John Mulaney hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time less than a year ago, immediately surpassing every other host’s contributions that season with weird but memorable sketches like “Sitcom Reboot” and “Diner Lobster.” This week, in his second time around as host, he does the same thing.
Host: John Mulaney
John Mulaney is an interesting “Saturday Night Live” host, because he comes in with all the goodwill of a long-time cast member, even though he was “only” a writer who had a few appearances on Weekend Update. (The reminder that Mulaney was never actually a cast member always just kind of sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?) So even though this is only his second time hosting, his performance in this role, of course, comes with the expectation that he’ll have more creative freedom than any other celebrity host. And he delivers on that expectation, far past the obvious stand-up monologue to open the show.
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Mulaney’s role as host also allows for a surprise return from beloved “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Bill Hader, who makes a “WOO!”-worthy appearance in the Michael Cohen testimony cold open — a cold open which is honestly the funniest political cold open in a long time on this show, even though it’s still not hilarious and it’s still very long — and an absolutely brilliant appearance in the first sketch of the night.
Best Sketches of The Night: “What’s That Name” & “Bodega Bathroom”
Now, speaking of the first sketch of the night… The thing about John Mulaney sketches is how they’re simultaneously so bizarre and hyper-focused. That truly defines all but one sketch tonight, but “What’s That Name” is pretty much the definitive sketch in this case. What looks like a standard game show sketch on a show that could honestly stand to ease up on the game show sketches ends up being something so much more layered. It’s even clear to tell from the live audience reactions that there’s no real expectation as to where the sketch will go at the very beginning when it seems the biggest joke is just the fact that they’re answering the questions in this game for five whole dollars. Things seem like they all fall into place with the initial introduction of Mulaney’s friend and his friend’s girlfriend of four years, but the sketch still finds ways to go all over the place after that.
Hader’s character’s open contempt for Mulaney’s character — and the basic concept that Mulaney’s character is really terrible when it comes to even thinking about women as people, without being an outward villain about it — is truly what guides this sketch though, and the final reveal that this game show exists just because he wants “chaos” is so perfectly specific.
There’s no doubt about it: This sketch is 100 percent the sequel to “Diner Lobster,” because when you’re able to make something like “Diner Lobster” a hit, you’re going to want to try to capture lightning in a bottle the second time around. And despite how niche and specific these sketches are, it is easy (well, ”easy”) to repeat that sort of specialness, because the actual set-up for the sketches is actually a lot simpler than one would expect — it simply takes the premise of something any rational person wouldn’t do (order lobster at a diner, ask to use a bathroom at a bodega, or really a convenience store in general unless it was an emergency) and turns it into a musical theater epic.
This time around, instead of just going with the “Les Miserable” thread, “Bodega Bathroom” expands its reach with song parody choices and references from a range of productions like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (the main source), “Cats,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and even “Rent.”
Worst Sketch of The Night: “Legal Shark Tank”
This is the only sketch of the night resembling anything close to a “dud.” This sketch clearly only exists to get to the Jussie Smollett punchline, with the majority of the sketch being dedicated solely to the introduction of the legal Sharks than the actual bit.
Worst Impression: Chris Redd as Jussie Smollett (“Legal Shark Tank”)
This isn’t exactly an impression heavy episode, with the “Legal Shark Tank” sketch really being the only one outside of the cold open to choose from here. Neither of those has great impressions, unfortunately.
In fact, Cecily Strong honestly seems to be the only one during this particular sketch to get the memo on doing much of anything. While “Saturday Night Live” was able to fill the “Cha Cha Slide” sketch with black extras, this sketch serves as a reminder that it can’t do that all the time. Chris Redd is Jussie Smollett not because of anything resembling a good Jussie Smollett impression or take on the real person but because he’s the only cast member it could be; it wouldn’t be Kenan Thompson or Michael Che, and Che also doesn’t even feature in sketches enough to be considered an option.
Best Male Performer: Bill Hader
Not to throw the current contracted “Saturday Night Live” players under the bus, but Bill Hader’s work in just one sketch — the “What’s That Name” sketch — is so much on a higher level than literally anything else in this episode or even season that it makes one want to reevaluate every glowing review of anyone’s performance and ask, “Yes, but was it Hader-level good?” Sorry, everyone.
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
Cecily Strong definitely puts in a lot of work in this episode, but Kate McKinnon just squeezes ahead of her in the “Best Female Performer” of the night role with her role as the very awkward Lauren Bacall in the Cinema Classic sketch at the end of the night. (Speaking of that sketch, it’s been a while since an iteration of that sketch has been on “Saturday Night Live,” and it’s always great to see Kenan’s Reece De’What.)
She also gets to introduce a new character alongside Aidy Bryant during Weekend Update — which is always a treat, to break the monotony — and break over the smell of a lot of raw meat. It honestly plays much better than it sounds.
Talk about an episode that makes narrowing something down the best sketch (or even sketches) a true job of work. This is an episode of “Saturday Night Live” with a very high sketch hit rate, with only one truly less than “good” sketch to even think of when it comes to the “Worst Sketch of the Night.” And the key to all of those successful sketches is that they don’t just go with the easy joke: Mulaney’s character in “Cha Cha Slide” isn’t worried about not fitting in because of race reasons, the “Toilet Death Projector” turns the obvious ridiculousness of the idea into unexpected body horror, and the “Chad Horror Movie” (aka “The Unknown Caller,” a “Scream” riff in 2019 which still works because “Scream” is always relevant) takes the pretty simple Chad bit and gives it new life by stretching the dimwitted character’s existence past just being a sex idiot for female hosts to strangely seduce. One could only imagine what would happen if John Mulaney got his hands on Cecily’s Gemma character.
At this point, Mulaney’s strength as a host is not so much an indictment of the hosting caliber of other celebrities as it is proof of a major criticism of these most recent seasons: When the series actually allows its hosts to show and highlight their comedic voices, instead of just playing it safe so everyone gets through the episode alive, it’s hard to touch “Saturday Night Live.”
Then again, Mulaney is the rare celebrity host that wrote for the series in the first place and has more than enough proof of his comedic sensibilities to allow him that room to just do whatever the heck he wants. And this episode thrives because of that.