Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Mulaney delivers a solid SNL, for the fourth time

John Mulaney
John Mulaney
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“Do you applaud for things that you don’t think are a good idea?”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [stand-up, sitcom, bullet train to the Five-Timers Club] star!”

John Mulaney is on the fast track to legendary host status (as codified in the Five-Timers Club conceit) as anyone in the show’s history. And, you know what, he deserves it. Back for his fourth hosting gig in three seasons (his second in 2020), Mulaney brings so much to the table that it’s just good sense to have him on as often as he likes. As a successful former SNL writer, he knows the show, what it needs and what its rhythms are. His monologues are uniformly excellent, Mulaney’s knowing show-biz delivery seemingly birthed with from the Studio 8H walls. He’s a gamer for everything from lowbrow yucks to conceptual pieces, to the now-requisite musical theater number. And, tonight, add “expertly goofing around with Kate McKinnon and some puppets” to his resume. There’s a palpable comfort level to any Mulaney episode—both from the cast and the audience—that, come what may, we’re going to get a good, funny, professional experience out of the deal.

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And Saturday Night Live Season 46 needs some confidence. It’s impossible that a cast this unwieldy would gel into a unit by this early point, even if, as again tonight, some key players have the night entirely off. Building sketches around Mulaney’s persona—self-aware but never cloying or smirky—imbues the sketches with a strong central identity. And if the ten-to-one spot continues to be an afterthought—here farmed out to a predictably lesser returning sketch—Mulaney sold the hell out of it. The “My nephew keeps making memes of me and I don’t like it!” premise is tailor-made for Mulaney’s gift of slightly out-of-touch outrage, his middle-aged square executive over-explaining the logical fallacies contained in slacker nephew Pete Davidson’s internet mockery of Mulaney’s dating profile pic landing ably time and again. The sketch itself suffered from some poorly timed cuts (and the ending . . . wasn’t), but Mulaney expounding at length as to why the joke about him being caught on Dateline (“First of all, the fellas go to the little kid’s house on that show, and not vice-a-versa”) makes no sense is, in Mulaney’s delivery, a revelatory piece of internal character logic in its own right.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: There’s no better illustration of how Kenan Thompson makes something out of nothing than the fact that I still like Reese De’What. There’s so little joke there, and what there is—his apparent inability to stop saying the wrong thing to his wife—never adds much to the role of the host of Cinema Classics. Still, I smile every damned time I see Kenan (here’s dressed as Dracula to introduce his show’s signature airing of a rightfully lost cinema not-classic), as he smilingly prepares his audience for the filmic foolishness to come. There’s a hint of melancholic, “who cares?” breeziness to De’What’s approach to his thankless gig that’s almost a character trait, but, otherwise, it’s all just Kenan being so effortlessly charming. Plus, the ever-changing meat of the Cinema Classics sandwich (Reese being the bread) means that this is a recurring sketch only in the broadest sense.

And tonight’s Cinema Classics was, well, a classic, with Kate McKinnon pulling out a killer Tippi Hedren in The Birds, emoting furiously in a phone booth in deleted scenes attempting to answer the age old question about the 1963 Hitchcock classic, “Hey—what’s with all the birds?” Mulaney’s the perfect foil for Kate’s doggedly melodramatic insistences that, yes, there are birds attacking everybody, and, yes, they’re just regular birds. (“The birds! They just birded a man to death!” is pure, loony genius.) As the local sheriff on the other end of Hedren’s panicked calls, Mulaney’s deadpan skepticism over, say, just how a seagull could blow up a gas station, reads as just the right kind of sensible objection without invalidating what, in the actual movie, is the effectively weird and eerie menace of those birds that usually just steal your french fries at the beach. (“I’m sorry, did you just kind of gently whisper the word ‘birds’?,” his unflappable officer asks.) And then there are the puppets. There are a lot of bird puppetry on tonight’s show (an owl pops up to menace Mulaney’s Ichabod Crane), and maybe my enduring love for The Falconer is coloring my memory, but comedy and bird puppetry go together exceptionally well. (It’s those dead eyes, plus the fact that birds are just strange.) And these are some finely deployed bird puppets. Comic escalation is an exact science, so here’s to the person who came up with the glass cutter, Kate and Mulaney trying to figure out the egg laid through the cut phone booth glass, and victim Beck Bennett’s return, being menaced by some flying sandwiches. It all makes sense in context. I laughed a lot.

