“Saturday Night Live” returned for its landmark fortieth season with a new announcer, a revived “Weekend Update” and a couple of digs at the National Football League. But the show continued to serve up something it largely avoided when it launched way back in 1975: The expected.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” star Chris Pratt altered the opening proceedings slightly when he gave a monologue that eschewed the traditional words about how great it is for the host to be in New York City, but then ended the segment on a business-as-usual tone by playing a ditty about hosting the program while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
From there, the show – as it does most weeks – bounced along. Sketches featuring Taran Killam and Pratt as sexually hyperactive cartoon superstars He-Man and the Thundercats’ Lion-O was just strange enough to warrant a laugh and a fake commercial lampooning Marvel superhero movies was an obvious success. But the show’s “cold open” featuring Aidy Bryant as CNN’s Candy Crowley, and another segment about lousy doctors at an animal hospital, appeared to miss the mark,
Two new players – Michael Che and Pete Davidson – proved their mettle during the program’s “Weekend Update.” Che added new energy and proved to have more of a rapport with co-host Colin Jost than Cecily Strong, the cast member who previously occupied his chair (and who was welcome as her signature character “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party”). Davidson, one of the program’s youngest cast members who joins this season as a featured player, proved dynamic in an “Update’ segment that more or less sounded like a rip-snorting outtake from a stand-up routine about the amount of money a guy could earn by, well, it’s best left to be seen on the show.
“SNL” also featured a new announcer, only the second regular one in its long on-air history (aside from some fill-ins). Darrell Hammond takes over the role from Don Pardo, the behind-the-scenes veteran who read the roll call of a cast once known as the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” for years. Hammond did not emulate Pardo’s way of speaking but provided a modern sound for the show. “SNL” featured a brief picture of Pardo in tribute as it was going to a commercial break.
Longtime viewers of the program will likely regard the changes as part of the show’s ongoing evolution, rather than the revolution it was when it debuted. Indeed, an episode from the show’s initial season that NBC aired earlier in the evening (part of the show’s season-long anniversary celebration) demonstrated just how by-the-numbers the program has become in its many seasons on the air.
The episode, which featured Richard Pryor and was just the seventh episode of the program, was much less structured. Pryor was given room for two long monologues without backing band or interaction with the cast. The show contained a groundbreaking sketch in which Pryor and Chevy Chase fling racial epithets at one another, as well as a short film by Albert Brooks and a segment featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets in rather adult scenarios, like drinking alcohol. Even viewed in 2014, the show seemed daring, rebellious, and insurgent.
To be sure,”SNL” can still draw blood, as it did with it presented a lampoon of a CBS broadcast of an NFL game, in which members of each team playing announced the crimes they committed, which ranged from being an American Taliban to treason. And a spoof commercial about a version of Cialis mixed with ecstasy was funny (and how could it not be).
But “SNL” at 40 is now a cultural institution, a fact proven by the appearance of characters and former cast members from the program who appeared in the program’s commercial breaks. Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey reprised their popular “Hans and Franz” weightlifters in an ad for State Farm while Tina Fey appeared in a spot for American Express.
As such, the show may find it harder to raise eyebrows, because what it does is no longer a surprise. In its early middle age, “SNL” still amuses, stings and lampoons, and people will continue to laugh and watch (and comment endlessly about it on social media). But by dint of its tenure on the air, “Saturday Night Live” has less power to astonish.