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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Not-So-A-List Host John Mulaney Earns an A Grade

The former "SNL" writer did solid work in some wacky sketches.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1743 "John Mulaney" -- Pictured: (l-r) Cecily Strong, John Mulaney as Jay Paultodd during "Sitcom Reboot" in Studio 8H on Saturday, April 14, 2018 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

Will Heath/NBC

It’s easy to forget, but John Mulaney was never actually a ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast member. Yes, he’d make the occasional pop-in to Weekend Update as a correspondent — “Shut the door.” — and even starred on his own Lorne Michaels-produced sitcom (with former “SNL” cast members Nasim Pedrad and Martin Short) titled “Mulaney.” We try not to talk about that second part. But Mulaney was never even a featured player at any point. Instead, he was a writer for six seasons. That time ended in 2012, but not before he gave the “SNL” viewing audience such joys as Stefon (which he co-created with Bill Hader), “Family Flix: Rocket Dog” (more on that later), and “The Obama Show,” to name just a select few. He’s also performed on Broadway, no big deal.

Still, the same people who claim to be comedy experts (you know, when they say “‘SNL’ hasn’t been funny in years. In fact, it hasn’t been funny since I was a kid, and there’s no correlation between the two. I haven’t gone back and rewatched those seasons though”) seem to have no idea who John Mulaney is. They also expect no one else to have any idea either, even though he was literally just on the show two episodes ago for Bill Hader’s return as Stefon. There was also a commercial for his Netflix stand-up special at a sold out Radio City Music Hall during this episode.

Then again, Darrell Hammond — who definitely worked with John Mulaney on this very show before — announced him as “John Mulvaney” twice, so clearly that proves he’s a nobody. (Seriously, even if that wasn’t a bit, it’s still funny.)

Host: John Mulaney

“Building a gazebo during the Civil War would be like doing stand-up comedy now.”

John Mulaney is a stand-up comedian. He’s pretty good at it, actually. So “SNL” lets him just do his thing with his opening monologue. What kind of things? “I was in Connecticut recently, doing white people stuff.” The kind of things where a couple of audience members “woo” for “Connecticut,” clearly missing the “white people stuff” part of sentence but also kind of making it truer as a result.

The Patrick Stewart/Salt-n-Pepa part of the monologue — and Mulaney nails the delivery when he’s telling this story — leads to a minor call back when Mulaney introduces Jack White for the first time. It’s just a little thing, and honestly, that’s part of what makes John Mulaney so good: He understands the importance of little things in comedy. Whether it’s a throwaway aside in a sketch or an impression of a niche moment in pop culture that only people who write reviews of ‘SNL’ where they get offended by people’s offense that John Mulaney’s not famous enough remember.

As out of left field as it is, this sketch works just as a bizarre sketch where drag queen John Mulaney (a role he seems to have been made for) superficially shades all but one member of a brunch party. That’s enough of a ridiculous premise to survive on its own, because it captures how it feels to be the one person who doesn’t “get” drag. (Seriously, that’s how it feels.) But for it to all be the result of a long con — well, technically just a few hours long con as a result of something that happened an even longer time ago — elevates the sketch. Then there’s the even more ridiculous physical reveal, as Mulaney keeps removing his disguise, only for it to finally click when he smudges off his lipstick a little bit. It’s so stupid, it’s great, and it sets the stage for what exactly the rest of this episode is.

In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that some of these sketches are just evolved versions of sketches Mulaney had either pitched or thought of during his days as a writer on the show. (Kind of like how the Tournament Fighter sketch in the Tiffany Haddish episode was based on a rejected Kevin Hart sketch from Mikey Day.)

One of the best parts of the sketch is a throwaway exchange (no, not the Dyson vacuum part) between Alex Moffat’s Gary and Cecily Strong’s character. It’s an exchange that could be the fuel for its own sketch, which is pretty much Mulaney’s m.o. in all of these sketches this week:

“I seriously might cry.”
“Already? Okay, but then that’s it for the day.”

The National School Walkout sketch looked like it would easily be the Worst Sketch of The Night from its humble beginnings as “the sketch centered around a boner joke,” but that premise pretty quickly morphed as it went on. It definitely still ended on the boner joke, but the in-between was full of solid comedic performances from the student cast members. For example, there was no reason for Kate McKinnon’s character to be a Swedish exchange student, which is part of why it’s so funny when it just ends up being the case. And Alex Moffat’s monologue and exit as Lance, the kid who loves guns, is just a quick, straight-to-the-point burst of comedy. Same with Heidi Gardner as the drama kid who literally performs a monologue for no reason other than to be that drama kid. Also, Luke Null was there. This doesn’t exactly often happen, so when it does, it’s worth noting.

