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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
John Mulaney
John Mulaney
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“I mean a lot to a small group of people.”

If your third SNL hosting gig is your weakest yet and is still consistently funny, well, you’re probably John Mulaney. The former SNL writer turned award-winning stand-up and almost apologetic actor is just funny. That’s perhaps not an enlightening way to describe the guy, but there’s a certain kind of comedian who just is. That’s Mulaney, taking the mic for his third opening monologue since he left the writers room and slaying with habitual, deceptively effortless ease. Joking about his eccentric career path to date, Mulaney explained that he is the host who’d done the least between his second and third hosting stints, his self-effacing shtick both cheeky and spot-on. (A set-ender about a Make-A-Wish girl confessing that her second choice Mulaney introducing her to that week’s guest Lin Manuel Miranda actually made her wish come true struck exactly the Mulaney sweet spot of potentially edgy and hilariously apt.) Mulaney’s always going to be Mulaney (even as a cartoon pig) his specific, knowingly oversized delivery marking him out as the funniest voice in any room. That doesn’t necessarily make for the most versatile Saturday Night Live host, but, with Mulaney’s intimacy with the show to guide things, tonight’s episode made typically fine use of one of its funniest, if most unlikely, superstar alums.

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But back to funny. With a sketch veteran like Mulaney in house, jokes just work better. He knows the rhythm of a sketch inside out, and slots himself into a role with the confidence of a guy who simply knows how the machine operates. (A little cue card hesitancy notwithstanding.) Which is a good thing, as the sketches tonight weren’t themselves stellar. The big news any time John Mulaney hosts these days is just whichever aspect of New York culinary-mercantile sketchiness will be the subject of a lavishly produced musical number, and, while tonight’s Broadway ode to LaGuardia Airport sushi is third in line behind (in order of undeniable delightfulness) “Diner Lobster” and “Bodega Bathroom,” it follows the overall theme of the night that third-best Mulaney on SNL is still thoroughly enjoyable SNL.

Look, nothing’s ever going to capture the surprise victory of that first sketch—just like any recurring bit, there’s an element of giving the audience what they’re there to expect that saps some of the initial live-wire weirdness from the enterprise. But, apart from the central players in the set-up (Chris Redd and Mulaney as the New Yorkers horrified at Pete Davidson’s unwise choice of NYC convenience amenity), there’s a no-doubt inexhaustible well of petty New York gripes and vomit-worthy eccentricities for Mulaney and his fellow Big Apple veterans to plumb for extravagantly silly numbers whose disproportionate response is part of the gag. Here, we get Kenan as a plane-downing goose Phantom, Cecily Strong as an operatically remorseful, long-ago sushi chef (that spicy tuna is from 2018), Kate McKinnon as pretzel-hawking Auntie Orphan Annie blaming everything on de Blasio, Beck Bennett as the somehow unaccompanied baby on your flight, and—capping things off with a double dose of Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch shenanigans—musical guest David Byrne as a “Road To Nowhere”-singing “baggage handler who throws your luggage into Long Island Sound,” and Jake Gyllenhaal, rigged up to fly as the traveler in pajamas who’s creepily enthusiastic about the TSA pat-down. (“You don’t have to use the backs of your hands!”) Taking the whole show into the audience to end the sketch amidst a shower of loose-wire sparks with Byrne singing the way, the whole thing was delightfully, goofily unnecessary.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

So, apart from that one, I thought Mulaney’s stand-up persona found its truest home in the Sound Of Music sketch, a musical dissection of just how creepy that whole “I am 16, going on 17" romance subplot is. With Cecily’s Liesl (in ridiculously fine voice as ever) beginning to question her beloved sort-of Nazi suitor Kurt’s blond, Aryan suitability, Mulaney keeps slipping in the sort of wise-ass asides his comedy is built around, as Kurt keeps confessing to being more like “17, going on 47" as the song goes on. (Oh, and he’s planning to move them into an apartment with a lot of suspiciously Aryan roommates, including one named Goebbels.) With Mulaney’s Kurt alternating between snarking about his beloved’s growing number of reservations (“Wow, she’s got a list.”), and smoothly crooning away her reservations about the whole Nazi thing (“Focus on the age stuff.”), the piece was a perfect use of Mulaney. Him assuring Liesl, “This is Austria, nineteen-thirty-bad: In a few weeks this will be the least of your worries,” was the ideal synthesis of host, delivery, and premise.

