‘Saturday Night Live’ 40th-Anniversary Shootaround: R.I.P., Jon Lovitz

Theo Wargo/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Last night’s SNL 40th-anniversary special had the unenviable task of cramming decades of comedy history into one evening’s worth of entertainment. Granted, the program in question stretched into an almost four-hour extravaganza, but even that wasn’t enough time to represent all that Saturday Night Live has meant to the art of making people laugh far past their bedtime. And yet it would be a stretch to say the show wasn’t a satisfying, meaty, and oftentimes emotional affair. We got together to pay tribute to this iconic series.

Andy Greenwald: Forty years of sketch comedy equals 40 years of hard living for sketch comedians. So it stands to reason that much of last night’s generally delightful extravaganza was spent tallying up the physical cost of all those pratfalls and spit takes. Waistlines were wider, hairlines were diminished,1 and even the sharpest satirical minds appeared slightly dulled by age, not to mention the chilly reality of staring down an audience comprised of people accustomed to being applauded, not returning the favor.

Look, I can’t be cynical about any of this — I loved watching the show and feel tremendous fondness for the people who made it. But perhaps it’s a sign of my own graying sensibility that the most electrifying segment of the broadcast came early on. It was the montage of audition tapes introduced by an exuberant Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, who, despite his grandfatherly posture, is one of the youngest cast members in SNL history. Gone in a flash were the accomplished performers we’ve come to know, and in their place were a bunch of skinny, hungry kids. There was Gilda Radner, twentysomething and beaming, and there was Bill Murray with a mustache and the barest hint of doubt behind his trademark smirk. There was Seth Meyers with product in his hair and a mediocre accent in his throat, and Amy Poehler, sparks shooting off her like the third rail. Jimmy Fallon looked positively prepubescent, his sharp angles and feral energy suggesting that he should have been landing on Will Forte’s forearm, not sharing the stage with him. Phil Hartman was fucking smoking!

What was most amazing was the realization that even in their not-ready-for-prime-time, barely-ready-for-late-night incarnations, many SNL greats arrived pre-loaded with classic characters. The audition tapes were littered with broccoli chopping and the ladies of Church and Target. Entire points of view were pre-established. Untamed energies were already coursing, in search of a proper outlet. It can be fun to second-guess, to watch Jim Carrey going up to 11 and an unbearded Zach Galifianakis diving deep into absurdity and wonder just what Lorne was thinking when he passed them by. But maybe the lesson here was an essential one to the long life of SNL: Standing out is only ever half the battle. It can get you cast, but the second, more challenging part of the equation is fitting in.

A day or so ago, Late Night With Seth Meyers producer Mike Shoemaker spent an afternoon tweeting out incredible candid photographs from his over two decades on staff at SNL. His feed was full of legends looking wide-eyed and puffy, clutching greasy slices of pizza and toasting each other with sweating cans of cheap beer. Like the audition tapes, the photos were a touching reminder that SNL is a constant only for the fans. For those who toil in the trenches of Studio 8H, it’s as formative and as fleeting as high school. While the show has spent four decades brightening our lives, it has transformed and defined theirs. For a moment last night, we were able to revel in the sight of who they were just before they became who they are. It was a rare glimpse of the jittery Monday morning that eventually led to the glorious immortality of Saturday night.

Dave Schilling: My first exposure to Saturday Night Live wasn’t on NBC. It wasn’t the now-iconic cast of Farley, Spade, Myers, Carvey, Hartman, and the rest. It wasn’t even at 11:30. As a fussy, pseudo-shut-in, I developed a taste for old things; objects, movies, TV shows, and books that should have very little relevance to a 10-year-old. Of my many peculiar habits, one of the strangest was staying up until the then-obscenely late hour of 10 p.m. to watch reruns of SNL on Nick at Nite. These were heavily truncated versions of the show, often with the musical guests cut out and the truly naughty bits mysteriously rendered to an undisclosed location. Eventually I got so enamored of Candice Bergen, Elliott Gould, and people confidently wearing corduroy that I started taping these bastardized episodes onto VHS tapes so that I could “have them forever” in the days before YouTube was even fathomable. Somewhere, in the dark recesses of my mother’s house, there’s a cassette or two with “Saturday Night Live Best Of” scribbled on the label with my horrific childhood handwriting.