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The Worst: The cold open gets its own entry below, so the other worst sketch goes to that meme sketch. It’s a repeater, the pacing was way off, and it stole a spot that could have gone to somebody’s weirder idea.

The Rest: When Mulaney hosts, everyone’s here to talk about the musical sketch, but I think they’ve about run their course at this point. The souvenir shop wasn’t bad, but, if I can digress to one of John Mulaney’s other stellar current gigs, there’s this moment in the Big Mouth Valentine’s Day episode where Mulaney’s hopelessly uncool Andrew attempts to reform his image with a cranberry-colored Kangol hat. Best friend Nick, seeing disaster looming, notes of his best friend, “He builds the character out from the hat.” These musical showcases have sort of become that. The first one was so effective because it came out of nowhere, introduced a comic conceit that made no logical sense, and then embroidered it up into something so stupidly elaborate that it reached a kind of majestic, spendthrift brilliance. Each successive return to the well has been brought up with that much more effort, the novelty and surprise transformed—in the way of all recurring bits—into recognition applause and obligatory cleverness.

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The sketch itself was fine. The theme of these bits is always that of a gamy, cloyingly sour love letter to New York, here Pete Davidson’s decision to purchase a pair of Times Square gift shop novelty underpants the catalyst for jaded clerk Mulaney to put on his (not-inconsiderable) musical revue shoes. Here, too, though, there’s the idea that, upon Mulaney being announced, the writers scour their brains for which Broadway numbers they can cram into a montage of New York-specific observations, rather than “Diner Lobster” seemingly being born out of singular lightning strike of inspiration that turned a Seinfeld-esque observational joke (“What’s the deal with ordering lobster at a New York diner?”) into a monstrously funny musical comedy hybrid with a gloriously dignified life-sized Kenan-lobster singing Les Mis. Here we get some Elaine Stritch, some Guys And Dolls, a desultory, half-bungled Fiddler On The Roof from Beck Bennett’s pantsless diddler on the roof opposite. It’s all amusing enough, but—hate to say it—when Mulaney gets that Five-Timers jacket (which should be by the end of the season, seemingly), it might be time to let this undeniable crowd-pleaser conceit rest.

The Headless Horseman sketch made me laugh, as I am a child. SNL busts out one of these knee-slapper, S7P-baiting numbers every once in a while, presumably just to keep its spirit of big, blue bro-comedy alive. With Mulaney’s Ichabod Crane quickly getting over his horror at seeing the Headless Horseman in order to speculate on whether his nemesis ever, you know, with his own severed head, the sketch is one big self-fellatio joke, so you already know if that’s your bag. For me, it’s all about Mulaney here (although guest pervs Pete and Mikey Day pop in to join in the erotic imaginings), his enthusiastically knowing acceptance of his own kink a little repeated charge of harmlessly filthy comedy. (Beck Bennett, having a good episode, physical comedy-wise, makes a startlingly scary Horseman, thanks to acting commitment and some neat prop work.) That a trio of horny, sexually stunted Puritans (Davidson notes his wife’s name, Goody Chastity, should give you some idea there) would focus all their energy on figuring out how to gain any bodily pleasure is a nifty but unnecessary turn. Honestly, the joke is really about how gross men are when left to their own devices. Sketches that end (or, as here, begin and end) with an explanatory crawl usually scream “unrealized concept” to me, but the final assertion that both NBC and Lorne Michaels (“who wrote this sketch,” according to the narrator) have decided this is the ideal Halloween message to send off with their imprimatur is the funniest thing about it.