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Any sketch matching Kate and Aidy at its center is an automatic contender, and the return of their melodramatically feuding 1950s sisters in the classic Say, These Two Don’t Seem To Like Each Other gave the ever-delightful duo a chance to outdo each other with bitchy period skullduggery in advance of their shared suitor’s arrival. The joke is, once again, that their Davis-Crawford (pretty much literal) back-stabbing proves helpless against the unwitting charms of a much more conventionally attractive family member (here, Mulaney’s returning sailor and “pass-around party bottom”). Having the joke that Beck Bennett’s Admiral (somehow being promoted from Corporal last time) is in a closeted frenzy at Mulaney’s oblivious nautical sexiness (shades of Kimmy Schmidt’s “Daddy’s Boy” and Hail, Caesar!’s “No Dames”) is hacky but funny, with Beck, Kate, and Aidy all doing absurdly over-the-top mugging (including a straight-up “Ha-ga-goo-ga-goo-ga-gaaa!”) while maintaining their 1950s film noir demeanor, and I laughed at pretty much all of it.

Mulaney’s gift for straight-manning (as opposed to party-bottoming) was used to fine effect again in the meme sketch, where his suburban uncle angrily whips up a slide show of college-age nephew Pete Davidson’s reddit jokes at his expense. Mulaney makes the uncle’s outrage at being the internet’s #whitecollarvirgin simultaneously righteous and comically out-of-touch, as the memes keep coming. (His awkwardly grinning Facebook profile picture overlaid with “When ya’ll kissing and she say, ‘That’ll be $200'” is introduced with Mulaney’s hilariously perplexed, “This next one was tweeted by rapper Ice-T!”) There’s not much more to the sketch but watching Mulaney flesh out a portrait of out-of-touch suburban dudgeon, but’s just so great at it. Like more than a few sketches tonight, there were some pacing/timing issues, here mainly at the expense of an ending.

Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney got to do their behind-the-scenes thing with a filmed sketch about Mooney—tired of all the “geek” roles coming his way—deciding to turn their shared office into a gym in order to get cast in Mulaney’s proposed male stripper sketch. The pair’s signature self-parody here clanks alongside the admirable monstrousness of Mooney’s post-transformation prosthetics, as he immediately becomes a smugly buff, absurdly pumped-up dudebro (thanks to, among other things, the absurdist delight that is guest trainer Justin Theroux as himself), scooping a muscles-smitten Chloe Fineman into an offhand sex-date and allowing a bashful Lorne Michaels to pet his newfound bulges. Good Neighbor pals Mooney and Bennett’s humor traffics in such light cringe comedy, as clueless strivers inevitably find their lowest level, as, here, the horrifying, gravel-voiced, ’roid-gremlin version of Kyle, having made himself “less interesting” for glory, is summarily fired from the show by an unimpressed Mulaney. Lurking at the heart of most of these sketches is a mingled affection/contempt for the bottom-dwellers of the entertainment industry, pitiable losers whose lifelong consumption of TV and movies has left them convinced that they are just one big break (or Tupperware full of lean, broiled chicken breasts and a 5 p.m. bedtime) away from the stardom they just know is their birthright, and Mooney, especially, is most comfortable playing around there. (Also, filming schedules being what they are, it’s unlikely this sketch is in response to Pete Davidson’s off-weeks’ interview about being typecast on the show, but there’s a harsh but essential truth about living or dying on SNL that’s resonant throughout the bit.)

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Weekend Update update

Che continues to successfully play around with his role on Update, here breaking from a joke about the growing coronavirus threat to muse about his fears that they’ll play an Update clip of him mocking the typically lame and self-serving Trump administration response to the crisis at his funeral. In what former SNL-er Al Franken would call “kidding on the square,” Che confessed to “sitting here pretending to care about politics,” before whipping off his clip-on tie, whipping out a tumbler of something brown (“Why am I hiding my drinking problem?”), and, finally, donning a crooked baseball cap as he essayed the role of a Michael Che who’s finally been broken by all the world’s unrelenting horseshit. It’s a blessedly funny move, carried out through the rest of Update (“You know, I just found out I might have a kid?,” he’s heard mumbling after the camera cuts back to the straight-faced Colin Jost), and it adds a frisson of reckless abandon to his side of the proceedings that’s sloppily energizing. “I feel free,” he exclaims at one point, and his story about his beloved grandma telling him, “We are living in our last days,” lands satisfyingly, before Che rambles on to rebut granny’s “no white girls” rule. (“I work in show business, that’s unrealistic.”) Joining in on the cold open’s queasy mockery of the prospect of noted fundamentalist and science skeptic Mike Pence leading the uninspiring cadre of sycophants, yes-men, and non-doctors Trump put in charge of fighting a potentially deadly outbreak of disease, Che did resort to yet another SNL “Mike Pence is secretly gay” joke. And I could have done without the “Chinese people eating dogs” joke when supposedly defending the virus hotspot, too, although, for Che, loosening up seems to come yoked to being sort of an asshole.

