'Saturday Night Live' fortieth anniversary special: Was it a worthy celebration?

The NBC variety show celebrated its anniversary with an episode that brought back alumni and famous guests. Many critics noted the length of the show (three-and-a-half hours) but called the program satisfying overall.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Jimmy Fallon (l.) and Justin Timberlake (r.) attend the SNL 40th Anniversary Special at Rockefeller Plaza.

Saturday Night Live” recently commemorated its fortieth anniversary with a special episode on NBC that drew huge ratings and many guest stars.

According to NBC, the episode’s ratings were the highest for NBC in total viewers for a primetime entertainment program since a 2004 episode of the show “ER” that aired the same evening as the "Frasier" finale (that leaves out shows airing after the Super Bowl). We couldn’t possibly list all the guest stars that showed up, but they included famous “SNL” alumni such as Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy as well as famous hosts like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin and musical guests that included Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, and Paul Simon. 

So was the anniversary special, which was moved to Sunday, Feb. 15 from the show’s customary Saturday airing, a satisfying celebration of the comedy show’s storied history?

Most critics seemed to agree that the program included many funny sketches but that the three-and-a-half-hour run time was a little long ,and that the appearance of Eddie Murphy on the special wasn’t all it could have been. (The star was the subject of a tribute by Chris Rock and then spoke very briefly, with his comments including, “I will always love this show.”)

New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that the special “worked and was well deserved.”

“Some of the live sketches were too lame and too long; it didn’t help that they were placed next to montages of clips from some of the show’s most memorable moments from decades past,” Stanley wrote. “Yet the special was still a high-spirited, generous tribute, self-mocking (there were several jokes about the show’s lack of diversity and overly drawn-out live skits), as well as self-congratulatory. Some of it was awkward. After a huge, minutes-long buildup by Chris Rock, Mr. Murphy didn’t try to amuse... [Chevy] Chase also seemed startled to be there.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Times writer Meredith Blake noted that the show was “as long… as an Academy Awards broadcast." 

“For better or worse, [it] left virtually no favorites untouched,” Blake wrote. “Other heavily anticipated moments left the audience wondering, ‘Is that it?’… [Eddie] Murphy made a few boilerplate remarks… 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… and Miley Cyrus.”

And Associated Press writer Frazier Moore called Murphy’s appearance “the night's big hitch,” noting that “Murphy said little more than thanks," but he found the rest of the show “long, very long, but [a] mostly satisfying retrospective of TV's great comedy institution.”

However, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever called the show "adequate."

"[There were] a couple of worthy high points, including the sight of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin sharing the Weekend Update desk," he wrote. "But there were too few surprises... As it dragged toward its end at 11:30, it was hard to make a case for all the effort. Viewers might have been better served – and more entertained – by a well-considered, deeply curated and chronologically presented 3 1/2-hour clip show."

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