John Mulaney
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“If you’re watching this live right now, I’ll see your crazy ass in hell.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [standup, Broadway, definitely not sitcom] star!”

In his outstanding monologue, John Mulaney called out the strangeness of him hosting Saturday Night Live. On the one hand, he is absolutely right. Sure, Mulaney wrote at the show for five years, and, while there, created or co-created two of the handful of running characters I’ve never tired of (Herb Welch, Stefon), plus a sketch I’d put into any best-of compilation, among other things. But he never made the leap to performer like a lot of SNL writers, and, when he first tried his hand as a comic lead, it was... well, one hates to use the word “disastrous.” Since then, though, Mulaney has established himself as one of the most reliably hilarious stand up comics working, and, alongside comedic partner Nick Kroll, recently starred in both a genuinely impressive animated series, and a surprise hit Broadway show.

Still, Mulaney? Hosting SNL? Well, yeah, actually. From his stellar opener (always a good sign when a standup takes out a handheld mic for the monologue), Mulaney did what he does best—get laughs. And while performing live in Oh Hello On Broadway showed that the guy can hold a stage, Mulaney’s nobody’s natural actor. Like a few other high-profile guys we’ll get to, Mulaney’s performances tonight saw him searching out cue cards with the slightly panicky urgency of the constitutionally unsuited. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. In his standup, Mulaney is a master storyteller, imbuing carefully worked-out anecdotes and premises with an undeniable comic authority. Placed at the center of other performers here, Mulaney had the same beaming charisma and killer comic instincts, even if he tripped himself up pretty regularly.

Mulaney hits lines hard, a heat-seeking delivery style that is debilitatingly funny in his standup. In sketches, he can’t help but belt it out as well, requiring a reassessment of expectations. Mulaney’s a comic performer, not a comic actor, and, as he demonstrated again and again here, an irresistible one. The most representative example of what I’m talking about is the school walkout sketch, where his inconveniently aroused (in mesh shorts, no less) student activist can’t help but make asides about his predicament that break the logic of the sketch. But Mulaney’s self-awareness fits him so engagingly that it works to power the scene. Especially since the bit is also—like a number of sketches tonight—packed with funny lines. Mulaney’s boner gets recharged by an encouraging arm-pat by a male classmate, leaving Mulaney musing out loud, “And it’s back—and I learned something about myself.” Like the old school standup he is, the joke is projected outward with such enthusiasm that the winking plays as a feature and not a self-indulgent bug.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che were on, even if Jost mistimed a camera switch and got caught studiously practicing his next joke at one point. Update remains crisp, funny, and occasionally very sharp, as when Che summed up the political comic’s dilemma by comparing his weekly task of sifting through the mountain of Trump-ian bullshit to being a contestant on Chopped. (“What the hell am I supposed to do with all these ingredients?”) Che found a way, mocking Trump’s [checks notes] denial that, as a germophobe, he would never watch two Russian prostitutes pee on each other for his greasy pleasure. Noting that watching from across the room is “exactly what a germophobe would do,” Che, referring to one of the other Trump sex scandals, noted, “You can’t call yourself a germophobe if you’re out there raw-dogging porn stars.” Again, anyone decrying the vulgarity of Trump jokes has to consider the ingredients comics have to work with. Ew.

Kenan Thompson had a great night tonight (more later), and he can bring his boisterously braggadocious NBA dad LaVar Ball back any time he wants. Mocking a relentless self-promoter is always fair game, with Kenan amping up Ball’s signature hucksterism on behalf of his hoopster kids (and himself) to loopily hilarious extremes. Kenan gets inside characters uniquely well by this point, and his Ball has a fine touch for nudging a premise into huge laughs, here boasting on son Lonzo’s 50 points per game, 100 assists, 500 touchdowns, and a 100 percent score at Rotten Tomatoes. Plus, I laughed out loud at his reveal of a Mexican son named Labiblioteca. Sue me.

Kate McKinnon trotted out yet another Trump-adjacent figure, with her impersonation of sneering, white supremacist Fox News creep Laura Ingraham hitting both the host’s vocal tics and all-around awfulness equally well. Part of the joke was a Big Papi-esque roster of perhaps-fictional replacement sponsors in lieu of the dozens of advertisers who’ve fled Ingraham’s show after she decided to use her platform to mock a teenaged school shooting survivor. (See: creep.) The fakes were uniformly strong—I especially laughed at “Reverse Mortgage: We’ll take that house now.” But there was an energetic specificity to both McKinnon’s performance and the references to Ingraham’s assholery that powered the bit. As with McKinnon’s recent Betsy DeVos, there’s a combination of character work and gleeful body blows in these broadsides against denizens of Trumpworld that feel a whole lot more vital than Alec Baldwin’s rotely boorish Trump himself.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Occasional fumbling or no, his was a strong outing, without a real weak spot. Again, the sketches all had more enjoyably specific weirdness to even the expository lines than usual, suggesting, perhaps, that having a great sketch writer who knows the system is a good call for SNL host. (Someone ask Bob Odenkirk really nicely, will you?) I suppose the doctor sketch didn’t quite work, but—and I take no joy in the continuous Luke Null-bashing—with a better horn-headed foil for Mulaney’s straight man plastic surgeon, it might have. For one thing, Heidi Gardner once again showed what a valuable comic actor she is, making horn-head’s paint-huffing girlfriend, against all sense, something of a rounded, if lunatic, character. And while Mulaney scuffled, his deadpan interruptions as the two dangerously reckless body-modifiers reveal the extent of horn-head’s other enhancements hit every time. (“Most people mistrust men with horns.”)

