Garrett Morris yelled. Mike Myers said “Schwing!” Robert De Niro botched his lines.
So much of what we’re used to came back on display Sunday night as “Saturday Night Live” recalled its 40-year history in a live three-and-a-half-hour NBC anniversary special jammed with its former cast members, hosts, musical guests and, for some reason, Jack Nicholson. If they were still alive, the key figures from every era of that history were probably there and eager to play, resulting in a marathon that, true to form, dragged and tanked at times but also offered some singular gems.
The first faces seen were two of the show’s most energetic and well-received stars: longtime cast member Jimmy Fallon and frequent host Justin Timberlake. The two tore into a rapid-fire, hip-hop-style geekgasm of dozens of the show’s catchphrases, from “Never mind” to “Pump you up.” Between interruptions by Molly Shannon as Mary Catherine Gallagher and Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer (“History has shown us that opening the show with a musical number leads to a sharp drop in ratings”), fans were treated both to a double cowbell solo and the sight of Timberlake with that gift he puts in a box.
The honor of delivering the opening monologue, at least at first, fell to Steve Martin, who declared the night “like a high school reunion at a high school that is almost all white.” He was interrupted, and then his interrupters were interrupted: Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Rock and on and on debating whether actors or comedians are better hosts. When Martin said he didn’t remember Rock was in the cast, Rock planted himself for the doozy of a punchline: “So did the WRITERS!”
Beloved old concepts came out of the mothballs. Dan Aykroyd, back in a loud sportjacket, delivered basically a word-for-word redo of the Super Bass-o-Matic commercial from 1976, complete with Laraine Newman taking a swig of the scaly concoction. (Adding that third fish seemed to jam up the blender.) And a fresh “Celebrity Jeopardy” tested the wits of old favorites Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond) and Burt Reynolds (Norm Macdonald, filled out enough that he better resembles the real thing) and threw to an ill-timed clue from Bill Cosby (Kenan Thompson). Still unclear on the categories, Connery mistook WHO READS for WHORE ADS.
A sprawling midshow setpiece revived the recent favorite “The Californians,” stuffing the West Coast soap with star power: Bradley Cooper as a poolboy, Kerry Washington as a doctor, Taylor Swift as a bad actress, Betty White as a long-lost aunt who made out with Cooper. The bit started strong and connected generations with the arrival of Laraine Newman, apparently playing her valley girl Sherry, a ’70s precursor to this routine. But all the plotting required to justify the cameos bloated the running time, and an attempt at a big finish with the cast filing past David Spade’s “buh-bye” flight attendant fell apart when Mr. “American Sniper” apparently said “cowboy” instead of “cowbell” and squandered a punchline.
Compilations of clips abounded as usual, one of them especially eye-opening: a collection of genuine screen tests by would-be cast members who made it (Seth Meyers, doing the Hugh Grant impression he’s fond of maligning) and some who didn’t (Stephen Colbert, Kevin Hart, Jim Carrey with shrunken arms as “post-nuclear Elvis”).
The best moments demonstrated the way today’s “SNL” stars were yesterday’s “SNL” fans, as when an all-star Weekend Update (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin) was visited by former hosts playing their favorite characters: Emma Stone channeling Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna, Melissa McCarthy masterfully reviving Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. The always risk-taking Edward Norton took the role of someone actually alive — Bill Hader’s Stefan — and thus endured an on-air critique from the real thing. The old-school motif continued with Fey devoured by the land shark that used to menace Curtin.
Hurtling back and forth between eras was the theme of the night, a musical roundup jumping from new performances by Joe Piscopo’s Frank Sinatra to Dana Carvey’s “Chopping Broccoli” dude to Kenan Thompson’s “What’s Up With That?” guy to Steve Martin’s King Tut to Bill Murray’s lounge singer Nick crooning the “Jaws” theme (and getting bleeped in the process). It was too good a group to end up backing up Aykroyd and Jim Belushi as the ersatz Blues Brothers.
And self-parody was rampant. When Mike Myers and Dana Carvey revived “Wayne’s World,” it was to deliver a top 10 list of “SNL” observations and to imitate Lorne-isms like, “It got a laugh, but was it the right laugh?” In recounting the guests present, Fey mentioned “one of the original producers: cocaine!” And a Lonely Island-esque music video starring Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler (so much funnier than “That’s My Boy”) focused on players who wreck scenes (or try to save scenes) by bursting into laughter. Guilty parties Fallon and Horatio Sanz warranted a whole verse.
• The much-heralded return of Eddie Murphy, back on “SNL” after decades of holdout, ended up a whole lot of nothing as the movie star expressed some bland appreciation and then got confused about a commercial cutaway. The closest he came to wit was in the preshow red-carpet special when he presaged Martin’s high school analogy, saying, “Everything seems really tiny.”
• In keeping with the nothing-is-sacred “SNL” ethos, two different tributes to fallen cast and crew ended with mention of the not-dead Jon Lovitz, appalled in the audience.
• Even the musical performances were eccentric, Miley Cyrus chirping a fairly credible version of old “SNL” pal Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Kanye West laying flat on his back to begin a medley that culminated with Vic Mensa and heavily wigged Sia crawling around with him during “Wolves.” Kanye also figured into “Wayne’s World,” periodically threatening to rush the stage, as when Myers called Beck the best “SNL” musical guest, “even better than Beyonce.”
• If only when Simon himself came out, he’d torn into “Party in the U.S.A.” (Instead it was “Still Crazy After All These Years,” without the turkey suit.)
• An extended audience Q&A of Jerry Seinfeld was notable for a cameo by Sarah Palin (mistaken for Tina Fey, of course), a funny bit with the largely forgotten Ellen Cleghorne and the introduction of this Saturday’s host, “Fifty Shades of Grey” submissive Dakota Johnson.
• On the red-carpet show, Jim Carrey refused to let his interview end and turned the tables on Matt Lauer, impishly asking, “Where are you hiding Brian Williams?” Lauer blanched and muttered, “Look at the time!”