John Mulaney
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“Now that’s its own American gender nightmare that we don’t have time to get into.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [long-delayed SNL] star!”

Mired in the middle of a disappointing season of SNL, you learn not to get your hopes up. Or at least you try to. That’s the enduring fun and frustration of being a lifelong Saturday Night Live fan—experience pulls in two ways. The promise of a can’t-miss or eccentrically promising host can buoy even the most pessimistic of us with the tantalizing promise of that bottled lightning phenomenon that, even in a down year, SNL can unexpectedly pull off at any time. And, yes, last week, I got snookered by the prospect of Don Cheadle hosting what turned out to be a largely uninspired slog of an episode. (Will I make the same mistake next week with Idris Elba hosting? Yeah. Probably.)

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And then there’s Mulaney.

It’s tempting to accuse critics of overrating John Mulaney’s pair of appearances on SNL, but hear me out. Unlike other stellar stand-up comics who host the show, Mulaney’s got the added cred of being intimately familiar with not just sketch comedy, but Saturday Night Live’s own system of sketch comedy from his years writing on the show. And whatever jitters he (and we) might have had about the professionally unassuming Mulaney hosting were demolished by his first appearance, a start-to-finish showcase not just of Mulaney’s sketch chops, but also of how his presence brought out the best in everyone. There’s the added cheeky frisson of that episode’s standout sketch being “Diner Lobster,” a tour de force rescued from the dustbin of rejected sketch infamy by the returning former writer’s newfound clout. If “Diner Lobster” was deemed too weird, ambitious, and, again, weird to fit into whatever Lorne Michaels and company’s conception of Saturday Night Live was when Mulaney wrote the thing (alongside Colin Jost), its triumphant resurrection was carried aloft by the ascendant Mulaney’s gleefully accomplished trajectory.

So let the debate begin as to whether tonight’s spiritual sequel, “Bodega Bathroom,” surpassed “Diner Lobster.” (It’s also unclear if this latest loopy musical extravaganza was also rescued from the dress rehearsal scrap pile.) Is it better? Hell if I know. But it is the best-case scenario for a presumably de rigueur sequel, an equally lavish, ludicrously surreal swing for the fences, complete this time with a Willy Wonka/Rent/Little Shop Of Horrors/Cats mashup, elaborately silly costuming, and a complete and utter lack of concern that anyone will find this tale of unwise New York tradition-busting too weird. Everyone shone, from Kenan Thompson’s Wonka/Cat In The Hat guide, to Cecily Strong and Melissa Villaseñor’s angelically singing cockroaches, to Kate McKinnon’s gloriously beneficent bodega Virgin Mary votive candle, to Mulaney, crooning with malign glee as the bodega owner whose horrific bathroom Pete Davidson’s patron unwisely chooses to use.

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Mulaney’s monologue was unabashedly New York, complete with unerringly specific physical impressions of the new police car sirens, and his bulldog-stroller-pushing wife’s unblinking standoff with a pair of indelible New York figures. “Bodega Bathroom” partakes of the same lived-in, hometown vibe, with the songs’ lyrics dropping details like tampons always being stored on the highest shelf, either frozen or boiling bottled water, and “a guy who doesn’t work here watching soccer.” It also draws on the Broadway musical tradition that Mulaney’s recent episode of Documentary Now shows the comic knows as intimately as he does the halls of Studio 8H. It’s dippy, it’s delightful, and it’s a worthy companion to “Diner Lobster,” so, pretty much all we could have hoped for.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Pretty much the worst thing I can think to say about any sketch tonight is that the Cinema Classics bit cut off a little abruptly, seemingly due to the timing issues that robbed us of Reese De’What’s customary closing and the show’s goodnights. Yeah, the episode was that good.

The weakest of a uniformly uproarious bunch is probably the toilet catapult ad, although Mulaney’s supremely confident commercial huckster sold the idea of a supposed dignity-saving device (to fling old people off of the can right before they die there) with aplomb. SNL commercial parodies often deal in scataology, and here the joke is the lengths to which we as a species will go to deny our bodily needs, even to the extremes of having our heart-attacking frail old bodies hurled across our homes. That even the ceiling-dropped respectable literature can’t obscure the fact of our loved ones finding us crumpled, beshitted, and disheveled—but not on the crapper—makes the bit bite. That and Mulaney’s straight-faced assurance that the device is “mostly accurate,” accompanied by a demonstration of elderly corpses being flung into walls works nicely.