Otherwise, Update’s cracks at the news of the day went as usual. Jost let Trump hang himself with his own slurred nonsense (Thank god we have “different elements of medical” on the coronavirus front), and—echoing Trump’s rhetorical gambit of using supposedly overheard chatter to disseminate patently absurd nonsense to the world—deftly managed to get the hashtag #TrumpSlump trending during the show when talking about what he’s definitely heard people calling the precipitous stock market losses since Trump started babbling incoherently about the “hoax” outbreak of a rapidly accelerating infectious disease outbreak. Hey, if that’s the world of public discourse we live in at this point, then fighting hashtag with hashtag is fair game, so good on you, Jost.

Chris Redd, taking the well-known SNL path of making yourself a showcase on Update when you’re being underused elsewhere, put together a solid few minutes as himself, commenting on the just-concluding Black History Month. As with most such pieces, the jokes sprayed all over the place, although nominally anchored to the central premise that, as Redd put it, black people “took too many Ls” for Black History Month this year. Straying into politics while keeping his eyes on the joke, he ably described SC primary winner Joe Biden as Joe “I have a black friend” Biden, and noted how watching the garrulously long-winded Biden give a speech is like “watching an old man parallel park his thoughts for 20 minutes.” On Trump’s hastily disseminated photo of himself surrounded by the handful of black Trump supporters he could get to pray over him, Redd, in his best turn of phrase, described the gathered worshipful as “White House negroes,” and ran down some of the more egregiously misguided corporate appropriations of Black History Month, including that credit card that makes it look like Harriet Tubman is either saluting Wakanda or “she got recaptured.” Weekend Update has long been a place for cast members to present their own, individualized versions of the newsreader gig, and, should Jost follow through on his suggested post-election departure, this is about as good a tryout as Redd could give.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

The John Mulaney “I hate New York” Musical Showcase; the Kate-and-Aidy 1940s Femmes Fatale Extravaganza.

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“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

Hey, everyone’s going to get super-sick! So that’s funny. Or it could be, I suppose, if the cold open didn’t shy away from the aforementioned flop-sweat generator that is Mike (“condoms don’t work, pray away AIDS, smoking doesn’t kill, climate change is a myth, intelligent design”) Pence is in charge of mustering the nation’s medical defenses to wheeze into another underwhelming Democratic slate sketch. Again, the joke that noted frothing gay-basher Pence is in the closet is (whatever the truth may be) beyond played out at this point, although at least Beck Bennett’s strident Pence nodding toward his willful disregard of scientific truth by calling the coronavirus a test of his faith “like dinosaur bones, or Timothée Chalamet” was half-smart. And Kenan Thompson coming out as Ben Carson (“the brain surgeon that they put in charge of house development”) was the usual hoot, with Kenan’s approximation of Carson’s singsong cadence making his dire predictions about the toll of the virus extra alarming, especially to Pence, who hurriedly shoves Carson aside for straying from the administration’s sweaty “All is well!” public stance on the topic.

That things veered suddenly into a another stealth Dem candidate sketch could have served to hammer on the theme, I suppose (although simply following through on the premise might have been an idea, too.) But things quickly turned into the same unsatisfying quick-hit impressions and internecine sniping among the candidates, an exercise that’s seeming more and more like a slightly unimpressive audition process for who’s going to be the eventual nominee. (Sort of like the much of the actual remaining Democratic field, but I digress.) Honestly, only the (increasingly unlikely looking) prospect of a four-year Elizabeth Warren-Kate McKinnon reign holds any interest for me at this point, McKinnon’s spot-on impression the only one to go much beyond the surface into something more substantive. (You know, like the actual Warren, but I digress.)

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As for the rest, we have ringers like Larry David’s Bernie Sanders and Fred Armisen’s Mike Bloomberg. And while who doesn’t like David’s gabbling, kvetchy Sanders, there are some issues. Namely that SNL can’t think of much to do besides grumpy old candidate jokes with the surging potential nominee (although a passing reference to Bernie’s “Castro wasn’t all bad” remarks this week at least nodded toward actual engagement). Also, as much fun as Larry seems to be having coming back to 30 Rock every other week, it’s unclear if he’s on board for a theoretical Alec Baldwin-style regular gig should Sanders win. As for Bloomberg—meh. He’s not going anywhere politically, and, as primly humorous as is Armisen’s shrugging rich guy approach to this whole “let the poor people decide” thing is, it’s yet another role whose farming out to a higher profile outsider continues to signal the show’s lack of confidence in its in-house talent. Same goes for Rachel Dratch’s Amy Klobuchar, whose best hope at this point is a Vice Presidential gig (on both fronts). There’s nothing wrong with any of these funny people or what they’re doing per se. It’s more that there’s no reason for them to be there, and that these sketches remain irritatingly shallow.

