UPDATED 8:52 PM to restore deleted paragraph: Like Fifty Shades Of Grey, Amy Pascal’s emails with Scott Rudin and constant reruns of Pete Carroll’s goal-line call, the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary (airing from 8-11:30 Sunday on NBC) is out there, it’s shameless, and it’s impossible to resist. I could say I’ll be watching so you don’t have to, but I know and you know you’ll watch anyway. Nostalgia is dirty business. In this instance it thrives on all the nattering nabobs of negativism whining about how much better SNL was back then. Back when we were young. Back when comedy had, you know, edge. Back when writers really wrote. You know the drill.
Even while copping to my own hypocrisy, then, I’ll just say: Any SNL retrospective is beside the point. Indeed, it’s antithetical to SNL, a corruption of its DNA, which is to be in the present and of the moment for a crowd that no longer is me.
“It’s particularly hard for people who do comedy to be sentimental.”
When SNL had its premiere on October 11, 1975, Lorne Michaels was 31, most of the cast members were barely legal, the late George Carlin was the host and the top two songs on the hit parade were by Neil Sedaka (“Bad Blood”) and John Denver (“I’m Sorry”). When I wrote about the show’s oh-my-god! 15th anniversary for the New York Times, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Andy Kaufman already were ghosts in Michaels’ Rockefeller Center office.
Only once before, in 1980, on the occasion of the show’s 100th edition, had Saturday Night Live looked back. “It’s particularly hard for people who do comedy to be sentimental,” Michaels told me. By the time I spoke with him, the executive producer famed for his loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts was wearing sleek Armani suits.
How does this make me feel besides very old? Well, it reminds me that in 1975 Michaels and his boss, Dick Ebersol, realized what should have been obvious to anyone with a brain: that the transgressive comedy of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour could be pushed beyond the envelope’s edge if you just took it out of the primetime envelope and put it where the natural audience would watch — late at night, when the censorious protectors of youthful innocence presumably were snoring in their beds.
They also knew that timely comedy was dangerous and as likely to fail as to succeed. Looking back, we all tend to be Brian Williams’s memory bank, smooshing together the good stuff and leaving out the bad. NBC didn’t help matters any this season when it slotted reruns of SNL highlights directly against the live show. So we forget that for every Carsenio (1991) and King Tut (1978) and Samurai Delicatessen (1976, etc. Oh, OK, here it is), there were, among other MEGO guests, like the Steves (Forbes, 1996; Seagal, 1991), who flatlined from the moment they opened their mouths.
And for all the badmouthing of the writing in recent seasons, there remain the occasional essential glimmers of life in the machine, as with former castmember Chris Rock’s fearless monologue earlier this season, which was a lot cooler than his previous time hosting, in 1996.
NBC is trading on nostalgia, against which SNL simply can never compete. For the one is about a warm bath, while the other is about leaping into the ocean in February just to prove you can survive. You may feel foolish and worry for the safety of your gonads, but you won’t be wasting your time looking back.