You’ll have to read on to see my pick for best sketch of the night, but the wedding sketch worked exceptionally well. In addition to being a rare lead for Ego Nwodim, and a seamlessly executed piece of choreographed physical comedy (for the second week in a row), the piece is also refreshingly smart in its construction. The joke hinges on the old switcheroo, with Mulaney’s seemingly out-of-place white guy nervously accompanying his black girlfriend onto the dance floor of an all-black wedding. That Mulaney turns out to not only know every complicated group dance step Kenan’s DJ calls out, but apparently everyone else in attendance is the twist, but the joke works in how nimbly it avoids every hacky pitfall. Mulaney’s unexpected competence doesn’t make anyone a fool. Nwodim is suitably impressed, but, like the rest of attendees, doesn’t make a stereotypical spectacle of surprise at the premise. (Something SNL relies on again and again—you’re presenting the joke about someone doing something weird, so having spectators comment on how weird it is isn’t furthering the cause.)

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Weekend Update update

Look, we all wanted Stefon. With Mulaney’s partner in cue-card-based shenanigans in the house, it seemed all but assured that we’d get an always welcome return from New York’s hottest nightlife expert. But we got plenty of Bill Hader elsewhere, and it’d be hypocritical to criticize Saturday Night Live for not doing the easy thing in bringing back a slam-dunk recurring bit, right? Let’s just move on.

Jost and Che were fine. It remains irritating that so much of Update’s political content gets shunted off on Alec Baldwin’s watery Trump as a rule, but they hit with intermittent power. Jost wisely let Trump’s rambling, 2-plus-hour speech at annual convention of the worst people in the country CPAC speak for itself in a distressingly lunatic series of clips. Meanwhile, he was content to jab at Cohen’s revelation that Trump had deployed Cohen to threaten Trump’s various schools should they reveal his academic records. (The joke that such sweaty obfuscation means that Trump’s true address is closer to 920 Pennsylvania Avenue than 1600 is a solid burn.) And Che continues to flip over comic premises to play wiseass devil’s advocate, here mocking Cohen’s sudden “damsel in distress” change of heart by saying that at least Trump appears to have the stubbornness to “slowly fall apart until he’s dragged off in handcuffs like a boss.” (“I mean that’s how I want to leave SNL,” he ad-libbed.)

There was only one correspondent piece tonight, but it was more than enough with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon teaming up as a pair of meat-producing businesswomen. There was a bit of a tortured setup, with Jost introducing the idea that the internet keeps preventing people from tucking into delicious-but-adorable animals, and the spangled meat mavens claiming that their gift baskets are made only from real animal assholes. (Not real animal assholes, mind you, but animals that were real jerks before they were slaughtered.) But the bit was one of those happy trainwrecks, with Jost, Aidy, and McKinnon, apparently legitimately appalled at the odor emanating from the very real prop meat, getting the giggles and trying to keep things somehow on those tracks. Breaking on SNL is a dish best reserved for those special occasions where the performers, in spite of all best efforts at professionalism, find the live TV experience careening out of their control. (As opposed to finding themselves adorable. Yes, I’m still harboring Jimmy Fallon resentments.)

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

“What’s That Name?” had a few strikes against it going in. It brought in a high-profile SNL alum to steal focus from the current cast. Plus, it’s another goddamned game show, and a repeater as well. But the hell with all that, as the alum is Bill Hader, and the sketch—in which contestants can name the most D-list celebrities but not their friends’ girlfriends or their wives’ bridesmaids—remains a potently funny exercise in squirmy character comeuppance. No offense to capable current go-to gameshow host Beck Bennett, but no one in SNL history has brought more to the seemingly thankless role of the rules-and-questions straight man than Hader, and this is simply one of the best he’s ever done. With Mulaney and Strong’s players suitably chagrined at their embarrassing memory lapses, it’s Hader’s mastery of lines, pauses, and attitude that destroys throughout. Everyone’s made out their SNL all-time all-stars cast at one time or another (I re-jigger mine pretty much weekly), which is a fun game and all. But if Bill Hader’s not on your list, you’re incorrect. From the start of the sketch, Hader’s grinning host is clearly up to something, milking every reveal and every to-camera pregnant pause for maximum (but perfectly judged) effect.

