As we speak there’s about an hour to go on the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, and while the parade of former cast members has been fun in a nostalgic way, the show itself feels like the Oscars without them giving out awards. There have been a lot of moments when you had to wonder why they decided to spend time on that rather than something a little more worthwhile. Dan Aykroyd looking like someone’s uncle acting out the Bass-O-Matic sketch? Miley Cyrus covering Paul Simon when Paul Simon is actually in attendance? Celebrities showing up to do impersonations of old characters? It’s like the decided this thing should be three and a half hours long before they actually had three and a half hours worth of material.
Or, basically, a typical episode of SNL lately.
SNL is a lot like Doctor Who; whoever was your first is usually who you love most. And while I’m not blind to the fact the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players didn’t bat .1000, there’s something about how they embraced the pre-sanitized New York City of their era. There was a dirty, sweat-soaked feel to the show back then, when it hadn’t become an institution, and wasn’t yet a platform for whatever star had a movie coming out, or whatever musical act had just released a new album. It stumbled from time to time as it tried to find its way, but the missteps were part of a thrilling growth, and so we forgave them. I never really saw them in their natural environment on Saturday nights — I was too young to make it up that late — but I would catch the reruns NBC packaged for prime time, and they were a huge part of my formative years, along with Monty Python on PBS (who did their own best to tweak what they saw had become of television).
I sort of drifted away from SNL for a while — David Letterman had stolen away the late night crown for me and my friends — but the all-star team of Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Martin Short drew me back, and I stuck with it all the way through college. Those will always be the Phil Hartman years from me; although he wasn’t the biggest star on the show, it always felt like he was the backbone of it, the guy who could play any position and even pitch a few innings of relief if you needed him to.
His departure seemed to usher in a dumbing down of the show for me, when the likes of Spade and Sandler started taking over, and the comedy really didn’t speak to me. But by that point, the show was on rails, too big to fail, and now, aside from the Tina Fey years, I find myself watching more because it’s usually the most interesting thing on that time of night, not out of any devotion. It’s become too big to fail, the kind of thing that makes the news for parodying something that any self-respecting comedy show should parody. But it feels almost like homework, something you have to watch so you can keep up with the conversation the next day.
Which brings me back to the anniversary special, which just wrapped up a set from Kanye West, who, while a talented performer, isn’t someone I inherently associate with SNL in the slightest. But I want to make sure I get all the jokes tomorrow, so here I am, smiling at the nods my casts, cringing as they’re juxtaposed with everyone else’s. Then again, there’s probably someone wondering why all these old people are taking time away from Jimmy Fallon. And so it goes.