Such are the vagaries of televised tributes that even this paean to Lorne Michaels proves a rather muted affair, with a potpourri of clips seemingly chosen based more on who is presenting them than establishing the “Saturday Night Live” patriarch’s undeniably auspicious legacy. Fitfully funny at best despite the blue-chip lineup of presenters, it’s no wonder this event found its way to PBS, which is doubtless just grateful to have the likes of Steve Martin and Paul Simon appearing in the same showcase.
It takes Michaels himself, at the program’s end, to actually put “SNL” in some perspective, referring to the 30-year-old franchise as always having remained “stuck in adolescence,” which probably helps account for the several uneven patches in its extended puberty.
A wide variety of guests, by contrast, don’t zero in on what Michaels and the program have accomplished, with Dan Aykroyd opening the festivities by referring to the frantic crush toward air as “the only for-real reality show in the business,” to considerable applause.
Conan O’Brien is there to discuss how “SNL” empowered writers, and Sens. John McCain and Chris Dodd rather incongruously intro a segment on political humor. Other than some amusing clips of early “Not Ready for Primetime Player” auditions, however, the spec generally lacks the spark of even recent NBC clip shows, particularly the fascinating “First Five Years” retrospective broadcast last month.
Leave it to Steve Martin, inevitably, to yield the brightest highlights during his time onstage, noting that without Michaels’ influence, “I would have been so much bigger.” Yet what fails to emerge is any grander sense of the producer himself, or for that matter enhanced under-standing of “SNL’s” enduring power as comedy launching pad.
Tina Fey does joke about her desire to “bring this thing down” after three decades, but the real mystery is how “Saturday Night” has re-mained a staple when the generation of teenagers weaned on it are preparing to exit the 18 to 49 demographic.
From the look of things, everyone on hand, including Michaels, had a good time roasting and toasting their current or former boss as he collected the Mark Twain Prize, and it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a front-row seat at somebody else’s party. As for any greater understanding of why the assembled were there, that will likely have to wait for another less festive but more thoughtful occasion.