I give equal, if very different, props to the episode’s other official message to viewers, a thank you film to those fellow New Yorkers who’ve been weathering the horrors of being a COVID hotspot since the beginning. The film, featuring sincere-then-funny turns from Ego, Redd, and Heidi Gardner, is gradually overtaken by Kate McKinnon’s background character (as in “character”), a fixture of public parks, public dancing, street theater, and topless sunbathing who, as one tries to explain, “is not homeless, you know, just quirky.” Redd’s baffled line about the woman being “not not a professor at Colombia,” and Gardner’s speculation of her being somewhere between 46 and 116 sound just the right notes of wary New York pride. Saying a thank you to “the people just crazy enough to call this place home” is, in the film’s hijacking of the ubiquitous inspirational pandemic PSA, oddly touching.

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Weekend Update Update

With the election just three days away (two, considering when this’ll be posted), Jost and Che took some shots that were there for the taking. Donald Trump attacking doctors by claiming the nation’s beleaguered, PPE-deprived frontline medical professionals are somehow profiting off of COVID? Jost: “That’s our president, recently saved by doctors, saying that doctors want more COVID for money. Which makes me think Trump only survived COVID so he wouldn’t have to pay his doctors.” I don’t really follow the comic logic at the end, but the Jost style of simply playing something abominable Trump said and smirking his way through a joke about it is sometimes the only response. Trump left hundreds of die-hard (now possibly dying) rally attendees on a dark road in the freezing cold? Jost: “I assume because Trump told them that jackets don’t work.” Better. Trump insists on in-person, safety-flouting white rage rallies, leading to verified spikes in coronavirus everywhere he lands? “But don’t worry, the president isn’t trying to kill his supporters. He’s actually succeeding at killing his supporters.” That’s a knockdown, I guess. That sounds flip, but I’m just matching energy here, as Update continues to be more about Che and Jost refining their personas as the smartest smart-asses in the room. And that’s valid, and frequently very funny.

Che breaks stride most effectively, here seemingly stopping to ruminate on just what America is going to look like next week, before effortlessly pacing out the idea that he might never see Colin again, since “we might both get drafted in the race war.” As much, much more as I think these two could be doing with their weekly ten minutes of fake news airtime, the kidding-on-the-square dynamic between these two remains their most effective, and endearing, shared bit. Che muses sadly about the muted joy of both Colin’s recent marriage to a movie superstar and Che’s own new bike purchase, asserting, “We’re both doing equally great!” Che also compares doing jokes on Update to playing while the Titanic sinks, which is amusing, except that the band wasn’t hired to use their skills to artfully point out the White Star Lines’ appalling navigation and construction policies, and the socioeconomic prejudices that caused untold needless deaths. They could be doing more, and better, considering what they have to work with, is what I’m saying. Jost’s extended metaphor about Trump being like the one hard-partying friend who might show you a good time but will ultimately lead to your untimely and undignified death is an adroit piece of comedy writing (with Joe Biden being the country’s designated driver), and about as close as the show comes to making a straight-up endorsement, for what that’s worth. Which, admittedly, isn’t much, considering.

Baby Yoda came back alongside the second season of The Mandalorian, the premise that Kyle Mooney’s elaborately made-up alien puppet-infant is more akin to a TikTok influencer than a font of sage Jedi wisdom. (He’s young, give him time.) It’s a funny characterization, and right in Mooney’s wheelhouse, as his BY’s bro vibe with regard to his newfound popularity jibes with Kyle’s career-spanning deconstruction of unwarranted overconfidence in the technological age. There’s virtue in giving such a laugh-getting concept to Mooney, who always finds an unexpected angle on what, here, could have been a lame prop act. Apart from the incongruity of subject and demeanor, there’s a specificity to Mooney’s Yoda, his beef with fellow merchandise-moving miniature movie fixture Baby Groot emerging in the “hold me back” tough guy patter of inflated online egos everywhere.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Cinema Classics, Baby Yoda, Uncle Meme. There are things about this admittedly shaky start to Season 46 that encourage me. Fewer news, talk show, and game show sketches is a good sign, despite three repeaters this week. (And Cinema Classics is barely the same sketch each time out.) There’s a whole lot more variety—like, literally everything and anything—the show could be drawing from when it comes to sketch premises and styles, but I’m growing more impressed by the effort, anyway.

