Looking back at 40 years of 'Saturday Night Live'

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Bill Murray's handpicking style for the Oscars was priceless, a mix of the catty, derisive and the absurd.

Wow, that's some guest list NBC has assembled for The SNL 40th Anniversary Special tonight (8 p.m. on NBC10): Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Jack Nicholson, Kerry Washington, Bradley Cooper, Derek Jeter, and Emma Stone, to mention a few. They'll be joined by former Not Ready for Primetime Players such as Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Chris Rock.

(Brian Williams has to be feeling  pretty  left out right now.)

All that star power reflects what a significant and lasting impact Saturday Night Live has had on pop culture. Particularly in its early seasons.

"The original show was a countercultural attack on conventional television," says Doug Hill, co-author of Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, on the comedy institution's first decade. "There's an inevitable transition from iconoclast to icon. That's what happened to SNL."

While SNL may have gradually lost its essential viewing status, it remains relevant, even now when the troupe stands there reading off teleprompters.

"It still has that aspect of the rebel and the upstart," says Tom Shales, longtime TV critic for the Washington Post and co-author of Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. "It's still a place where Chris Rock can do a monologue and have everyone talking on Monday about its irreverence and brilliance."

If laughter is the best medicine, then SNL has certainly been America's most reliable dispensary. It would be impossible to designate SNL's greatest bits, but any list of highlights must include these:

Bill Murray's Oscar Picks. His handicapping style for the awards was priceless, a mix of the catty, derisive, absurd. Ian McKellen for best actor in 1998's Gods and Monsters? "A British guy playing gay? I don't buy it. I don't think the Academy's going to buy it."

Two Wild and Crazy Guys. As the Czech emigre Festrunk brothers, Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd didn't have much success picking up "American foxes." Still funny when Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan revived the bit as the Butabi brothers from Yemen.

Celebrity Jeopardy! Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery took merciless delight in insulting Will Ferrell's Alex Trebek. His standby: "That's not what your mother said last night, Trebek."

Gumby. Eddie Murphy donned a green foam suit to play the bendable, beloved children's toy. Only he gave Gumby the voice and personality of a bitter, old Borscht Belt tummler, dammit!

Church Lady. Dana Carvey slayed it as the withering and sanctimonious moral proctor who disapproved of everything. Who didn't love these curdled Church Chats? Could it be . . . Satan?

Stuart Smalley. Al Franken's cracked self-help addict may not have been a licensed therapist, but he delivered a wicked satire of 12 Step groups. And doggone it, people liked him.

Wayne's World. Two headbangers in a basement rec room provided the greatest cable-access TV show ever. Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey), party on, dudes!

Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker. Chris Farley jumped off the screen as the bow-legged, way-overamped foghorn of a life coach. The character was created by Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul.

Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer. Phil Hartman's Keyrock was frightened and confused by the modern world he had been thawed out in. But beneath that Neanderthal appearance was one shifty shyster.

Scared Straight. A cop (Jason Sudeikis) tries to frighten teen delinquents by bringing in an oddball convict (Kenan Thompson) to explain what will happen to them in prison. Which he is glad to do, with graphic glee.

Get in the Cage. Andy Samberg's deft and deranged Nicolas Cage talks with a variety of fellow thespians about the craft of acting. But mostly, the overexposed hack, who claims to have "done two movies a month for the last five years," wants to know, "How am I not in that film?"

Stefon. Bill Hader created perhaps the strangest SNL character since Chris Kattan's Mango. Stefon was our guide to the hottest clubs in New York, such as Taste. "This place has everything," he cooed.

 

For all the recurring gems, there have been nearly as many clunkers. Sketches such as Toonces the Cat, It's Pat!, and the Californians were endlessly reprised despite the fact that they weren't funny the first time.

 Along the way, the show has had controversy, which comes with the territory when you're live.

The biggest dustup involved Irish singer Sinead O'Connor. During her final number as musical guest in 1992, she held up a picture of Pope John Paul II and tore it into pieces, declaring, "Fight the real enemy."

Curt Block, then NBC's vice president of Media Relations, was there, as he was at every Saturday broadcast for five years, as the network chaperone.

"When she tore up the picture, we were stunned, as everybody in the audience was," he says. Lorne Michael, the show's longstanding executive producer, pulled Block under the audience bleachers to craft an announcement of apology.

"He's carrying his glass of white wine as he always did," Block says. "I'm panicking and he's calm as can be."

Block dispatched an NBC page to the telephone room to gauge reaction just as the following week's host, Joe Pesci, joined their scrum. It was customary for the upcoming host to attend the previous week's telecast.

The page came back to report that 55 phone complaints had come in so far.

"Lorne said, 'That's not bad,' " Block recalls. "Pesci got up in his face and started screaming, 'Fifty-five? Are you kidding? You've already got 55? She just performed eight minutes ago. Are you crazy?' "

This was in the pre-Internet days when universal outrage took a few hours to build.

"The phone started ringing the next morning at 8 o'clock," Block says. "It didn't stop for two days."

 


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv