On Nov. 5, 2016, the last Saturday before the last presidential election, Benedict Cumberbatch hosted Saturday Night Live. Cumberbatch is an actor known more for dramatic roles than comedy, and had never hosted the show before; three days later, Donald Trump was elected president. So this time around, they went with John Mulaney, a former SNL staff writer who’s a killer standup comedian, hosting for the fourth time. We won’t know for a while if this change in creative direction will be the thing that finally brings the Trump administration to an end, but there are two things we can say: John Mulaney is a great SNL host, and John Mulaney should either host a little less often or come up with some new sketch formats, because this episode saw him revisit some of his greatest hits to noticeably diminished returns. Here are the sketches Mulaney appeared in, ranked from worst to best.
Another Uncle Meme
This sketch is a sequel to the original from last year, and revisiting the first version makes it clear what’s not quite working in this one:
In the first “Uncle Meme” sketch, Mulaney’s character is at a party for his own daughter’s acceptance into Stanford Business School, and half of the comedy comes from the slow and deliberate way Mulaney, visibly choking back anger, turns what’s supposed to be a family celebration into a show trial. He doesn’t even mention memes for nearly a full minute. This week’s version goes straight to the memes, in an office meeting, a setting where neither PowerPoint presentations nor arguments are incongruous. Also, the memes aren’t as funny! Last place.
New York Musical
Mulaney has now made four SNL mini-musicals, all about people making terrible decisions: ordering lobster at a diner, using the bathroom at a bodega, buying sushi at an airport, and now, buying “I ♥ NY” briefs at a Times Square souvenir shop. These are all really bad ideas, which makes them really good premises, but we’ve gone from “Oh my God, they staged a surprisingly elaborate Les Misérables parody in which Kenan Thompson dresses as a lobster” to “Ah, it’s time for the John Mulaney Musical,” which is a very different experience. These have also gotten less and less focused: every song in “Diner Lobster” was about whether or not Pete Davidson would eat lobster at a diner; “New York Musical,” ostensibly about whether or not Pete Davidson would buy underwear at a souvenir shop, quickly zooms out for songs about Times Square mascots, rooftop masturbators, and COVID-19 superspreaders from Connecticut. Still, Maya Rudolph makes this edition worth watching all by herself, belting out a New York-themed version of “I’m Still Here” from Follies in a ridiculous Statue of Liberty costume.
Nothing is worse than watching most actors hosting SNL stumbling their way through a monologue, and nothing is better than watching on the rare occasions they hire a standup who knows how to work a crowd. Mulaney’s thoughts about his 94-year-old grandmother voting pretty much captured the national mood, at least among the non-elderly:
I don’t think maybe she should vote. You know, you don’t get to vote when you’re 94 years old. You don’t get to order for the table when you’re about to leave the restaurant. I’m sorry, that joke is ageist, that is wrong. It is wrong to say one age group is better than another. That would be like calling yourselves the Greatest Generation! “Oh, oh, we fought the Nazis!” Well, we’re trying to fight the new Nazis, if you’d get out of the way and stop voting for people you saw in between coin collector commercials!
A fine nine minutes and 36 seconds of television.
That is a great headless horseman outfit and Beck Bennett is a great headless horseman, but I have a minor quibble: It’s supposed to be 1790, but at one point, Mulaney remarks, “It’s like they always say, when life hands you a severed head, you put the mouth on your dingus.” The OED’s earliest usage of the word “dingus” is from 1876 and at the time, it meant “contraption.” Other than that one anachronism, however, this is a remarkably faithful portrait of American life in the late 18th century.
It’s not really funny that one of our political parties spends more time trying to keep certain people from voting than trying to win their votes. This sketch, though? This sketch is funny. The 1970s production values are great, and the song’s catchy, but the stroke of genius here is casting John Mulaney, in a variety of nearly identical costumes, as every unhelpful election official, plus one road worker. I’d trade this sketch in for a functioning democracy, but since that’s not on the table, this’ll have to do.
Cinema Classics – The Birds
John Mulaney has the face, frame, and voice of a man from the middle of the last century, which means he was born to star in SNL parodies of classic films like this take on The Birds. Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett are very funny in this, but they’re visibly doing a bit; Mulaney looks like he just wandered in from 1963. (Kenan Thompson is sort of in his own category here, since he’s playing a modern TV host, but as always, he’s hilarious.) “Cinema Classics – The Birds” would probably be the best sketch of the night on a normal week, on the strength of a single line: Kate McKinnon exclaiming, “These birds, they’re the jerk of the year!” But this week of all weeks, when there’s not much catharsis left to wring out of the ongoing collapse of civil society, a moment of pure silliness is probably the best thing a show like SNL can provide right now. So watch out for birds, turtles, sandwiches, and racist sheriffs on your stroll to the polls, and let’s all pitch in so that Saturday Night Live can go back to being silly.