Entertainment

John Mulaney gets his jacket in a guest-filled, very funny Saturday Night Live


Malcolm Mulaney, John Mulaney

Malcolm Mulaney, John Mulaney
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“Also, let the record show that I am close to completely losing it.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [five-time all-star] star!!!”

In an earlier stand-up special, John Mulaney addressed the subject of his past drug abuse by noting that he doesn’t look like someone “who used to do anything.” Mulaney’s a confessional comedian in such a singular and specific way that tackling intimate and potentially painful subjects seems out of his wheelhouse, right until Mulaney smacks that very real stuff right into the cheap seats.

There’s no comedian more assured and unerringly funny than Mulaney working right now, and his monologue tonight (culled from his current sold-out post-rehab and gossip-fodder standup tour) reinforces that. For someone so controlled and perfectly-pitched in both his comic voice and delivery, Mulaney never succumbs to mere laugh-line glibness as he, here, dives right into his well-documented travails since he last hosted SNL. He calls the interim “a very complicated year,” which may be an understatement. He also plucks a few anecdotes from his set about that year that strike a balance between revelation and straight-up stand-up professionalism so deft that I have to term it “Mulaney-like.”

Life is messy, even if you’re not playing yours out in front of millions of ravenously curious people. Mulaney’s sets are show-biz meticulous, his onstage demeanor that of an old-school joke man, while his knowing dissection of his own foibles, great and small, packs a sneaky punch of truthfulness. We’re so attuned to Mulaney’s self-deprecating schtick that the thought of him pulling some low-down, manipulative emotional blackmail on the people who merely Skyped in to his very necessary intervention might be jarring. If Mulaney hadn’t processed that no-doubt deeply humiliating experience into a perfectly constructed and polished anecdote.

Unlike, say, Aziz Ansari’s first post-scandal return to the stage, Mulaney manages to incorporate the new reality of a potentially derailing public mess into the style that got him to where he is. Again, without making it feel like he’s ignoring the messy truth in order to score. A consummate comedian can do that without missing a step, and Mulaney’s monologue was good enough to suggest that his style can stretch to accommodate anything. He’s that good.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: Is it an insult to say that John Mulaney was born to play a monkey judge? I don’t mean it to be. Right out of the gate—monkey judge. Outstanding. Kenan’s lawyer gives us a one-sentence explanation just why there is a monkey judge (bad luck for Melissa Villaseñor’s plaintiff, who was mauled by a monkey), but we don’t really need one. This isn’t a complicated premise—it’s Monkey Judge.

Mulaney, decked out in a tasteful amount of monkey hair and rubber monkey hands, is—and again, I say this with all respect—a perfect person to play a judge who just happens to be a monkey. His natural wordy fussiness is just right to embody both Judge Tango’s prickly judicial no-nonsense demeanor, and the barely-restrained jungle murderousness just waiting for somebody in his court to set him off. I suppose there might be some satirical spin to be had about the capricious and potentially life-ruining power of an alpha in a robe, but, naw—it’s just Monkey Judge.

With Mulaney’s judge (sorry, monkey judge) pausing to rip off his bailiff’s badge before proclaiming forthrightly, “Let the record show that this shiny thing was his and now it’s mine,” the bit soared on Mulaney’s understated authority. Sure, the concept of a monkey judge is ludicrous, but Cecily Strong’s prosecutor has adjusted perfectly, approaching the bench with a protective face shield and a birthday cake. The system may be out of order, but a win-conscious attorney does what she has to. And Mulaney’s judge pokes holes in the defense’s case by noting that Melissa had been wearing a different hat on the day of the attack, noting incredulously, “You walked up to this monkey as a different shape?” No further questions. I love monkey judge.

I suppose the Five Timers Club sketch will get all the press. And here’s to the show for at least finding a more novel way to incorporate this inevitable bit into the show, with Steve Martin and Candice Bergen seen evaluating Paul Rudd’s turn in the preceding Please Don’t Destroy pre-tape, as opposed to stealing away Mulaney’s monologue.

Rudd finally gets his smoking jacket, after, he jokes, everyone “called out sick” on his big night. Toss in fellow Five Timers Tina Fey and good old Elliott Gould bridging the various eras of the show, and all the requisite gags were there. Fey big-timed James Austin Johnson, calling him “Phillip” as the new guy brought her a cocktail made from Dan Aykroyd’s vodka, Justin Timberlake’s tequila, and Tracy Morgan’s aquarium water club soda. (“Gross—Dan Aykroyd’s vodka?,” deadpanned Mulaney, waiting for the audience to catch up.)

The biggest reaction came when Conan O’Brien, waiting for his cue (Martin’s “This has become not-special”) burst onto the exclusive scene. Conan’s not a Five Timer, but he, like Mulaney, is a writing legend on the show, and, like Mulaney tonight, he got the most genuine laughs.

