Forget that All-Star business, the air was pretty rare in Studio 8H last night as Lorne Michael‘s cultural juggernaut, Saturday Night Live, aired “SNL 40,” a black-tie celebration of its last 40 years on TV. SNL is an American rite of passage on Saturday nights and has spawned a slew of famous comedians, comedic writers, and catch phrases in the American lexicon including “We want to pump…you up!” “You look mah-velous” and “Hmmmm. Is it Satan???”
In the red carpet beforehand, almost every African American comedian of note in the last few decades came through including some who were never players on the show, but who put their mark on comedy nonetheless including Dave Chappelle, JB Smoove (did we see a little snub between them on the carpet?) and Whoopi Goldberg.
Noticeably absent was SNL player Tracy Morgan, who suffered a pretty horrific car accident in November 2014, but Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin gave him a nice shout out during the three-and-a-half hour show (Baldwin’s awful impersonation of Morgan not withstanding — hey, he tried).
As expected, the show was a giant sea of whiteness, both self-aggrandizing and a bit self-deprecating around their glaring lack of diversity over the years. As Melissa McCarthy said when she came out during Steve Martin‘s intro monologue, it was definitely all about the “white men over 80 club.” In fact, Martin himself also took SNL’s lack of black cast membership over the years head on: “This is like a high school reunion — a high school that is almost all white.”
But all that aside, let’s be clear on the reason most of us tuned in: What has been teased for weeks was Eddie Murphy‘s return to the SNL stage.
Before Chris Rock’s truly earnest introduction of Murphy (including the fact that Murphy “saved” the show when he appeared as a 19-year-old-comic in the early 80s), we waited with bated breath for our favorite comedian to do a skit, maybe reprising one of his characters. Alas, that was not to be.
Instead, and possibly since Murphy never won an Oscar (and for that the Academy has yet one more strike against it), Murphy came out and gave a short speech as if he were receiving a lifetime achievement award.
And so Rock gave him a touching three-and-a-half minute intro — letting us know that Murphy’s most iconic skits (James Brown’s hot tub, Gumby) were only done once; also, that Murphy was the ONLY cast member who hosted the show while he was a cast member of the show (famously saying “Live from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy show!”)
Eddie came out to a standing ovation, graciously noting that SNL was “such a big part of who I am and my life.” He also said, “And I’m so happy to be back here. It’s a magical feeling. Actually it feels like going back to my old high school, kind of. It’s a good feeling. I’m really happy that so many people here value the stuff that I did 35 years ago. It makes me feel really happy.”
And then — because it’s a live show — had an awkward moment at the end when he was like, “I thought that right there you guys were gonna do the … Well, then let’s do it again.”
And… then there was no again —we never saw him again. Apparently his remarks lasted all of 73 seconds.
Murphy had not appeared on the show since 1984 — there was apparently some beef between creator Lorne Michaels and Murphy, according to Yahoo news:
Murphy last appeared on the show Dec. 15, 1984 as host. He notably skipped the “SNL” 25th anniversary and show creator Lorne Michaels has publicly acknowledged some bad blood with Murphy after he approved a sketch in the 1990s that poked fun at one of the comedian’s box office bombs.
Michaels later noted that that sketch was “a mistake.”
Other highlights of “SNL 40” included a moment when Jerry Seinfeld took questions from the audience and Ellen Cleghorne, cast member from 1991-1995 asked about black women in general (joking) and then why Seinfeld never had any on his show. “I’m for having black women everywhere,” Seinfeld says initially.
“How many black women were on Seinfeld?” Cleghorne then asked. “Good point, Ellen. We did not do all we could to cure society’s ills,” Seinfeld sarcastically retorted. Frankly, he looked a little unnerved, and twitter was not really feeling it.
There were some lighter comical moments that may have not have meant to been that way, including Kanye West laying on the floor with those weird contacts in, and doing that Gawd-awful slow jam dedicated to his momma and North West.
Actually, Kanye was a musical guest (doing a sublime “Wolves” rendition with big-haired Sia and Vic Sensa), but also had a few bit parts throughout the evening, including when during a “Wayne’s World” skit, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey had security hold him in his seat during a Beyoncé mention. West was also featured in the very beginning during the “Live From New York” tagline.
Speaking of Beyoncé, Maya Rudolph reprised her spot-on impression — and between the wind machine, dead-serious-face poses, bedazzled leotard and throaty accent, she slayed.
Other highlights included an all-female newscast with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtain (with a truly “explosive” Melissa McCarthy ending); Louis C.K. saying that SNL skits are waaaay too long and Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg vocally-backing a reel of “breaks” (when comedians bust out laughing during skits.)
Frankly, the three-a-half-hour marathon as a whole was, in fact, a self-congratulatory snooze-fest, but nostalgia and curiosity kept us tuned in.
Genius Eddie Murphy disappointed in that he didn’t give us more of what we surely wanted — which was him — but we at least know that he got his propers on the stage that made him.
Here’s to more funny in the world — we surely need it.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Chris Rock is a former cast member of SNL.