SNL‘s 40th anniversary bash was a mixed bag for all but the diehard fans, more of a sappy nostalgia fest than a showcase for new and original laughs. That result was predictable. When institutions reach a certain cultural cornerstone status, they’re granted the privilege to be deservedly, if dully, self-reflective. Yet the stories and photos that have subsequently surfaced from behind the scenes provide something of what was missing from the broadcast: a look at the spontaneity and unlikely collaborations, the friction and synergy created by having so many comic and musical geniuses in one place, at one time.
The most compelling account that has emerged is a long series of tweets from Norm Macdonald, helpfully transformed into narrative by Gothamist. Macdonald is the dry-to-the-point-of-flammable cast member who is both loved and hated by fans (I think his passive-aggressive intro of Chevy Chase was the funniest part of the whole broadcast). In addition to hanging out at the piano with Paul McCartney and getting his jokes rejected by Mike Myers for the “Wayne’s World” sketch, the most interesting information his tweets gave us was about Eddie Murphy, who was originally slated to play Bill Cosby in “Celebrity Jeopardy!”
At the end of the sketch, Darrel would choose potent potables. Homebase would be dressed as a bar. The iconic doors would open and on to home base would step Eddie Murphy. The audience would know what to do. Why is Eddie wearing a multi-colored sweater? He steps behind the bar, begins mixing a drink. The audience covers the fact he has not spoken. When he speaks, he is Cosby. Eddie Murphy doing a perfect Cosby impression. The audience does not let him finish. The sketch ends. The show, for all intents, ends… … It’s my job to talk him in to doing Jeopardy. We talk in his dressing room a good hour. When it’s over, I’m convinced he’ll do it. He doesn’t. He knew the laughs would bring the house down. Eddie Murphy knows what will work on SNL better than any one. Eddie decides the laughs are not worth it. He will not kick a man when he is down. Eddie Murphy, I realize, is not like the rest of us. Eddie does not need the laughs. Eddie Murphy is the coolest, a rockstar even in a room with actual rockstars.
Given that I don’t really think Cosby is actually “down,” among other things, I for one will always regret not getting to see Murphy as Cosby. Much (but not all) of punditry agrees with Macdonald’s genuflecting assessment that Murphy knew what he was doing by turning down the role, but the “what if” remains as potent as any potable.
After the show ended in a sea of handshakes and hugs, the cast had what sounds like a semi-epic jam session, emceed by the reliably starstruck and good-natured Jimmy Fallon, who arrived onstage after Dan Aykroyd invited him to rock out with a Blues Brother and Sir Paul, followed by Taylor Swift.
Left onstage and a little snookered, Fallon kept the vibes going:
He asked Miley Cyrus to come up, and she played a sad song about her goldfish dying. Ariana Grande offered to sing something. He invited Debbie Harry onstage. The three of them then performed Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” That performance was followed by Michael Bolton doing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” followed by The B-52s’ “Love Shack” and Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” joined by Bill Murray on tambourine, Martin Short and Maya Rudolph.
Finally, on a hot tip from Dave Chappelle, Fallon invited Prince to the stage. Here’s how he described what happened next in his Tonight Show monologue:
“All of a sudden the crowd parts and there’s purple smoke and a dude floating toward the stage. It’s almost like he’s got jet-packs on his knees. His feet weren’t touching the ground,” Fallon recalled, walking out from behind his desk to show how Prince floated to the stage. “He gets onstage, he grabs his guitar, and he goes, ‘Dearly inebriated …’ “
Seth Meyers also reflected on the show during his monologue. The funniest part was his attempt at conversation with Beyoncé:
‘And I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s on this show soon because I feel like I asked her questions that were just more informed and interesting than the kind of questions people normally ask her,” Meyers explained. “Like, for instance, the first thing I said was [yelling] ‘This is fun, right?!’ And then I had a real good follow-up of, ‘Goodbye!’ You might be thinking I was yelling over music. There was no music at that point, just a very loud white person screaming at Beyoncé.”
Other highlights from the behind-the-scenes reports trickling out are the revelation that Taylor Swift wasn’t actually making exasperated eyes due to being seated near Sarah Palin (she’s probably controlled enough to keep her thoughts on Palin to herself), but rather looking at the monitor.
And then there were the selfies. So many selfies, and moments of stars blissing out at the comedy hall of fame moments happening around them.
Much of the humor at the SNL event seemed like it was a “you had to be there” type of funny. So thank you, Internet- and storytelling-prone comedians, for making us feel a little more like we were, in fact, there — and therefore in on the joke.