Speaking of Null, he even gets a sketch technically centered on him in this episode… only for both John Mulaney and Heidi Gardner to steal the spotlight from him with their performances. There’s something wrong when the character with the devil horns and the calf holes can’t command a sketch, but that’s really more a Luke Null problem than an actual problem with the sketch. Gardner’s range when it comes to female characters who don’t quite have it altogether (in one form or another) has been absolutely impressive in such a short time on the show, and the way Mulaney’s doctor character increasingly has no patience for how dumb she is — when he’s not worrying about the terrible body modification she and her boyfriend have done — makes for an excellent back and forth. She removed her butt cheeks as a prank (not joke) and thinks his degree from Harvard Medical is sketchy! And here’s just something to always remember: “Most people mistrust men with horns.”

Best Sketch of The Night: Sitcom Reboot

“Sitcom Reboot,” aka “Switcheroo,” is very much the spiritual successor to the aforementioned “Rocket Dog” sketch. In fact, if you ever wanted to think about an ‘SNL’ extended universe, “Rocket Dog” the moviie and ‘Switcheroo’ the show probably exist on the same Earth.

“Sitcom Reboot” is pretty much the gift that keeps on giving from the very beginning, with just the little thing at the beginning about hotel TV and the fact that Mulaney’s character is named “Jay Paultodd.” Those are just three different first names put together! While there’s no “Life Is A Highway” to punctuate the clips of “Switcheroo,” the catchy theme (“Whatcha gonna do / It’s a Switcheroo”) suckers you in quickly before hitting you with the creep factor. Immediately after the reveal, Cecily Strong’s interview character even points out how this 1987 show being rebooted in 2018 “was not popular,” but the train’s already gone off the rails by then.

Also, while the live crowd lost their minds over the mention of “Little Fockers” in the cold open, they missed out on subtler jokes in this sketch. Like the fact the kid actor was “Little Andy Cunanan” or even just the very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment showing that this sexually-depraved “family” show aired on Saturdays at 10 a.m.

Honorable Mention: Diner Lobster

This was easily the number one sketch of the night… until “Switcheroo” came into our lives. Obviously the “Les Miserables” of it all is the point, but please — in case you didn’t the first time or haven’t seen the sketch yet — pay attention to Chris Redd and (especially) Pete Davidson dancing to “Do You Hear The Lobster Scream?” It’s wholly inappropriate dancing for the music being sung, but there’s something precious about the fact that they clearly weren’t told to just go along with any established choreography for the number.

Heads up: The dress rehearsal version of this is on YouTube, instead of the original live aired version. The differences are slight enough it’s not really a problem, but you might think you’ve gone mad if you didn’t know.

Worst Sketch of The Night: Meet The Parents Cold Open

Yes, it’s literally called “Meet The Parents Cold Open.”

This episode is so solid from top-to-bottom that this would be even more of a case of “worst sketch doesn’t mean bad sketch” decision. To the point where it’s best to just cheat and give the designation to the cold open, especially it so greatly shows the disconnect between wanting ‘SNL’ as a cool, possibly subversive comedic institution and knowing ‘SNL’ is a mainstream comedy show on network television.

That’s how we get a cold open that is literally just quoting “Meet The Parents” directly in the year 2018, as well as reminding us that “Little Fockers” was also a thing. It’s good for what it is, but it’s also… Well, “Meet The Parents” came out in the year 2000. Nearly 20 years ago. And while it was actually a pretty good movie, it launched a less good franchise. And now we’re here. With Robert DeNiro as Robert Mueller, because for some reason, now is the time to strike that “Meet The Parents” gold. On the plus side, it does give us a break from Kate McKinnon’s nightmare-inducing version of Mueller, as she’s busy as Jeff Sessions here.
Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen is initially a fun sight to see, but once it gets into “Meet The Parents” territory, it’s amazing to realize that this is what the guy who originally left “SNL” after four episodes (because they wouldn’t let him be original) and created ‘The Ben Stiller Show’ is doing now.

Keeping in mind that not everyone wants a weird sketch show out of “SNL” — just like not everyone wants a politically-charged version — this cold open is basically part of a devil’s bargain for the rest of this episode. There were plenty of people tweeting about just how hilarious this cold open was — the “Meet The Parents” part, not the build-up that required more new jokes to be written — and it’s easily going to be the viral clip of the episode. In their defense, they do say the thing about the milking and the nipples.