On the in-house side, that seeming lack of confidence appears not so much borne out in these openers as untested. Sure, Colin Jost barely tries to conceal how unsuited he is to play college chum Pete Buttigieg, and the absence of other ringer (and other Dem impersonation I could stand to see more of) Jason Sudeikis saw the Joe Biden spot going to Mulaney (who would likely be the first to admit that celebrity impressions aren’t in his wheelhouse). But, what with SNL’s proven disregard for gender-appropriate political casting of late, the fact that able mimics Melissa Villaseñor and Chloe Fineman and nimble actresses Heidi Gardner and Ego Nwodim remain on the bench is increasingly vexing. As for the actual sketch, it was the same too-glib drive-by, with only Warren’s gloating over her debate trouncing of Bloomberg registering, in McKinnon’s lived-in performance, with any juice. Meh.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Goddamn, that was great, as David Byrne (late of the aforementioned Sack Lunch Bunch), joined Mulaney and delivered a pair of electric live performances. He did “One In A Lifetime” first, and it’s striking just how Byrne keeps that well-trod Talking Heads song from receding into classic hits predictability in performance. That song is as weird and satirically biting as ever, as much as its ubiquity threatens to turn it into just another toothless oldie, and, with his identically grey-suited backup musicians all channeling that old Stop Making Sense spirit with their non-stop individualized choreography and musicianship, the song—with the 67-year-old Byrne holding center stage, as deceptively limber as ever—was a showstopper. So, too, the rousing second number, the Byrne-penned “Toe Jam,” where Byrne ceded even more time for each member of his expansive musical team to shake their stuff in the individual spotlight. Easily one of the most enjoyable musical guests in years, Byrne remains a one-man show unafraid to let others steal the show. Just bottomless fun.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Not building sketches around the proven talents of performers like Nwodim, Fineman, Villaseñor, and Gardner just seems perverse at this point. SNL’s second line looks thin in the talent department because nobody’s making use of them.

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The LaGuardia extravaganza gave Cecily, Kenan, Kate, and Beck plenty to sink their teeth into, but Cecily’s second singing showcase of the night puts her on top.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

Well, at least we got Chris Redd’s welcome and funny comic tribute to Black History Month on Update, so the muddled mush of the Jackie Robinson sketch can stay the ten-to-one oddity it is. Kenan is delightful, don’t get me wrong. As the lone black man to boo color-line-busting legend Robinson, his Dodgers fan Terrence “The Enlarged Heart” Washington was a funny construction, his petty jealousies trumping any sense of racial pride or loyalty. As the 1940s white fans around him look on puzzled at Washington’s animosity toward the first black MLB player, Kenan makes his frustrated non-ballplayer’s grudge almost but never quite hilarious, although the way his bewildering heckling keeps igniting pockets of revealing racism beneath the white fans’ sporting loyalties is fairly pointed. Beck Bennett’s loudmouth fan immediately starts an “Oh, so it’s all right to boo white guys?!” side-argument that ultimately and inevitably sees him getting carried away by telling Robinson to go back to the Negro Leagues where he belongs. Still, the funniest joke is when Kenan, berated by bleacher-mate Mulaney for talking that way in front of his kid, notices the young black child sitting next to him and exclaims, “I don’t know this kid!”

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Stray observations

  • Kate, as The Sound Of Music’s Maria, sings her own reassurance concerning her relationship with the Captain, “I’m old enough, but it’s still kind of dicey.”
  • Jost, on Joe Biden’s resurgent Democratic primary win in South Carolina: “But, in keeping with South Carolina tradition, the losers will get the statues.” (In front of photo of a Confederate monument.)
  • Mulaney’s monologue has me scanning the internet to see if he’s scored another Netflix special yet. (Not yet, apparently.) From going as close to the edge as he gets with jokes about Jesus forgetting to do magic on the one occasion he could really have used it, to that Make-A-Wish anecdote, to a great run about how crappy the Founding Fathers really were, to a straight-up joke about Trump being stabbed to death Caesar-style by some senators, it was tight and focused and very, very funny.
  • On that assassination joke, Mulaney reassured everyone, “I asked my lawyer if I could make that joke, and he said, ‘Let me call another lawyer,’ and that lawyer said yes.”
  • Mulaney’s Kurt, to Liesl: “Oh, age is just a number that the government keeps track of.”
  • Redd kids on the square that the withdrawal of all black candidates for president has meant less airtime for him.
  • After Che—still in booze-swilling carefree mode—jokes that Ash Wednesday is the one day a year when Catholics can indulge in “a little bit of blackface,” Jost signs off, laughing, “For Weekend Update, I’m Catholic . . .”
  • All welcome Che’s proposed new Houston Astros mascot, Cheatie the Camera.
  • Before Davidson’s customer makes his ill-gated sushi purchase, he and Redd buy “a Chobani yogurt with no spoon to eat it with” and “a $15 dollar Dasani, extra plastic.”
  • Once more the show ended awfully abruptly, so here are the full goodnights again. Good night! Daniel Craig and The Weeknd next week!
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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