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

Well, it wasn’t Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon running into the streets of New York to play nice. Or Kate singing “Hallelujah.” Or—shuddering at the memory—an irony-free rendition of “To Sir, With Love,” or Jim Carrey puking on Beck Bennett’s head. It was not, emphatically, the Trump administration singing Queen. So thanks, I suppose, for producing a final pre-election cold open that didn’t seem to originate in Aaron Sorkin’s idea of what a sketch comedy writer’s room is. Instead, Saturday Night Live took this last big swing before the most momentous and perilous election in our lifetime to do something too scattered, forgettable, and barely-there to make anybody cringe too much. Yay?

I’m a Jim Carrey fan, and there’s no indication but that he jumped at the chance to play Joe Biden on SNL’s big stage. His makeup is fine, there are nibbles of an actual impression in there, and he keeps Alec Baldwin’s beyond-tiresome Trump from sucking up all the studio’s oxygen with that fish mouth thing he does. But there’s just nothing coming through in performance, a fault shared by Carrey and the writers, who—in proud SNL tradition—flounder when there’s a political figure who isn’t already an outsized caricature. The fact that SNL has had two very much better (funnier and more energetic) Bidens in recent memory makes Carrey’s high-profile, role-scooping turn that much more of a disappointment. It’s Halloween, and Joe Biden, um, exists, so why not have Joe read “The Raven,” right? Solid gold.

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Of course, nothing I’ve said there would matter if there were one laugh or one ounce of energy in the actual sketch. For one thing, if you’re going to build a sketch around a poem, you have to commit to the poem. There’s no rhythm to the sketch, as Carrey’s Biden listlessly reads doctored verses full of wheezy jokes, pausing for guest interruptions (McKinnon’s Clinton, Mikey Day’s Nate Silver, Beck’s Mitch McConnell, Kenan as Ice Cube and Chris Redd as Lil Wayne) that trample what nods toward rhyme scheme there were. Like so many of these cold opens (when not tied to a debate or other newsworthy premise), the groaning plod of the endeavor to graft Carrey’s Biden onto something—anything—is exhausting in practice. It’s both exceptionally easy and maddeningly difficult to make fun of Donald Trump and his administration. The level of absurdity and naked mendacity is so high already that simply putting the tiniest spin on something that actually happened that week is awfully tempting.

Here, Kate’s Clinton swept in to remind Biden (and us) of the out-in-the-open GOP plan to steal votes by the hundreds of thousands and that her own (sort of) defeat was due in part to her unthinkable crime of being a woman. All valid points, and putting them on national TV right before an election isn’t nothing. But insightful satire none of this is. And as much as it’s folly to look for political comedy to change minds or save the world—especially coming from the comedy cruise ship that is Saturday Night Live at this point—it’s not out of line to ask for a whole lot more effort than we’re getting. At least this one was shorter than usual.

Speaking of usual, I’ve said from the start of this nightmare that there’s evidence of smart, bold ideas in the writers room in those political sketches that address Trump without the elephant actually being in the room. So to speak. ‘Strollin’” is another fine example, a lovingly crafted and performed (by Kenan, Redd, Ego Nwodim, and Punkie Johnson) music video that manages to be tuneful, funny, pointed, and bracing, all without ever appearing to break a sweat. There are facts out there: Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression in majority-Black areas; Trump-encouraged armed dipshits looking to intimidate potential voters; ridiculously long voting lines and times, exacerbated in precincts the GOP knows it won’t win otherwise. (Psst: It’s because their ideas are increasingly unpalatable garbage.) The filmed sketch looks at the myriad ways to approach those facts and turns satire into an upbeat, lovingly crafted R&B number with four bandmates starting out with a feel-good voting and empowerment anthem before encountering multiple closed neighborhood polling stations. Attempting to keep up their unified pro-voting vibe, the quartet eventually (after a dangerous strut down the highway) make it to the one open polling place, only for the genuinely chilling specter of a camo-sporting not-cop glowering silently to give them the serious wig. Top-to-bottom exceptional stuff of the sort that’ll be remembered long after the celebrity-happy cold opens all blend into one lazy blur. (Speaking of, there was a commercial for Monday’s SNL Election Special, so set your DVRs, those of you who think a full hour of that sort of thing is comedy gold.)