Basically, in the words of any person who is just as basic as this sketch: It is what it is.

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

The “Wild Wild Country” parody takes a bit to get going on all cylinders — surprise, Nasim Pedrad’s character makes for a beautiful slow burn — but from the moment his character appears, Kenan provides non-stop laughs. Yes, a lot of those laughs are just over him saying “ass,” but some of those laughs also come from him just assuming he’d gotten into a weird sex thing with the Bloods.
Kenan’s also absolutely amazing during the diner sketch as the lobster, a point that understandably causes Pete Davidson and Chris Redd to break once he enters the scene. Let it never be said that Kenan Thompson doesn’t commit to his roles, even when one of those roles is LaVar Ball. No, that one’s still not good, but Kenan commits!

Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon/Cecily Strong/Heidi Gardner

Don’t make me choose! These women each have their time to shine in this episode, and picking one over the other just feels wrong. Kate McKinnon finds fun in Laura Ingraham of all people, from a place of desperation and a Malaysian Airlines plug. And as previously mentioned in discussion of both the “Horns” and “National School Walkout” sketches, Heidi Gardner remains a standout in such a short amount of time. Her work with Mulaney in the former is just a great back and forth.

In comparing “Switcheroo” to “Rocket Dog,” Cecily Strong has to play the role of straight-faced but freaked out interviewer like Kristen Wiig did before her. She’s integral in the “Sitcom Reboot” sketch to play off of Mulaney’s bizarre Jay Paultodd. It’s not exactly an easy task, especially since this is an episode where breaking already happened, thus opening up the giggle floodgates. In fact, Strong was technically responsible for said earlier breaking (alongside Kenan).

Best Impression: Reality Intro

“We’ve boiled these women down to two lines. You’re welcome.” Technically, this isn’t an impression at all. But it does properly capture the “Real Housewives” introduction bumpers almost to a frightening degree. The same goes for the more inventive names in the sketch too, like Chachki (Kate McKinnon), Sauna (Melissa Villaseñor), and Joolie (Cecily Strong).
Also, even with all the intros to choose from, the double dose of John Mulaney as incestuous twins wins with this line (before the sketch gets to the “three seconds of drama”): “Our niece played Topanga on ‘Boy Meets World.’ Jealous?” Yes, actually.

Grade: A

In all the madness of this episode, it’s easy to forget this is also the episode where Colin Jost didn’t realize the camera was on him and that it was his turn to update us during the weekend! Yes, that’s a gaffe… but it’s also the most memorable thing Colin Jost himself has ever done on Weekend Update. This episode truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Oh, and Jack White performed with a St. Vincent guitar. That was also cool.

I’ve written before about how this season has featured a lot of hosts showing off an aptitude for comedy, only for their episodes not to fully utilize their strengths. Almost as if “SNL” is accidentally finding the things that work, only they don’t realize it until after the fact. In the case of Mulaney, this episode is written with a complete understanding of his comedic sensibilities. And it’s with his very heavy influence, both directly and indirectly. Because he’s one of them — not just a performer but a writer — and that instantly clears a hurdle a lot of other guests aren’t able to (or seemingly allowed to) clear.

And just to circle back on the cold open and maybe be a little less hard on it, the “Meet The Parents” part does include a segment with actual jokes outside of just quoting the movie, in the form of the code names for Trump and company. The audience “ohs” from the audience at “Girlfriend” from Ivanka are pretty great, even if the follow-up girlfriend line for Jared Kushner isn’t as good or as cutting. And Eric and Donald Jr. being “two Fredos” should fill everyone with good memories of Alex Moffat and Mikey Day’s (both men aren’t used as much as usual this week, perhaps because Mulaney can fill their role) impressions of the two. Again, the cold open has a very specific reason for being — as broad as it is — because not everything on “SNL” can be weird, niche sketches. It’s a 43-year-old show on NBC, not a little Focker.

Also, surprisingly, this episode doesn’t dwell on the current Syria situation. Beyond the cold open (kind of) and Weekend Update (because it’s the news part of the show), serious current events are pretty much absent from this week’s “SNL.” Again, the sketch dedicated to the National School Walkout Day is really just a boner joke. Just like the “Meet The Parents” thing, there is a place for political discussion and comedy in “SNL”; but it is pretty nice to mostly take a break from that stuff here, even if it’s just for a week.

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