After more than 30 years on the air, NBC's Saturday Night Live can safely be called a pop culture institution. The sketch comedy program has launched the careers of many gifted comedic actors, five of whom are celebrated in this nifty five-DVD set.
The Best of Will Ferrell
The best comedy comes when people are willing to check their egos at the door. Will Ferrell is among the best comedic actors working today for that very reason. In his eight years on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell literally and figuratively hurled himself -- flabby belly, hairy ass and all -- into his caricatures.
That admirable self-effacement is evident in the classic "More Cowbell" sketch, which is included in this best-of collection. A parody of VH1's "Behind the Music" series, the bit features Ferrell, along with his meaty gut and nonexistent sense of rhythm, playing cowbell for Blue Oyster Cult when the band recorded its hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper."
The more renowned of Ferrell's SNL signature creations are here, including a Roxbury club-hopper (alongside Chris Kattan and Jim Carrey), Craig, the terminally perky cheerleader (alongside Sheri O'Teri) and his desperate-to-be-hip high school music teacher (with Ana Gasteyer). The skits featured here are funny enough, but -- as is so often the case with Saturday Night Live itself -- a little can go a long way.
For this reviewer, Ferrell shines most in his impressions of various celebrities. He lacks the flawless mimicry of, say, fellow SNLer Darrell Hammond; instead, Ferrell does interpretations more than impersonations. Hence we have sleazily arrogant Robert Goulet; sycophantic James Lipton of "Inside the Actor's Studio" and an exasperated Alex Trebek hosting "Celebrity Jeopardy" (the sketch included on the DVD also features Norm MacDonald and Hammond doing great turns as, respectively, Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery). Inexplicably, the DVD pays only token attention to his impressions of political leaders, such as a linebacker-sized Janet Reno and the steely-eyed idiocy of a certain 43rd president of the United States.
Hands down, this reviewer's favorite bit is Ferrell's riff as the great Chicago Cubs announcer, Harry Caray. Sporting ridiculously large glasses and bobbing his head as if his neck is operated by box springs, Ferrell is hilarious depicting the late Caray as a smiling, non sequitur-spouting madman.
Along with the Best of John Belushi, the Ferrell disc offers a smattering of worthwhile bonus features. The most intriguing is Ferrell's actual audition for Saturday Night Live, which demonstrates how Ferrell's comedic themes were already entrenched when he started on the show. In this seven-minute, 40-second video, he imitates Harry Caray doing a dramatic reading (an impressive shtick) and Ted Kennedy doing standup comedy (not so impressive).
An eight-minute, 19-second dress sketch is a rehearsal of a skit in which Ferrell portrays an anachronistic "old prospector" who is in the U.S. Army and headed for action in the second Persian Gulf War (the sketch never made it into the actual program). Outtakes feature seven minutes of Ferrell and colleagues cracking each other up.
In addition, there are two Will Ferrell TV appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brian, which clock in at 7:27 and 9:13, respectively. Rounding out the extras is a photo gallery.
The Best of Chris Farley
What a sad commentary when two of the Saturday Night Live alums spotlighted in this set died of a drug overdose at age 33. In some respects, Chris Farley's death in 1997 feels more morbidly tragic than that of John Belushi. The Best of John Belushi showcases a dynamic performer with an unabated zeal for life. Farley, by contrast, reportedly wrestled with self-loathing and dismissed his appeal as "fatty falls down" humor. Many of the sketches in the Farley collection are hilarious, but even the funniest moments are shaded with a tinge of sadness.
There is no denying that the bulk of skits included here revolve around Farley's ample girth. The anthology even features a montage of the actor smashing things that he falls into – coffee tables, walls, etc. Among Farley's best-known sketches is his face-off against Patrick Swayze to be a Chippendale's dancer. The scene is certainly funny -- but it's tempered a bit once you realize that, hey, the entire joke is that the guy was fat.
Still, this DVD also reminds us what a committed showman Farley was. His turn as motivational speaker Matt Foley -- a 35-year-old man who is divorced and lives (c'mon, say it with me) in a van down by the river! -- is a thing of genius. Equally inspired is "The Chris Farley Show," in which our incompetent fanboy interviewer finds himself hopelessly ill-equipped to chat with the likes of Paul McCartney and Martin Scorsese. Another great, and less celebrated, sketch is Farley as a hapless Midwesterner stuck on a bizarre and potentially dangerous Japanese game show.
Only one complaint, but it's a notable one: While this best-of DVD is consistently funny, too many sketches are truncated into pointless montages.
A healthy slice of bonus features include a two-minute dress sketch (subsequently cut from the live show); three-minute, 39-second grouping of outtakes; and a one-minute, 30-second family album (pics of Chris as a child and teenager) that ends with an anti-drug message from the Chris Farley Foundation.
Also included is a photo gallery, an appearance on TV's Late Night with Conan O'Brien (6:23) and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (5:22).
The Best of Adam Sandler
While Adam Sandler has devoted most of his post-SNL output to tongue-kissing the Lowest Common Denominator, his work on the program from 1990 to 1995 wasn't quite so dumb. This collection provides a nice sampling of his more memorable moments on the show.
In Sandler's better efforts, he created characters that seemed to resonate with authenticity. By way of example, we have "The Denise Show." In it, he plays Brian, a young man who uses his public-access TV show to vent his heartbreak and misery over being dumped by his girlfriend. Anyone who has endured a brutal breakup -- or knows someone who has -- will appreciate Sandler's dead-on shtick.