As the first sketch after the monologue, the “drag queen brunch” came this close to real goodness. The joke being on straight couples playing tourist immediately veered away from any “Mulaney is in a dress, isn’t that hilarious!” fears. And the turn that Mulaney’s waitress (Tawny Pockets) turns off her crowd-pleasing “catty” banter in favor of telling trust fund baby Alex Moffat deep, dark truths about his shallow, worthless life is the sort of weirdo premise that keeps a sketch alive. (“When was the last time someone smiled because you walked into the room,” is, in Mulaney’s laser-eyed delivery, chiling enough to wring a huge laugh.) I’m not as sold on the second turn that explains away Tawny’s behavior (she’s actually Moffat’s old, abused intern, out for revenge), but at least it’s an ending, something no longtime SNL viewer should take for granted. I also like that Mulaney’s schemer was so committed to the opportunity that he promised to work the entire eight-hour shift.

Hollywood Update saw Mulaney employing his outsized performing style to fine effect, portraying a showrunner whose inability to understand why his incest-obsessed 1980s body-swap sitcom’s reboot is running into trouble smacks of comic madness. It’s another sketch where the writers (and, one assumes, Mulaney) were unwilling to leave an establishing line unadorned with increasingly weird detail. I loved the unremarked-upon visual reveal that the deeply disturbing Switcheroo used to be broadcast on Saturday mornings, and Mulaney’s oddly named Jay Paultodd explaining that his show “focuses exclusively on the sexual ramifications of the switcheroo.” Mulaney’s been playing a borderline-insane showbiz type onstage for a while now, and if Jay Paultodd is no George St. Geegland, his final revelation that the rebooted Switcheroo has had to relocate to the former Jonestown is at least the sort of lengths St. Geegland’s hunger for fame would admit.

The Wild Wild Country filmed piece rides on the back of some sharply observed, quick-hit character performances from Beck Bennett, McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and former SNL-er and Mulaney costar Nasim Pedrad as the documentary’s bafflingly charismatic, foul-mouthed Rajneeshee leader Ma Anand Sheela. Kenan steals the show, though, as his streetwise huckster is revealed to have been drawn to the cult’s compound not for any dubious enlightenment, but to get “knee-deep in happy ass.” It’s not the most original joke, but, again, Kenan is so good at creating a real dude inside that Adidas track suit that his every line pops. Props to him and whoever wrote the carnal description of “sex funk” that smells like “a karate class for monkeys.” As with other such specific parodies (I imagine a lot of SNL viewers had no idea what was being recreated), I question how enduring the joke will be, but the basic setup, filmmaking, and Kenan’s performance are universal enough to last.

And then there’s Big Nick’s Greek Diner. Let’s put it this way: Remember Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip? And Aaron Sorkin’s career-long fetish for Gilbert & Sullivan seeing his SNL-like show-within-a-show wheeling out a huge, last-minute musical production number that one time? Well this sketch—with customer Pete Davidson’s unprecedented order of diner-lobster breaking out into a crustacean-centric production of Les Mis—is like that. Except, instead of being jaw-droppingly tone deaf and unfunny, this extravaganza is a showstopper in the best sense. The difference is that this sketch—apart from being impeccably performed by Kenan (as lobster Jean Valjean), Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Kate McKinnon (as, yes, Clawsette), and the rest—was birthed out of that finest and most fruitful of inspirations, the utterly bananas, out-of-nowhere joke that you can tell just cracked everyone up in the writers room. Everyone in the thing is so great that I don’t want to pull apart the loony genius of it. Like Kenan’s noble, long-lived lobster, live undissected, Big Nick’s Greek Diner.

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

Fittingly with writer Mulaney on the show, things were more premise-driven, with only Kenan’s Lavar Ball making a return trip. Oh, and see below.

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

Alec Baldwin took the night off, perhaps vacationing his Trump on Tan Penis Island. Which is fine, as SNL is forced to actually think about how to satirize the Trump shitshow when the writers can’t just count on Baldwin to make goofy faces. The cold open, therefore, saw McKinnon’s maliciously squirrely Jeff Sessions and Bennett’s sonorously square Mike Pence sweating out the recent FBI raid of the home, office, and hotel room of Trump’s personal attorney/fixer/mistress-briber Michael Cohen. While McKinnon and Bennett get in some sharper-than-usual jabs about possible presidential impeachment (“In a couple months, the president will be back to normal.” “How’s that?” “’Cause it’ll be me.”), the real joke is the reveal of Ben Stiller as Cohen. Honestly, Stiller (a former SNL cast member for about 15 minutes) is great as the shady, blustering Cohen at first, playing up Cohen’s reported role as Trump consigliere with a well-realized wise guy patter. “Is that a joke?,” Stiller replies after Pence tells Cohen “If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about.” He also admits the FBI got their hands on a Trump-implicating hard drive just labeled “Yikes.”