Hader’s played innumerable such roles on SNL, but the way his Vince Blake hits the amount of Mulaney’s first prize (“That’s five dollars for you.”) signals, in Hader’s hint of controlled mania, just how much he’s going to enjoy springing the trap the game has set for his contestants/victims. There’s a terrifyingly hilarious glint in Hader’s eyes at each successive humiliation he hands out, a clockwork villainy that, yet, preys upon his charges’ real, if disproportionately punished, transgressions. That Mulaney’s lapses stem from an underlying sexism with regard to just who he thinks worthy of remembering, Hader takes delight in letting Mulaney twist. (“Finish that thought, Doug!”) And the capper is definitive, with Mulaney’s anguished question “What do you want?!” answered, chillingly, by Hader’s demonic, “In a word—chaos.”

Pete Davidson’s peerlessly noncommittal Chad is a reliable showcase for Davidson’s millennial stoner slacker persona. It’s always funny to watch those inexplicably obsessed with the blank Chad work themselves into a solipsistic tizzy around the amiable nonentity that is Chad, and “The Unknown Caller” scores by switching the usual romantic plot with the Scream-esque scheme of masked killer Mulaney to exact revenge for the childhood taunting his blasé nemesis has literally no memory of. Chad stays viable because there’s always been an undercurrent of privileged assholery to his amenable sort-of victimhood, and the fact that Mulaney’s murderous mastermind winds up hoisted on his own petard despite his target’s utter disregard for anything outside of himself just deepens the vapid mystery that is Chad.

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

There were a pair of Jussie Smollett jokes tonight, one on Update and one on an all-lawyer edition of celebrity Shark Tank, where the Empire star attempts to secure the services of camera-hogging legal minds like Michael Avenatti, Alan Dershowitz, Kate McKinnon’s Nosferatu-like Rudy Giuliani, and Cecily Strong’s “Fox News banshee” Jeanine Pirro. With it looking at this point like Smollett inexplicably made up his harrowing account of a racist, homophobic attack, and the subsequent squeals of glee from right-wingers looking to cast a shadow over the very real rise in hate crimes since the election of Donald Trump, the subject is a fucking minefield for comedians not simply looking for the easiest and/or most distasteful laughs. With Chris Redd’s Smollett starting out by trying to claim that Donald Trump himself attacked him outside the soundstage, the sketch came out hacky, although the joke that Pirro has to recuse herself because of the fact that a gay black man making up a hate crime is both stolen from her Fox News fan fiction and bringing her to climax pulls it back a bit. The overwhelmed Smollett explaining that his reason for being there was that he “broke humanity” also struck a fine balance in the show’s approach to the clusterfuck that this whole event has made of America’s already debased public discourse.

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Everyone in the sketch was dug in, which helped things along. Mulaney’s Dershowitz jumping in to offer his services brashly rattles off why: Smollett’s famous, probably guilty, “end of list.” Giuliani warns everyone not to feed him after midnight. (“Or it’s Gremlins city!”) Pete Davidson’s leering Avenatti twinkles with avaricious menace. Pirro deflects from the actions of Trump pal and Patriots owner Robert Kraft by steering the story into a rant about immigrant (and possibly trafficked) prostitutes stealing American jobs. And jingle-based TV lawyers Cellino and Barnes sing the praises of lucrative class-action add-ons to each case. Casting a wider net in the tiresome media types impersonation arena, it’s at least a more effortful way to approach some current events comedy.

The cold open ditched the out-of-the-country Trump in favor of the irresistible spectacle that was the congressional testimony of longtime Trump attorney and “fixer” (and former deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee), Michael Cohen. As with “What’s That Name?,” the usual caveats apply: not one but two high-profile guests stealing focus; the cold opens’ recent history of plucking the low-hanging fruit. But, yeah, screw those. Ben Stiller’s Cohen strikes just the right note between verisimilitude to Cohen’s tough guy shiftiness and comic exaggeration. (That his testimony was written “with some help from the guys that wrote Green Book” is surprisingly apt.) But it’s Bill Hader’s sketch, as his belligerent, constantly thwarted Freedom Caucus showboater Jim Jordan (R-OH) sings with Hader’s inimitable blend of minute observation and fully inhabited performance.

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The sketch has some funny bits from the cast proper. (I liked Kyle Mooney’s malaprop-spouting approximation of the incoherent questioning from Arizona GOP Congressman Paul Gosar.) But overall, the sketch leaned into the inescapable fact that this was the Bill Hader show. Ceding their time throughout back to Hader’s apoplectic Jordan in order to let the himself scandal-dogged congressman further hang himself (“I’d like to yield the rest of my time to Jim Jordan as a prank on him.”), the cast provided solid backup. Kenan Thompson’s Elijah Cummings rode herd over the proceedings with a humorously weary competence. But Hader (and, sure, Stiller) was the main attraction here, channeling the show’s political opener into his characterization of the Republicans’ hopelessly inept attempts to paint Cohen as a lying, dishonorable scumbag without acknowledging that he was a major player in the party and Donald Trump’s right-hand stooge for a decade. (And without addressing the many, many crimes and acts of general assholery Cohen claims Trump is guilty of.) Alex Moffat got in some blows portraying Congressman Mark Meadows’ (R-SC) widely derided “Trump can’t be racist, because he hired a black person” deployment of HUD figure Lynne Patton to rebut Cohen’s claims that Donald Trump is, in fact, a racist. The joke that Meadows thinks Patton is the similarly unqualified but no longer employed Omarosa is a canny way to underline Meadows’ flimsy tokenism, with Ego Nwodim’s fictional version of Patton at least getting to speak about how distastefully racist Meadows using her as a prop is. And, sure, someone had to throw a goddamned Kardashian joke into the mix, but there was a self-awareness to the conclusion where Kenan’s Cummings assumes that spotlight-stealer Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was just there for ratings-grabbing publicity purposes. “No, I was gonna ask, like, carefully researched questions,” said Villaseñor’s AOC, to which Cummings replied disdainfully, “Yeah, clearly that is not what today is about.”

I am hip to the musics of today

Thomas Rhett took to the Saturday Night Live stage like he’d been preparing for it his whole career. Which isn’t a compliment. Rhett’s overproduced, throwback light-country pop songs sounded a little like Kenny Loggins, which is sort of a compliment. Sometimes a dull act makes me try to spot how heavily the performer’s relying on a guide track, but for the grinning, performatively naughty Rhett, I honestly don’t imagine there’s much difference either way.

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

Because of show-timing issues (see below), technically the last segment of the night was Rhett’s second song, but Cinema Classics was the true ten-to-one entry this week. Mulaney is better as himself (or an exaggerated version thereof) than he is a character man, but the To Have And Have Not bit allowed his indifferent Humphrey Bogart to wisely play straight man to Kate McKinnon’s unexpectedly flustered Lauren Bacall. Seeing Kate McKinnon cut loose with some all-out physical comedy is one of the most potent weapons SNL has these days, and, here, her Bacall’s inability to maintain her seductive cool sees her going either hyper-verbal (“I should go to school.”) in discomfiture, or contorting her face with abandon as she attempts to pull of the whistle part of Bacall’s once-scandalous pickup line. It’s a funny little idea that gives Kate McKinnon the chance to do her thing. What else do you want?

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Stray observations

  • SNL’s been a technical mess all season, but the ending tonight seemingly broke the network, with Rhett’s shoehorned second number starting at 12:54, leaving the show to end with two Mulaney photo bumpers, some noodling by the unseen band, and then (at least on my broadcast) a pair of blank screens marking the time with a three-toned peacock graphic.
  • “I roll with a group of problematic bachelors and we call ourselves . . . The Squad.” God, I love Bill Hader.
  • “No, you’re not seeing double—there’s three women there!”
  • Dramatically pausing after calling Donald Trump a racist, Stiller’s Cohen: “Thought that would get a bigger reaction.”
  • Yes, a United States congressman (that’s Paul Gosar, R-AZ) trotted out the “liar, liar, pants on fire” taunt during questioning, because we’re all so completely screwed. And, yes, he did make up a little poster.
  • “I would smell it up into my nose and I would get a high from it.”—Mulaney’s monologue assurance that he was once “a cool guy” who did cocaine.
  • Redd’s Smollett: “Spoiler for the next season of Empire: I die.”
  • For the second show in a row, we got a title card for a recently deceased SNL crew member. This time it was for Margaret Karolyi, who, for some three-plus decades, did the unceasing work of costuming a live 90-minute TV show—written and rewritten on the fly until the last second. RIP and thank you.

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