Of course, Sandler's novelty songs are also terrific. His first SNL performance of "The Chanukah Song" is still fresh and funny, partly because Sandler is having such a good time singing it. Unfortunately, the DVD does not include another Sandler SNL ditty, "Red-Hooded Sweatshirt."
Another highlight included here, "Canteen Boy," is a cringe-inducing -- but very funny -- skit in which Alec Baldwin portrays a lecherous Boy Scout leader out to seduce the titular character, played by Sandler.
Other highlights include the clever "Schmitt's Gay" beer commercial, Sandler's performance of "Lunch Lady Land" (which also shows up on the Farley DVD) and a few appearances by "Opera Man."
A lame photo gallery is the sole extra on this disc.
The Best of Eddie Murphy
In Eddie Murphy's all-too-brief stint on Saturday Night Live from 1980 through late 1983, he and fellow SNLer Joe Piscopo practically kept the show afloat by themselves. Murphy's humor was sharp and edgy, and his breakout performance on the show soon catapulted him into superstardom.
The Best of Eddie Murphy is a comprehensive collection of his finest bits on SNL. In fact, it might be a bit too comprehensive. Several skits are devoted to the comedian's winning impression of the "Little Rascals'" Buckwheat (pronounced Buh-Weet), while his other comic creations -- Mr. Robinson (a ghettoized Fred Rogers) and pimp Velvet Jones ("I Wanna Be a Ho") get two sketches apiece. They're funny, but the amount included here smacks of overload.
Although there is a noticeable amount of filler, the better shticks on the DVD are truly hilarious. Murphy's undercover exposé on what it really means to be white in America is knee-slapping, pee-in-your-pants funny. His impressions also hit the bullseye, particularly his turns as James Brown, Stevie Wonder (performing "Ebony and Ivory" with Piscopo a terrific Frank Sinatra) and merging Richard Simmons and Little Richard for, appropriately enough, "The Little Richard Simmons Show."
Other highlights include: an interview with the Tooth Fairy, Gumby's "Merry Christmas, Dammit!" TV special and the "Prose and Cons" short film about poets in prison ("C-I-L-L my landlord!").
The Best of John Belushi
Other members of Saturday Night Live's original "Not Ready for Primetime Players" cast achieved greater stardom than John Belushi, but none achieved his iconic status.
Such is the inevitable tradeoff for untimely death. Every heavyset actor with a predilection for physical comedy is compared to the extraordinary standard that he set. So, too, does every live-fast, die-young celebrity seem to conjure up the ghost of Belushi, who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose in 1982.
Belushi fans will dig this wonderful collection and its smorgasbord of his talents, particularly his gifts for physical comedy. With his roly-poly body and diabolical eyebrows, he was born for over-the-top high jinks, and Belushi dived into Saturday Night Live with the same wild abandon he evidently brought to his personal life. His inimitable Samurai turns up for "Samurai Delicatessen" and "Samurai Night Fever" (which also boasts O.J. Simpson from simpler days), as does (this reviewer's personal favorite) Pete, who owns the Greek diner where patrons can only get "chee-boogah" and "no Coke – Pepsi."
Other highlights include Vito Corleone in group therapy (with a great turn by Laraine Newman as another patient), a superhero party (Belushi as the Incredible Hulk), Elizabeth Taylor choking on fried chicken, a spot-on Joe Cocker impersonation, the Blues Brothers' swaggering rendition of Sam & Dave's "Soul Man," and a guffaw-worthy Wheaties takeoff that features a commercial for "Little Chocolate Donuts."
Most eerie is "Schiller's Reel: Don't Look Back in Anger," a faux artsy short film in which Belushi, playing himself as an old man, visits the graves of all his former Saturday Night Live colleagues. Had he lived, Belushi would have celebrated his 57th birthday this year. It's tough to consider his extraordinary talents and not look back in -- if not anger -- at least sadness and frustration.
The Belushi anthology boasts the most extras in this set. The centerpiece is An Inside Look, a 19-minute retrospective featuring interviews with Judy Belushi Pisano (Belushi's wife), Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, NBC executive Dick Ebersol, SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman, Al Franken, Steve Martin and a slew of former SNL writers. It's nothing that even the casual Belushi fan won't already know, but the featurette is well-made and fittingly reverent.
A three-minute, 45-second original screen test shows Belushi imitating Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront and The Godfather. A seven-minute, 20-second TV interview on Today has a trying-to-be-hip Gene Shalit visiting with Belushi and Aykroyd.
Other extras include a photo gallery and an old Rolling Stone cover story on Belushi, "Sam of Samurai" by Charles M. Young.
The five discs are contained in a digipak with three two-sided plastic trays. The digipak fits inside a cardboard slipcover.
Presented in full-frame 1.33:1, the picture quality is typically adequate TV fare, but it is nice to see the classic Belushi skits without the washed-out look that dogs so many Saturday Night Live reruns. The picture is clean and clear throughout, with the exception of several soft spots in The Best of Eddie Murphy.
Dolby Digital 2.0 is the audio for all the discs. Suitable and clear, the sound is fine throughout – although parts of the audio on the Eddie Murphy DVD seem a little hollow.
If you're a big fan of John Belushi, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, chances are that you already have your favorite's best-of anthology on DVD. Nevertheless, this collection is a good value.