Joking/not-joking that neither of them was ever meant to be on TV (“We’re hideous,” he assures Mulaney), the defiantly un-jacketed O’Brien yet stole the show from those snooty Five Timers, covering up a muffed line with an expert ad-libbed “I’m drunk” motion, and defiantly ending the whole, overblown spectacle by booming out a mid-show, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Like the later musical extravaganza, this mandatory recurring bit stole airtime from what were undoubtably some better, weirder original ideas in the writers room, but who am I to stand in the way of a time-honored manufactured SNL victory lap.

I was wondering why Paul Rudd was in the Please Don’t Destroy film, and then I remembered his Five Timers debacle and it all fell into place. I liked how this one gradually opened up the PDD formula to bring in not just Rudd, but Mulaney, and even Al freaking Roker playing Edward 40-Hands at the discovery of a rad new COVID variant that just makes everything awesome. It seems like the sort of laugh-so-you-don’t-spiral idea born of two-plus years of mortal fear and isolation, and it genuinely kept finding ways to dodge the expectant comeuppance with goofier turns. Pokémon are real! But they’re storming the Capitol! But only to spearhead free Xbox legislation! I initially wondered if it was Rudd quaffing celebratory champagne and beers in deference to Mulaney’s recovery, but then Mulaney was in the mix, too, and I remembered I’m not Mulaney’s mother and just enjoyed it. (Mulaney joked in his monologue about being back in a place that’s “always emphasized sobriety and mental health,” indicating that his self-awareness is also recovering nicely.)

Somebody finally took it to those You Can’t Do That On Television guys and gals, huh? Honestly, I was fine with this as both a piece of Gen X nostalgia and a vehicle for big, sloppy prop comedy. Redd wrestled futilely with his wandering Nick Cannon mustache, before finally tossing it at Moffat’s Marc Summers on the Nickelodeon throwback special. Everybody got doused, clonked, or straight-up pressure-mortared with green goop as the Canadian prop mistress (Aidy) attempted to get the show’s signature slime right. (With Mulaney happily introducing LCD Soundsystem’s second number still dripping with glop.) Hell, we even got a clip of original series star Christine McGlade, making the pre-teen me very happy inside. It’s no monkey judge or anything, but sometimes Saturday Night Live just hurling stuff at the cast is good for a big, silly laugh. I’m not made of stone.

The Worst: Since I am an old crank, I’ll just reiterate that Mulaney’s New York-based musical numbers peaked with its first bow, and has just been going downhill since. It’s an elaborately decorated, consistently amusing hill, but a downward slope nonetheless. Especially as the single-gripe takes of “Diner Lobster” and (to a lesser extent) “Bodega Bathroom” broadened into a grab-bag of NYC grievances and Broadway influences. Honestly, the loony brilliance of “Diner Lobster” was how lavishly single-minded it was in mining Les Mis, Kenan’s tragic crustacean building a whole, accumulating pageant from the single joke that nobody ever orders lobster in a diner.

Here, taking on the grimy realities of the New York subway, everybody is as game as ever. Pete is off being Pete somewhere, so Andre Dismukes joined Chris Redd in instigating the musical nonsense by telling Mulaney’s seen-it-all newsstand owner that he’d prefer a street churro instead of an expired O Henry bar. (“They still make O Henry bars?” “No.”) From there, we get Kenan singing a “Some Enchanted Evening” riff as a “mole person,” Cecily on bath salts crooning some South Pacific, and even a snatch of Fiddler On The Roof, complete with a chorus line of enthusiastic Hasidim dancers. (“No, there’s a just a lunch break at B&H Photo,” Mulaney’s newsie explains of the dancers, the sort of New York reference that you know if you know.)

Look, I like these sketches. They’re fun, in a “look how much time, effort, and money we’re putting into this dumb bit” way, and everybody’s always clearly pleased at getting to show their stuff in them. (Almost literally in Alex Moffat’s case, his subway masturbator singing an enthusiastic “Fappin’ On The Train” with an analog-pixilated ding-dong.) But like all but the rarest of recurring sketches, the more they become an institution, the less exciting they are as comedy. Obligation rarely begets originality, is what I’m saying.

The ???: Because Eddie Pepitone is a goddamn national treasure, here’s what he tweeted in anticipation of tonight’s cold open:

Image for article titled John Mulaney gets his jacket in a guest-filled, very funny Saturday Night Live

Screenshot: Twitter

Look, I don’t want to be a cynical old crank (who, unlike Eddie Pepitone, is not funny enough to be a national treasure). So I’ll only say that the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York was stirring as they sang “Prayer for Ukraine” while their native country is currently attempting to repel an unprovoked invasion from one of the largest military powers in the world. But, man, does Saturday Night Live shank this sort of thing, hard, more often than not.

That Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong (who had her own cringeworthy musical number in response to a political heartbreak a few years back) introduced this show-opener might suggest that somebody at SNL knows its own history when it comes to tonally questionable earnestness, but that doesn’t make this sort of grandly benevolent spectacle any easier to swallow. Not that I’m confident SNL could cobble together a more traditional Ukraine-based cold open that wouldn’t collapse into a soggy mush of lukewarm takes and celebrity impressions, but when the show goes to this bathetic well, the self-satisfied self-seriousness is awfully hard to recover from.

People quite rightly howl at Aaron Sorkin’s take on Saturday Night Live for painting a late-night comedy show’s creative process as a life-or-death battleground for the soul of America. Often saved, at the last minute, by the overblown grand gesture of an unexpected Gilbert & Sullivan showstopper. (I’m on record questioning the whole post-9/11 “The Boxer” cold open as well, just to prove my crotchety cred.) SNL has a range, and this mawkishness—unlike the soaring voices of the fine folks of the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka—is well outside of it. Well-intentioned, I guess, but, yeesh.

Weekend Update Update

At the end of tonight’s correspondent-free segment, Jost referred to it as the “Whoops, all jokes” of Weekend Updates. But, honestly, I’m fine with it, as Jost and Che were tight, focused, and rat-a-tat energized with their one-liners. A stick-and-move Update looks good on them, as the jokes kept coming fast enough that their impact accumulated with the rhythm. The fact that the Five Timers thing and the musical number were going to gobble up so much time meant that Update, which could have been an afterthought, had to assert itself. And it did.

Since we’re parting ways, I’ll just reiterate that, yeah, I think Che and Jost could and should be doing more with their little piece of live TV fake news ground than they regularly do. You know, since we’re under about 20 different existential threats largely masterminded by greedheads, meatheads, and associated bigoted, white supremacist fascist assholes. If you only get ten minutes of airtime to skewer the eminently skewer-able, you should focus up and start jabbing. Still, Jost and Che were on tonight, showing off the unlikely chemistry that makes their partnership work.

Jost encapsulated a whole raft of conservatives showing their asses as contrarian dictator-bait by listing Tucker Carlson as one of Putin’s allies in a smooth aside. Jab. Che went nimbly big picture by deadpanning a line about how he’s seen footage of attacks like this on other countries, “but never a white one.” That covers a whole lot of satirical ground concerning Western media bias when it comes to war coverage, all in one nifty, perfectly delivered zinger. Jab.

And here’s to Jost for inserting a little absurdism into his usual line of smirk, with a joke about late Kentucky Derby winner (and doped against his will animal) Medina Spirit ending with a solemn, “I hope it’s hot in horse-hell, you cheating bastard.” Committing to a joke outside your comfort zone is a good look, Jost. Keep it up. Che, meanwhile, continues to ply his trade as SNL’s button-pushing “women, amirite?” guy with a jokes about anal condoms and a Russian expert lady-friend. Che’s gonna Che, is the joke, and your mileage may vary, etc. Regardless, this sprint Weekend Update format might be worth another ring around the track.

“What do you call that act?” “The Land Of Gorch!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Recurring bits are as much a part of SNL as watery political takes and the baffling conviction that professional athletes can anchor a 90-minute live comedy show. There’s just no point in complaining at this point. I really only get irritated when there’s a really good host, especially one with an unimpeachable background in sketch comedy. So, yeah, that was a lot of recurring sketch-work. The Five Timers Club and the musical sketch were inescapable, I suppose. But the awkward dinner conversation sketch, the dog food sketch, and the “white guy at the black family function” sketch, too? C’mon, son. At least we’ll always have Monkey Judge.

The laughs in the dinner sketch are meant to come from the escalating absurdity of everyone’s methods of escape from the touchy topic at hand. (Here, the efficacy of COVID-mitigation measures and pro-vaccine and mask orthodoxy.) Everybody (Aidy, Kenan, Bowen, Heidi, Mulaney, Kate) relishes the silliness of the various elongated warning vowel sounds and cringe-faces their diners engage in whenever anyone tries to delve into uncomfortable complexity on the topic. And I admit that I laughed at Gardner’s Thanos-snap exit from the whole, deepening conversational quagmire. (Even if jokes pitched only to the at-home viewership always strike me as cheating.)

As to the topic at hand, while introducing complexity risks giving red meat to the worst and dumbest people in any conversation, the sketch is less about the relative worth of vaccines, masking, and hand-washing in mitigating the spread of a virulent disease than about discomfort. (But, for the love of all that is decent, get vaccinated, wear masks, and wash your fucking hands.) It’s more about how ill-equipped we are to actually discuss complex topics rather than retreating to our separate enclaves (even when we think we’re all from the same enclave), and how prepared we are to just dip whenever anything challenges our pat, self-satisfied interpretation of things. Which is all something this sketch got across just fine the first time. Still, a recurring sketch that even tangentially tickles a touchy topic is better than another Uncle Meme sketch, so have at it.

