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'SNL 40': 40th anniversary special celebrates show's greatest hits

#SNL40: As long as the Oscars, with even more stars

No, it wasn’t the Oscars, but it sure felt that way.

NBC celebrated the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live” Sunday night with a live special that was as long (3½ hours) and as stuffed with montages as an Academy Awards broadcast. The network also treated it with a similar level of fanfare, including an hourlong red carpet special hosted by the “Today” team of Al Roker, Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie. If anything, the event felt a bit more exclusive than the Oscars, with seemingly every seat in the relatively tiny Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center packed with a major celebrity clad in black tie.

The special included appearances by dozens of former cast members (Bill Murray, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph) and other stars who perhaps seem as if they were once cast members but never were (Alec Baldwin, Christopher Walken, Steve Martin).

The special, a mixture of pre-packed highlight reels and live sketches, was a sort of greatest hits collection that celebrated “SNL” old and new and, for better or worse, left virtually no favorites untouched.

There were montages celebrating seemingly every aspect of the show, including its fake commercials, political coverage and musical characters. One reel included audition tapes  featuring fresh-faced future “SNL” stars like Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon, and even a few who got away, like Stephen Colbert and Jim Carrey.

For nostalgists, there was a nearly line-for-line remake of the famous “Bass-O-Matic ‘76” commercial featuring original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman (and one very unfortunate fish). “Wayne’s World” fans had to wait until the show’s final half hour for a reprisal of the beloved public access show starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, who paid tribute to Lorne Michaels with dueling impressions of the show's creator and executive producer.

For more contemporary fans, there was a Californians sketch featuring Taylor Swift’s questionable SoCal accent and a make-out session between Betty White and Bradley Cooper.

Still other sketches blended vintage “SNL” with its more recent history to great effect. Poehler and Tina Fey teamed up with “Weekend Update’s” first woman anchor, Jane Curtin, who in a dig at Fox News joked that she “used to be the only pretty blond woman reading the fake news. Now there's a whole network devoted to that.”

Like the Oscars, the special included an “In Memoriam” reel celebrating deceased “SNL” cast and crew. Throughout the broadcast, the legacy of late but great cast members Gilda Radner and Chris Farley in particular loomed large. Melissa McCarthy and Emma Stone paid tribute to the performers by reprising their signature characters, motivational speaker Matt Foley and consumer affairs reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Other heavily anticipated moments left the audience wondering, “Is that it?”  Eddie Murphy, credited with reviving the show in the early 1980s and easily one of “SNL’s” most successful cast members, made his first appearance on the stage of Studio 8H since leaving the show in 1984. He was introduced by Chris Rock, and welcomed with a standing ovation from the star-packed audience.

But rather than reviving one of his recurring characters, such as Gumby or Mr. Robinson, or performing a stand-up set, as some fans had hoped, Murphy made a few boilerplate remarks about being happy to return to the show. “It feels like returning to my old high school, kind of,” he said. After speaking for less than a minute, Murphy threw to commercial but an awkward pause ensued before the camera cut away, as if even the show’s director was expecting him to do more.

In what at times felt like a strained effort to prove the show’s continued relevance, there were musical sets by contemporary superstars Kanye West, who performed lying down with the camera zoomed in on an extreme close-up of his face, and Miley Cyrus, who made a nod to the show’s past by performing Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

It was Simon who got the night’s last word, closing out the show with a performance of the 1975 hit he also sang as host of “Saturday Night Live’s” second episode: “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

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