I felt oddly grumpy about the whole anniversary look back. I didn’t get to live the fun part — the phenomenon of John Belushi or the brilliance of Dan Aykroyd — when it was happening for real. I was raised on Nickelodeon’s sloppy seconds and didn’t really develop the habit of watching the contemporary show until the tail end of high school. As much as I’ve loved many of the casts of SNL, the original will always be my favorite, but for wildly different reasons than those of the fans celebrating this anniversary the hardest. The first cast is my cast, but they’re also not, because I wasn’t there.

SNL 40th Anniversary Special - 2015Theo Wargo/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Watching a rotund Aykroyd do the Bass-o-Matic sketch at half-speed and Emma Stone cosplay as Roseanne Roseannadanna, I felt simultaneously ancient and happy to be alive. Those first few seasons are old enough that cast members have died or are visibly aged to the point where they hardly resemble the people I first met on basic cable and grainy VHS tapes. Watching this special was like staring down a long, dark hallway with the door locked behind you.

Of course, I’m also the same age as Lorne Michaels was when SNL debuted. I’m not all that old, even if I obsess over feeling like I am. Few of us stick around as long as we want, and some, like Chris Farley, John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue,2 Jan Hooks, and the other SNL alumni we’ve lost, go way too soon. The names may change, the faces might get a bit droopier, but last night affirmed one important thing: Saturday Night Live will endure.

Mark Lisanti: Saturday Night Live is, at its core, a four-decade accretion of little things, of moments that started small but gathered imposing mass over time as they snowballed through pop culture. Fittingly, last night’s SNL 40 was a goddamn avalanche crashing down the mountainside, burying us in three and a half hours of (mostly) giddy nostalgia. So here’s a collection of my favorite new little things from that three and a half hours.3 Not the highlights, mind you. Not the Melissa McCarthys crashing through the “Update” desk or the dueling Stefons or Eddie Murphys finally coming home. Just the really small stuff.

  • Dan Aykroyd, attempting to fire up the Super Bass-o-Matic for the first time since 1976, fumbling with the lid as his shaking hands — live TV, people! — tried to jam two more victims into its fish-liquefying maw. And then gamely whaling on the ineffectual buttons as said Super Bass-o-Matic refused to lurch back into action.
  • Norm Macdonald, alongside fellow “Weekend Update” anchors Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers, and Colin Quinn, taking his sweet-old Turd Ferguson–gum-snapping time getting through his part of the Chevy Chase intro, a stalling tactic that one imagines went over great with an all-time SNL sweetheart like their humble honoree. And oh yeah: the O.J. joke that played during the “Update” montage, because you know why.
  • Jack Nicholson strolling out onstage, cock of every walk he’s ever strutted across, announcing, “No jokes for me.”
  • Missing most of Joe Piscopo’s “New York, New York” because the utterly mesmerizing top one-third of Christopher Walken’s head was visible at the bottom of the frame.
  • Various guest pairings revealed in audience reaction shots, like Whoopi Goldberg and Quinn, Win Butler and Debbie Harry, Joe Torre and (recent fake marital biting victim) David Wells, Adam Sandler and Larry David, Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, and Steven Spielberg and whoever got to sit next to Steven Spielberg while Bill Murray crooned about Jaws.
  • Maya Rudolph’s Beyoncé wind machine also catching Martin Short’s hair in its dramatic jet stream.
  • GOAT sports-world host4 Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning setting up the athlete clips, which includes Joe Montana’s “I’ll be in my room masturbating” all-timer.
  • Bradley Cooper’s Californians tank top/wig/puka shell/pool strainer combo.

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  • The pompadour shark fin that Jack White had implanted in his scalp just for the occasion.
  • Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s inability to gracefully remove the AFTERSHOW ORGIES card from the no. 3 slot on their “Wayne’s World” Top 10 board. Live TV!
  • Jon Lovitz’s unfortunate death. R.I.P., Jon Lovitz. You were the greatest Mephistopheles the world has ever known.

Lovitz

Sean Fennessey: If Lorne Michaels is Saturday Night Live’s withholding father, Steve Martin is its wayward uncle from out of town. He may not show up at every Christmas, but when he does, you can assume he will have brought gifts all out of proportion. He was generous on Sunday. It should come as no surprise that he was the de facto host for last night’s event — he’s been the de facto host for 40 years, taking on the duties 15 times, not counting at least a dozen other unofficial appearances. Martin is one of the very few non–cast members with a Best of SNL DVD.