Of all the comebacks, I most enjoyed the return of Cecily Strong as the militant spokesperson for smugly gourmet dog food, Blue River. As was the case in her first outing, way back when, Strong acts the living hell out of her role as a person whose obsession with her dog’s nutrition trumps any and all other human concerns. Berating Heidi Gardner’s shopper for daring to feed her dog some big brand dog chow, Strong’s proselytizing pet owner simply won’t rest until Gardner joins her in subsuming all the world’s ethical conundrums under the banner of expensively pure animal feed. Mulaney (having apparently taken the place of Seth Rogen as Strong’s equally zealous doggy co-parent) brings a different but similarly single-minded energy to browbeating Gardner into spending just and extra “32 cents a day monthly” on an 80 dollar bag of kibble. There’s a root of madness in Strong’s performance, the glassy-eyed monomania of one who’s taken all of life’s myriad anxieties and compressed them into one, single-issue crusade. It’s the air under these sketches wings, and she’s just outstanding.

Ego Nwodim and Mulaney also brought back their couple sketch, with the very white Mulaney (self-described “L.L. Bean customer of the year”) turning out to be completely able to hang at an otherwise all-Black family function. The simple switcheroo of the premise is carried off with aplomb once again by Mulaney, whose facility with everything from the “Cupid Shuffle” to the need for washcloths in the shower is thankfully underplayed in performance rather than being the gag itself. It’s a tricky laugh to get, both because the premise isn’t terribly original, and because it could go so very, very tonally wrong. But Nwodim doesn’t overplay her straight-woman’s surprise at her partner’s unexpected with-it-ness, while Mulaney keeps his character’s coolness matter-of-fact. Again, funnier the first time, but such is the way of things.

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

I mean, the cold open was—what it was.

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

We need more bands with, like 43 people in them. (The Polyphonic Spree? Anyone? Just me?) Especially when, depending on the song, several members appear to be tasked with simply pushing a button at regular intervals. But I kid these wonderful weirdos of LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy has aged into your dad in a Cosby sweater, but his David Byrne frontman vibes remain strong, and he can still play the hell out of a tambourine (after expertly flipping it into the air with his feet). I’m nowhere hip enough (there, I admit it) to talk authoritatively about this beloved alt-rock outfit. (See, I have no idea if “alt-rock” even applies to what LCD Soundsystem does.) I’ll just say that their two numbers were electric in their stage-crowding defiant strangeness, and I like them a lot. I may not be hip, but I know what I like.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Melissa got two moderately sized roles, so I’m giving MVNRFPTP to her, dammit. She’s earned it. Same goes for Punkie, who also got a some overdue screen time. (Okay, Cecily was the real first-place winner this week, but I’m all about team morale.)

Among the completely missing this week: Pete. Underrepresented to near-invisibility: Aristotle, Kyle. Too many cast members. Just so, so many.

This was the family reunion. Recurring sketches have no place in Ten-To-Oneland. The bills are paid, the celebrity impressions deployed. Ten-to-one is where you let your writers’ loopiest ideas come out and play. Thus is my final decree.

Stray observations

  • At the end of the Five Timers sketch, Tina Fey can be seen picking up Mulaney’s discarded blazer and tossing it to a stagehand. That’s a former head writer. Or showrunner. Or mom.
  • Was that the first time we saw one of the Please Don’t Destroy guys in a live sketch? Ask Mulaney and Conan—that’s the path to eventual hosting.
  • Mulaney: “Do you remember being on my sitcom?” Elliott Gould: “Should I?”
  • Kate’s shimmery puddle costume was easily Emmy-worthy.
  • Listen, you guys. This is my last-ever Saturday Night Live review for The A.V. Club. Or review of any kind, as my huffy storm-off resignation letter in response to owners G/O Media screwing over the Chicago-based A.V. Club staff and writers promised. It’s 6 a.m. in Maine, from where I’ve been writing for the A.V. Club since 2012, and about SNL for the A.V. Club since 2014. I’m heartbroken, and sad all the way through that this dream job is coming to such a sordid and acrimonious end at the hand of some corporate yahoos I’ve never even spoken to. I’m also proud and unutterably grateful for the opportunity to write about a show I have, no-joke, been watching ever since its first season in 1975. (I may no longer be young.) I will miss—everything. I’ll have some news about where these reviews will be going starting next week (Oscar Isaac! Charli XCX!), so watch out on the Twitter. But this has been a wonderful, exhausting, and humbling experience, and the A.V. Club has given me far more than I could ever repay. And so have all of you. Yes, even you, meanest and least-understanding commenter. Even you. Thanks, everybody. Thanks for everything.




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