The youthful “Saturday Night Live” surely would have mocked something as bloated as the 40th anniversary special that NBC aired (about eight months early, but never mind) on Sunday, running a ponderous 3 ½ hours, not including the one-hour “Matt Lauer really will do anything the network asks these days” red-carpet preshow. Star studded and nostalgic, the telecast demonstrated the network’s determination to milk all things “SNL” beyond the breaking point creatively speaking, as well as the media’s willingness to treat another arbitrary milestone like an event. To paraphrase the Church Lady, sorry, but this just wasn’t that special.

After the obligatory Justin Timberlake-Jimmy Fallon opening, the credits ran so long there was a fleeting fear the producers might run out of time.

That gave way to an opening skit that actually turned out to be the night in a microcosm, with so many guests crowding on the stage that by the time Paul McCartney and Paul Simon showed up, their brief duet felt like an afterthought.

Give NBC and “SNL” patriarch Lorne Michaels credit. Faced with the prospect of another anniversary clipshow, they seized upon the passage of a full decade to give the sweeps stunt additional heft. And frankly, it’s not like the phone is ringing off the hook for some of the former cast members who popped up.

That’s not to say the evening was without moments. With so many talented people and that much time, how could there not be – from “Celebrity Jeopardy” and the audition-video clip package (including a few eventual stars who weren’t deemed Not Ready for Primetime) to Bill Murray belting out the “Jaws” theme, from the Adam Sandler-Andy Samberg song about cracking up during skits to Chris Rock’s warm riff about Eddie Murphy, even if Murphy came out and had nothing much to say.

Still, too many sketches (“The Californians?” Really?) dragged on interminably, and a lot of the movie-star appearances actually felt like time that could have been better devoted to former cast members. It takes a lot of work, in fact, to make a segment featuring Jerry Seinfeld that ho-hum.

For those well versed in the show’s history, even the highlights began to yield diminishing returns, and the celebrity homages to characters played by Gilda Radner and Chris Farley didn’t connect.

For NBC, of course, there’s no downside in building an entire weekend around “SNL.” To quote a fictionalized version of a former President, that’s just smart “strategery.”

But what was positioned as a celebration felt a whole lot more like an endurance test long before it was over. On the plus side, at least those in attendance looked like they were having a good time.

Near the outset Steve Martin referred to “SNL” as “an amazing institution,” and in terms of longevity and continued popularity it is certainly that. Yet “SNL 40” conveyed less a sense of being still crazy after all these years, as Paul Simon sang, than a nagging feeling that to muster much enthusiasm for “SNL 50” will require forgetting this mostly laborious evening.

TV Review: ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ 40th Exhibits Middle-Aged Bloat

(Special; NBC, Sun. Feb. 15, 8 p.m.)

  • Production: Produced by Broadway Video and SNL Studios.
  • Crew: Executive producer, Lorne Michaels; producers, Steve Higgins, Erik Kenward, Lindsay Shookus, Erin Doyle, Rhys Thomas; director, Don Roy King; writing supervisor, Rob Klein. <strong>3 HOURS, 30 MIN.</strong>