Saturday Night Live turned 40 this weekend. It looked more like it was turning 70. That’s because the principals who launched the show back in ’75 were all hovering around 30 at the time. It was a raucous, joyful and bittersweet weekend with an SNL Valentine’s Special in prime time, a re-run of the series premiere in the show’s regular slot and the big, live anniversary show on Sunday night.
I have nothing negative to say about the 3.5-hour anniversary show. When it wasn’t entertaining it was still alternately fascinating and sobering. It didn’t have to be good. It just had to be – in the same way you have to have a 50th wedding anniversary party for your parents if they’re both still alive and married on that occasion. If nothing more the SNL anniversary is further proof of the inexorable march from Revolution to Institution to Adaptation or Extinction. Say what you will about your favorite era of the show – there is always someone who will argue her favorite era is better than yours. I’d bet real money the difference in opinion says less about the show itself and more about the person making the argument.
I remember as a kid when some aged celebrity would appear on the TV screen and my Dad would wax on about how great that fossil was back when the earth was young. I never rolled my eyes or argued with Dad about his celebrity’s entertainment value relative to whoever was the current hot ticket. However, I’m sure I wondered how someone so old, whom I’d never heard of, could have ever been “relevant”. (As if the test of relevance is whether or not I’d heard of the person or enjoyed his shtick.) I did not appreciate then that some day I would experience pangs similar to Dad’s. It happened last night.
I clearly remember when I first became aware of Robert De Niro. I was a kid when TAXI DRIVER came out so I didn’t see it then but the images of Travis Bickle – menacing and unsettling — were ubiquitous in print and broadcast media. The blood-soaked, mohawked De Niro of NYC ’76 radiated a not-your-father’s-era-movie-star vibe. For years the mere image of De Niro communicated to me something edgy, risky, and challenging. Last night De Niro took the stage, avuncular, conservatively attired, and sincerely sentimental – even if he was reading from cue cards. This, it occurred to me, is what it comes to if you don’t flame out like Belushi.
There were the rest of them, in the show clips. Young people, vibrant, with minds full of mischief, bodies bent on mayhem, and hearts full of laughter (of all varieties). No matter what era the clips came from the people captured on tape were on fire at the time and pushing the culture’s entertainment boundaries. Cut from the clips to the people in the room last night and one would think, “Hey that guy looks like he could be Chevy Chase’s grandfather. Wait. That is Chevy Chase.” I find that both humbling and life-affirming.
Saturday Night Live has been a cultural touchstone for 40 years. There are performers from several generations who owe their careers to SNL. As an audience it’s easy for us to critique, embrace or dismiss the series but there’s no denying its staying power. Its endurance is a testament to Lorne Michaels’s ability to adapt without abandoning his vision. A run like that guarantees that both stars and audiences are buried together in strata that get tediously excavated on occasions like the anniversary show.
Someday SNL will be gone and that’s ok, too. Because, as Patton said about the Romans, “All glory is fleeting.” I get it now, Dad.