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

At the risk of embodying my own joke, “Hey! Have you guys heard about The Strokes? Pretty good!” Sure, it’s been a while (the band last appeared on SNL in 2011), but, hey, those The Strokes are pretty good, right you guys? Julian Casablancas might be well into middle age, but he can still pull off the diffident, ironic hand gesture, hipper-than-thou opening followed by a slow-burn vocal rise that is uniquely energizing. SNL still can’t mic its musical guests properly (the mix sounded thin and tinny), but the band was bracingly live as they roared through “Adults Are Talking” and “Bad Decisions.” Like Mulaney himself, Mulaney’s matter-of-fact intro to the band’s first performance rang with the assurance that we were going to get the good stuff.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

This week it’s Aidy and Cecily who are simply missing. I’m sure they’re both doing something cool and interesting (and presumably safe), and the weekly game of “what’s different about this picture?” regarding who’s in the building is at least diverting. (Again, assuming everyone is safe.) Man, this year, as Bart Simpsons might say, both sucks and blows. That aside, I’ve been looking at this Saturday Night Live season like I’ve been regarding all sports in 2020—still neat, some great stuff might come out of it, but there’s going to be a big asterisk next to any milestones. (Sorry, Melissa, who happily sported a World Series champion Dodgers shirt during the goodnights.) Like sports, there’s still the understandable urge to regard the return of in-studio SNL as a return to normalcy. And none of that is true. Entire NFL games are cancelled. Dingbat baseball players break quarantine to potentially inject some COVID into the on-field celebrations. Some people are very, very sick. Maybe I should retire this segment of the reviews until things really have gone back to whatever normal looks like in a post-COVID world, assuming one still exists. At least treat the occasionally missing like players on the DL—you don’t lose your spot because of injury, or precaution. I hate 2020.

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Kate was great, as ever.

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

At least it was live, but these are my rules and it would be nice if Lorne abided by them. Ten-to-one is for original sketches, performed live. The weirder the better. Honestly, I can’t recall thinking that the show would have been worse if the live YouTubed “cut for time” sketch each week took the place of any ad parody or rehash. C’mon, Lorne. It’s late. The bills have all been paid. Live a little.

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Stray observations

  • “If I wasn’t your grandmother, I wouldn’t know who you are, sorry. Mulaney’s 96-year-old grandmother is ice cold.
  • Admonishing himself for the ageism of his granny jokes, Mulaney does backtrack a bit by chiding the self-proclaimed “Greatest Generation” for bragging about fighting the Nazis. “Well, we’re trying to fight the new Nazis if you’d just get out of the way.”
  • Seriously, that’s a great severed Beck Bennett head. Hope he gets to take it home.
  • “These birds, they’re the jerk of the year!”
  • Che, after a story about that NY cop suspended for blaring “Trump 2020" from his patrol car loudspeaker, got the audience reaction he wanted with his followup, “According to NYPD guidelines, cops can only whisper ‘Trump 2020' as they choke someone out.”
  • Chloe Fineman only got one bit, as that super-spreader from Westchester in the musical, but she went for it. That’s how you get called up.
  • The mid-show announcements of the next week’s host brought some mixed emotions this time out. The thrill of seeing Dave Chappelle once more hosting came yoked to the realization of how his last appearance on the first SNL after a presidential election brings up some terrible fucking sense memories. I can’t think of a better comedian to put the state of the country in much-needed context, but, Jesus, this is too on the nose. Here’s to hope, I guess.
  • Oh, vote.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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