He was both versions of himself last night — in the monologue he was Hollywood’s smarmy conscience, elevating himself while poking a pin in the egos of Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Peyton Manning. Later, he appeared ever so briefly as his goofball-intellectual former self to rehash his King Tut bit. When a shirtless Martin debuted it on SNL in 1978, he was a virile, fur-chested young man, at the height of his comic powers. Weeks later, he’d release the iconic A Wild and Crazy Guy album. Last night, he wore a gold lamé leotard under the Tut getup and did not remove his glasses. He looked, well, old. Thirty-seven years later, Martin seemed game but a little embarrassed — like your uncle who maybe shouldn’t break out his impression of Grandpa Mort long after he has died. Some things are better left in the past. But that doesn’t mean we can’t go forward.

Lorne Snubs Steve

Martin was standing center stage at show’s end, and when he called his old friend Lorne Michaels over for one last ovation, he reached out to shake Michaels’s hand. Michaels, distracted by the sight of his even older friend Paul Simon, ignored Martin’s hand — Martin turned to the camera, wide-eyed and mock-stunned, working one last laugh. Some things never have to change.

Chris Ryan: If you were looking for a musical performance with a lot of historical resonance, you could just rewind to the 25th-anniversary show and watch Elvis Costello interrupt the Beastie Boys — echoing the moment that got him banned from the show, back in 1977. The musical guests for the 40th-anniversary show kept things pretty calm, despite having the Interrupter in Chief on the bill. Coming on the heels of Fashion Week, where Kanye West got his moment in the flashing lights, the multi-hyphenate performed three songs inside a box, of all places.

Kanye is one of my favorite SNL musical acts — remember “Runaway”? — partly because he treats it like a sketchbook. It might have been a bit odd to see “Jesus Walks” performed while Kanye was lying down, but as part of a suite of songs — including “Only One” and “Wolves” — it made sense.

Miley Cyrus’s take on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” was the nod to the past, I guess, giving a big old anime eye wink at SNL royalty Paul Simon. As Miley covers go, this didn’t quite match “Summertime Sadness” or “Jolene,” but it was still fun to see her up onstage in a Gram Parsons suit and exploring her voice. To be successful, an SNL musical performance doesn’t have to be note-perfect; it just has to be interesting.

Steven Hyden: When exactly did it become weird (or even controversial) to admit that you once thought Dennis Miller was the coolest dude on the planet? Was it the talk show? Was it the other talk show? Was it the other, other talk show? Was it after 9/11, when he remade himself as a pro–Fox News Jon Stewart? Maybe it was after that stint on Monday Night Football? No matter: In the late ’80s, back when I first started watching SNL as a sixth-grader, I aspired to one day be a grown-up who fearlessly broke down Keynesian economics by using obscure lyrics from side three of the White Album, all while wearing a sharp suit and an antiestablishment mullet. When I was 12, Miller was basically my masculine ideal.

I can’t say I follow the man all that closely anymore, but I was still genuinely disappointed that he was a no-show last night, along with other unmentionables like Victoria Jackson (too crazy?) and Julia Sweeney (too bitter?). If Miller isn’t the best “Weekend Update” host, he’s at least (at least!) in the top three. If Eddie Murphy is rightfully credited with saving SNL in the early ’80s, then Miller should get his props for making “Update” relevant again after the doldrums of the Charles Rocket/Brad Hall era. Maybe Miller’s wise-guy shtick curdled into arrogant smarm over time, but trust me, on SNL he was one of the few people on television who acknowledged how dumb much of the world was. And if you were a kid who was just starting to notice that yourself, and there weren’t any adults in your life who seemed to be in on the joke, then seeing Miller every week on “Update” dismissing all that rank stupidity with a high-pitched chortle was nothing short of liberating.

Even when I had no idea what he was talking about — again, I was 12, so that was essentially 90 percent of the time — Miller made me want to be smarter. And I’m grateful for that.

If his politics are what now make Miller problematic for the keepers of SNL’s history — though Miller appears to harbor no public ill will toward the show — it still seems wrong to write him out of the story. After all, it’s not as if SNL turned away other formerly awesome people who inevitably let you down now.5 Look, every family has at least one annoying right-wing uncle. It’s not like you stop loving that guy just because he won’t stop forwarding you anti-Obama emails.

Filed Under: TV, 'Saturday Night Live' at 40, Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy, dan aykroyd, Comedy, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West