Saturday Night Live marks 40 years of comedy irreverence as stars like Bill Murray gather

Singer Justin Timberlake (left), actor Billy Crystal and TV host Jimmy Fallon (right) arrive for the 40th Anniversary Saturday Night Live (SNL) broadcast in the Manhattan borough of New York on Feb 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Singer Justin Timberlake (left), actor Billy Crystal and TV host Jimmy Fallon (right) arrive for the 40th Anniversary Saturday Night Live (SNL) broadcast in the Manhattan borough of New York on Feb 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - Before the Internet, The Daily Show or music videos, an irreverent comedy troupe launched Saturday Night Live in 1975, unaware it would transform American humour and become the country's most successful comedy show of all time.

On Sunday the late-night powerhouse's cast members past and present, including superstars like Bill Murray and Jimmy Fallon, gathered in the Big Apple for the show's improbable 40th anniversary reunion, celebrating the skits that have become a part of America.

From young up-and-comers to golden girl Betty White, who in 2010 became the oldest-ever host at age 88, Saturday Night Live introduced or showcased literally hundreds of new or bankable stars.

The red carpet at Rockefeller Center overflowed with stars paying tribute to their favourites, including the late cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chris Farley, who died in their prime.

With its 11.30pm time slot on Saturdays, the show constantly pushed the boundaries of acceptability and decency, whether with racially-charged humour, the crack of Dan Aykroyd's backside, or Justin Timberlake's D*** In A Box sketch.

"SNL broke all the rules of comedy," said Oscar-winning actor and occasional Saturday Night Live host Robert De Niro.

Dozens of cast members were on hand at NBC's Studio 8H for a live, 3.5-hour special.

"Tonight is like an enormous high school reunion," 15-time host Steve Martin said at the outset.

Several cast members such as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Amy Poehler, Adam Sandler and Kristen Wiig went on to movie stardom.

Al Franken is now a United States senator, while one-time Saturday Night Live writer Conan O'Brien became the host of Late Night. And the show's creator Lorne Michaels, who shepherded the show from 1975 to the present, except for a brief 1980s hiatus, is among the revered producers in the business.

"If Lorne didn't have good taste, this would have gone away a long time ago," said Mike Myers, whose epic Wayne's World skit with Dana Carvey - reprised on Sunday - gave birth to one of the great comedy films of the 1990s.

Michaels's vision proved extraordinary, as he mined comedy gold with casts featuring Will Ferrell, Jane Curtin, Chris Rock, Martin Short, Kenan Thompson and Eddie Murphy.

"Eddie saved SNL," Rock said in introducing the man whose 1980s performances became instant classics.

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Tina Fey's impersonation of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was so spot-on that when Fey's character had a live on-air meeting with the real Palin, America seemed to hold its collective breath.

"It was the most fun moment of the campaign," Palin acknowledged on Sunday.

The show's players consistently exploited the convergence of pop culture and America political zeitgeist.

No president in office since the show's debut, including Barack Obama, avoided SNL's skewer.

The show became such a vital part of US culture that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered the show to return to live broadcast as soon as possible.

When it did, three weeks later, Michaels stood with Giuliani live on camera and asked him in a deadpan tone: "Can we be funny?"

Over the years the show triggered expressions - "You look marvellous;" "Isn't that special?;" "Pump you up;" and "Jane, you ignorant slut" - that are simply part of the American lexicon.

SNL's musical segment has featured rock and pop royalty like the Rolling Stones, Prince, Beyonce and Sinead O'Connor, while ex-Beatle Paul McCartney was featured on Sunday.

Alec Baldwin, who hosted the show 16 times, succinctly expressed why the biggest stars, from Tom Hanks to Madonna, gravitated to it.

"You have more fun doing this show than just about anything else you could possibly do."