Monday, February 16, 2015

Critic at Large: NBC's Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special

NBC celebrated 40 years of “Saturday Night Live” with just the sort of corporate presentation, you might expect from an outlet interested in selling commercials above all else. The red carpet hour beforehand, pimped out the Today Show cast. It sure felt awkward to me, in the wake of Brian Williams’ brush with too-much entertainment. Once the show started, the montages raced across the screen, edited just at the point where they became entertaining. You needed a lot of prior knowledge to “get” them.

Many of the one-time cutting edge talents from the 70′s are now approaching their 70s and look like solid, top-one percenter, rather than their younger, counter-cultural selves. Yeah, I know, I’m old and comfortable - but the shots of fat cats in the audience, sitting with their bewildered-looking children felt pretty ironic to me. Gosh! Poor Paul McCartney - I think he started in a key too high for him. Eddie Murphy talked about himself. Robert De Niro can’t read a teleprompter. I’m glad Bill Murray showed, because at least he manages to avoid "playing by the rules." And it was great seeing Dan Aykroyd perform his Bass-O-Matic routine, even if the bit went on past its' big laugh.

Jerry Seinfeld provided one of my favorite moments. His bit, taking questions from the audience played to his strength and allowed Sara Palin a cameo. Palin, by the way, looks more like a reality star these days, and less like a serious politician. Seinfeld delivered the line of the night, when he and Larry Charles bantered about their NBC series, “We got the last ticket to Disneyland, before it burned down.”

Here’s why I like that line. In 1975, NBC News started a once-a-month magazine show “Weekend,” which I used to watched as a learning experience. The other three Saturday nights went to “Saturday Night Live.” The brass weren’t sure if the counter-cultural comedy show or the cutting edge news magazine show would catch fire. “SNL” caught fire, and the rest is history.

Soon, SNL owned Saturday night. It  was counter-cultural, edgy, and alternative. Prior to SNL, nobody cared or watched TV late Saturdays: NBC ran The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson reruns. Once SNL took hold, everybody my age (I was 29) stopped everything to watch. Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Loraine Newman (plus Bill Murray in the second season) turned into household names within weeks. I fondly remember going to a party attended by my friend, writer/performer John Corcoran. We broke it up when we insisted on watching SNL. The hostess didn’t like it, but soon Saturday night at 11:30 meant coming over to someone’s house or having people over to yours, to watch. We had to see it.

Now the edgy stuff lives on the internet or cable. The anniversary show NBC produced had just enough to hook an audience, so we would suffer through the commercials or breathlessly wait for what was next. SNL has gone from cool to corporate. Many years ago, a top executive told us at a WRC/NBC staff meeting that we were working for the stockholders of General Electric. Prior to that, executives told us we were working for the viewers. That executive was passing on the truth about commercial television in the 21st century.

I liked some of the anniversary show, but other parts made me sad. I didn’t see Jane Curtin’s appearance, and I missed Emma Stone standing in for Gilda because I switched over to “Downton Abby” at 9 PM.  I'm still worried about Lady Edith, but I’m glad she has a magazine to run. And frankly, I’ve had just about enough of that snooty Lady Mary. And should we be worried that the family has named their dog Isis?

Disneyland has burned down for commercial television. Today’s version of "The Not Ready for Prime Time Players" does their stuff on cable or the internet, but certainly not on what’s left of the major networks. The SNL 40th Anniversary showcased a parade of players, sadly past their prime.

I wish they had given us some of the complete sketches of SNL’s first brilliant years. Just shut up and show ‘em. Oh Hell, I watched anyway.