There was a time when Saturday Night Live mattered. The comedy was fresh, edgy, and always hilarious, and we turned to it for those rarest of musical moments: something genuine and powerful, a live experience where you weren’t sure what might happen. Let’s take a trip in the WABAC Machine and visit a moment in the TV giant’s most prosperous era, when the likes of Will Farrell, Ana Gasteyer, Colin Quinn, Molly Shannon, and even pre-Late Night Jimmy Fallon were cracking us all up. On September 25, 1999, the show’s 25th Anniversary Special, everything was right, the stars were aligned, and the King (of sorts) was in the building.
If you’re not a history buff, here’s the abridged version: Elvis Costello performed on SNL back on December 17, 1977. He started to play “Less Than Zero”, but stopped only to play the anti-corporate radio jam “Radio Radio”. His reward for a raucous performance? A 12-year ban from SNL. Meanwhile, in 1999, the Beastie Boys were fresh off Grammy wins in February, and Hello Nasty was riding just as high. So, it was only right that they got to play late night TV’s grandest night.
The performance is exciting because there isn’t a second that is tainted by the potential tidal wave of cheesiness that could have ruined it. From the few seconds of “Sabotage” (which the band plays as if they were a punk band again) to Costello’s feigned apology for such an “interruption” and right into the newly created foursome’s rousing edition of an already high-energy song, the moment came off as pure and genuine; clearly a staged moment that still made you feel like the live in SNL actually meant something. Plus, an intro by Ferrell and Gasteyer’s Bobbi and Marty Culp is absurd in the most wondrous way imaginable.
But more than just a great performance, the moment speaks even greater volumes over a decade later. It was more than a wacky way to get Costello on the program and pump ratings fueled by drama. It was more than a moment to show off the good-natured hijinks and musicality of the boys from Brooklyn. Here and now, amid a slew of late night shows choking the airwaves with bad jokes and dialogues that are increasingly bland and boring, we can look back at the performance as something spontaneous. Something we never saw coming, but that was real and made sense. And it wasn’t overly shocking, and it didn’t cause a lot of water cooler talk the next Monday. Instead, it’s nice to see what we used to have and what after-hours TV can offer us again, regardless of the format, time slot or who may be hosting.