That’s all setup for what’s intended to be the big crowd-pleaser of the night, as Cohen, ushered into an interrogation room, is confronted by Robert De Niro’s Robert Mueller so the two can replay their Meet The Parents lie detector routine. It’s not a terrible idea, I guess. And the SNL makeup department outdid themselves on De Niro’s prosthetics as Mueller, leaving me to spend the attenuated audience applause break reassuring myself that the special counsel hadn’t actually agreed to appear on SNL. (Please don’t let the reality show farce of this administration infect Mueller, he prayed.) The bit is cute, even if De Niro keeps up his tradition of being the single worst SNL cue card-reader since Steven Seagal. The whole thing just takes over the supposed political point of the sketch, though, as De Niro gets to say “All of you little fockers” on live TV, Stiller does the whole “cat nipples” milking bit, and the audience hoots in recognition and appreciation of a film that’s apparently still relevant enough to be the foundation of a 2018 cold open. As far as political sketches go, however, this one ended up being more about how many famous friends Lorne Michaels can call upon than anything that’s going to stick.

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I am hip to the musics of today

With the fuzziest guitar, the squeal-iest mic, and a raggedy, shambling stage presence on a pair of new songs, Jack White at least sounded like someone playing undisputedly live. (Especially considering SNL’s storied crappy sound for musical acts.) It was... not my thing, but it was—sort of—Noel Murray’s. You should probably listen to Noel.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Kenan. Lobster Kenan. LaVar Kenan. Cultist Kenan. It’s Kenan. (With Kate a respectable second place—look for Ingraham to sputter out some lame comebacks, assuming she still has a show.)

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This was Luke Null’s biggest role since that unfortunate class bully sketch, so congratulations on missing the bottom step, big guy. Chris Redd was funny in a small role in the diner sketch, but it was a small enough role.

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

Mulaney’s attempt to thank all the hard-working, unsung, behind-the-scenes SNL workers got cut off mid-thanks. So, you lose again, unsung SNL heroes. On a show marked by looseness (if you’re being charitable), having a filmed piece be the last sketch meant there was no way to speed things up if they fell behind. The bit itself, an all-intro parody of Bravo’s stable of wine-chucking reality zoos was funny enough, aping both the shows’ parade of attention-ravenous grotesques and its own brisk premise by not overstaying its welcome. Except, you know, by cutting off Mulaney’s nice gesture. Mulaney, playing gay twins/lovers got the biggest laugh: “Our niece played Topanga on Boy Meets World. Jealous?” Sort of.

Stray observations

  • Okay, so Mulaney isn’t a natural actor. But what the hell, Robert De Niro and Darrell Hammond? De Niro’s a friend of Lorne’s, and a legend and all, but he remains one of the absolute worst repeat hosts SNL has ever had, largely because he can’t operate live. Here, he had the training wheels of doing his same character and some of the same lines from one of his most popular (sequel-spawning) movies, and the guy fucking blew “Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night?” (“Live from [Saturday, or something unintelligible]...”) As for Hammond, the SNL veteran’s turn as Don Pardo’s replacement has never quite clicked, but getting the host’s name wrong? Twice? (I don’t know who “John Mulvaney” is.) Hammond got a raw deal from Lorne over that whole Trump thing, and god knows the guy has been through plenty. But there’s something very wrong here. Yikes, all around.
  • “What are we doing in a doctor’s office, Lucien? Am I pregnant?” “You can’t get pregnant from the sex we have.”
  • In the classroom sketch, Kate’s Swedish exchange student extols the greatness of her home nation, which consists of “1,200 people and one giant that we call [something like “Tvarvsr.”]”
  • Also there, Moffat’s right-wing student holdout protests the walkout by arrogantly spinning a tale of his gun-nut father forcing him to AR-15 a woodland creature to “red dust.” “Two years later, when I finally spoke again, I said ‘guns,’” he boasts, before accepting teacher Kenan’s offer to see the school counselor.
  • Jost points up that Trump tweet-blurting that former FBI head James Comey is a “leaker and a liar” for suggesting, among other things, that the whole pee tape thing is real is, well, you get it.
  • Ingraham nonchalantly describes her unexpected post-boycott vacation as, “so fun, and planned, and scheduled a long time ago.”
  • She also interprets the First Amendment as, “My right to bully people without being bullied in return.”
  • In addition to name-checking student activist David Hogg, McKinnon’s Ingraham describes equally attacked teen Emma Gonzales as looking like, “a badass superhero trying to save the world.”

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