NEW YORK — With a measure of anniversary hoopla perhaps exceeded only by the nation’s bicentennial, “Saturday Night Live” celebrated its 40th season on Sunday with a 3 1/2-hour gala of stars, laughs and memories.
It aired live from New York’s Studio 8H at NBC, which has been “SNL” HQ since premiering on a Saturday night in October 1975. It was a black-tie event so jammed with “SNL” alumni and other celebs they fueled an hour-long red carpet event before the big show even began. Some 80 names were listed in the opening credits.
It started with a medley of catchphrases, music and characters performed by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake that concluded, inevitably, with their pronouncement, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
Who was the rightful host? Steve Martin stepped up first, but was joined one by one by stars including Peyton Manning, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal, Melissa McCarthy, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon to dispute his selection.
Among the night’s many tributes, Jack Nicholson noted that “when `SNL’ started, the last helicopter had just flown out of Vietnam, Watergate was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and New York was broke.”
Robert De Niro marveled that, 40 years later, “SNL” is “still at it. Forty years! That’s like back when TV was still watched on TV.”
Jerry Seinfeld said, “There are so many things about `Saturday Night Live’ that people don’t know. For instance, I just found out that one of the original cast members in 1975 was Brian Williams.”
Seinfeld then took goofy questions from the VIP audience, including Michael Douglas, James Franco, Dakota Johnson and Sarah Palin, who asked, “How much do you think Lorne Michaels would pay me to run in 2016?”
“Run for president?” Seinfeld replied. “I don’t think there’s a number too big.”
But it wasn’t all live.
The first clip: John Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue in the language-lesson sketch with which the very first “SNL” episode opened.
A remarkable montage of audition tapes from prospective “SNL” cast members included notable washouts Jim Carrey and Stephen Colbert.
New York was honored with clips and comic sketches capturing the love-it-hate-it spirit of the Big Apple through the decades, as well as a pivotal moment from the first “SNL” episode to air after 9-11 when then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told “SNL” creator Michaels “that `Saturday Night Live’ is one our great New York City institutions, and that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.”
“Can we be funny?” asked Michaels, to which Giuliani replied with impeccable timing, “Why start now?”
Another group of clips focused on sports-related skits. Another gathered moments from filmed comedy segments (including a nod to hapless Mr. Bill).
And yet another sample reel traced the show’s legacy of political humor.
Will Ferrell as 2000 presidential candidate George W. Bush summed up the best argument for his election: “Strategery.” And Darrell Hammond as his opponent, Al Gore, offered his own: “Lockbox.”
On a serious note, an in memoriam segment remembered the members of the “SNL” troupe who have passed, and not just the on-camera stars (and The Voice, Don Pardo), but departed members of the behind-the-scenes company and crew.
But it wasn’t all taped. A classic commercial parody was encored live: Super Bass-o-Matic, with pitchman Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman repeating their performances from 1976. An all-star soap-spoof “The Californians” was revived, including Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper and Betty White. Dana Carvey and Mike Myers re-teamed for “Wayne’s World.”
And a super anchor team was gathered for “Weekend Update”: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin. Their top story, of course, was the “SNL” anniversary.
“Viewers of `Saturday Night Live’ span several generations,” Fey reported, “from the Baby Boomers to Generation X all the way to whatever you call the little dummies who are live-tweeting this right now instead of watching it.”
As a guest commentator, the classic character Roseanne Rosannadanna (created by the late Gilda Radner) was revived by Emma Stone. Edward Norton did a turn as Bill Hader’s clubs correspondent Stefon. McCarthy did the late Chris Farley’s motivational speaker Matt Foley.
Musical guests, as announced, were Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, McCartney and Simon.
The night’s big hitch: Eddie Murphy was greeted like returning royalty, with an introductory tribute from Chris Rock that lasted much longer than Murphy’s actual appearance. Murphy said little more than thanks.
After all the buildup, his blink-and-he-was-gone participation was an epic fail. It was the main disappointment in a long, very long, but mostly satisfying retrospective of TV’s great comedy institution.