Lazy Sunday" sketch brought attention to the platform, before being taken down by NBC — and is gaining traction). It's really easy to hate on SNL, a show that's unabashedly left-leaning and New York-centric. A show that's been around so long, large swaths of people never knew a time without it. Love it or hate it, SNL is still smart business for NBC — it’s not going anywhere.
And that’s the last remnant of Saturday Night Live’s pseudo-punk-rock roots: It doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Long ago, SNL was billed as a counterculture show starring the Not-Ready-For-Primetime players, but now it’s a thing that gets red carpet treatment hosted by Matt Lauer. The big point of SNL40 wasn't to say that it's the funniest or most poignant sketch show — it's not, and SNL knows it. With its relentless production schedule, duds are bound to happen. (As creator Lorne Michaels famously put it, "We don't go on because we're ready, we go on because it's 11:30.") But even its most-criticized seasons have enough bright spots and stand-out moments that SNL can package a "best of season X" collection and have it look really good. (That's SNL's real brilliance: packaging innumerable "best of season" / "best of actor" / "best of decade" collections that cherry picks the best and ignores everything else).
SNL40 was indulgent, indulgent, indulgent — an extreme Rorschach test. For those who love the show (myself included), it was a treat to watch. For those who hate the show and what it represents, it must’ve been painful to try and read Twitter last night. SNL40 was a power play — a reminder how even now, the biggest stars in comedy still filter through the halls of Studio 8H. Much of the humor leaned on a cache of callbacks, but those jokes still landed.
Now that it’s over, the writers, performers, and entire crew go back to their rushed schedules of writing, rehearsing, and producing a 90-minute show around 50 Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson that’ll be broadcasted live a little under two weeks from now. It won't be the best thing you see all week, but there's a good chance some portion of it will live on for years to come as "that one funny thing." And that’s enough. When you’re able to package 40 years of "one funny things," that’s a legacy.