Some things just go together: peanut butter and jelly, wine and cheese, and John Mulaney and Saturday Night Live. While noting in the monologue that he means “a lot to a small group of people,” those people are all huge SNL fans. A host can’t automatically make a show good, but he or she can certainly raise the ceiling on the possibility of a good episode.
Luckily, the third time was the charm for Mulaney, whose evolution hosting the show matches that of his stand-up career. If you watch early footage of both, you’ll see someone with innate gifts but a slight lack of confidence in delivering them. Now, Mulaney’s physicality matches his material. His stage presence is leaps and bounds better than when he initially hosted, with a “can you believe I’m actually onscreen” energy replaced by “I own this place”.
While there are many excellent segments to choose from this week, here are the three sketches will be discussing until Daniel Craig returns to host next Saturday.
Look, eventually one of these will absolutely fail, and it will be a musical disaster not seen since Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. But until then, we get these concentrated bursts of wonderful insanity. Whereas the “Diner Lobster” tried to keep things relatively contained in terms of plot and musical inspiration, this latest one simply throws the Broadway kitchen sink at Studio 8H and sees what sticks. But who cares? Give me ten minutes of fantastic ideas versus a lesser sketch that only uses the songs from a single musical.
Having a Sack Lunch Bunch reunion occur mid-show was always a possibility with musical host David Byrne. But having a pajamas-wearing Jake Gyllenhaal taking to the sky in an ode to Wicked was extra icing on the cake. Other highlights include “the entire sketch, damnit,” but a special shout-out goes to Bowen Yang’s take on “Suddenly Seymour,” which brought great vocal chops but also managed to include the type of topical humor usually found in the cold open or “Weekend Update.”
By the time the entire cast marched off to the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” the show reached a crescendo of joy rarely seen on SNL. The absurdity of that song matched the absurdity of the sketch, opening up the inevitable fourth in Mulaney’s “NYC Musicals” series to using pop songs as well as showtunes. For a moment, the soulless feeling of being at the airport turned into a communal celebration of being together in senseless world.
If that sounds pretentious as hell, that’s probably because I’m in that supposedly “small group” Mulaney mentioned in the monologue. The best sketches this week did what SNL is supposed to do: Reflect the fears and craziness of the world around it and find a way to make us laugh at it. That’s comedy as service, and it’s a service that’s increasingly needed these days.
Coronavirus Cold Open
Until the Democratic presidential candidate field winnows itself down, the blueprint is clear: Get as many celebrities and alums to play politicians as possible in an extremely long cold open that gives them all at least 30 seconds to shine. There is probably the SNL equivalent of the Bat-Signal on the roof of 30 Rockefeller right now, with Fred Armisen and Rachel Dratch casually peering to the sky every few minutes for their summons.
Whereas recent seasons have floundered in the political cold open arena, this season has shown some marked improvement in justifying both the cameos and the length. It helps that recent debates have provided all the friction that the sketch needs in order to naturally pair up people. The Amy Kobluchar/Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren/Mike Bloomberg duos flowed organically from their oratory sparring. Rather than simply taking turns monologuing into camera, those four were able to engage directly with one another, and that made a big difference.
Largely left on his own, Bernie Sanders (once again played by Larry David) celebrated the happiness he felt not only from recent polls but also being left physically alone due to concerns about the virus. Having Mulaney play Biden was a strange choice, but maybe the show is turning this into a “guess who’ll play Biden THIS week” game that you can bet on through Draft Kings. Who knows?
David-as-Sanders is the best match of actor and candidate since Fey-as-Palin, so it makes sense that the show uses him as often as possible. But it’s still somewhat strange to think of the possibility that one way or the other, we might have a non-cast member playing the president for another four years. This ultimately doesn’t mean anything for the casual viewer, but given the star-making potential of the role, it still puts a damper on the show’s ability to create stars.
Sound Of Music: Rolf and Liesl
Between the next two sketches on this list, his recent Netflix special John Mulaney And The Sack Lunch Bunch, and his Company-inspired episode of Documentary Now, I’d make the case that Mulaney’s been not-so-slowly gearing up to write a full-fledged Broadway musical in the near future. It’s clear that Mulaney’s happiest in Studio 8H when riffing through the history of musical theatre, even one set in “Austria, nineteen thirty-bad.” A small flub early on aside, this was somehow a delightful sketch about an uncomfortable part of a beloved classic.
Rolf’s catfishing of Liesl is played for laughs, but like much of Mulaney’s stand-up, there’s a darker undercurrent running throughout. He changes information about his age and background so quickly that Cecily Strong’s teenager essentially just surrenders by the end. Even when Maria shows up with the Captain to rescue Leisl, she admits that their own respective courtship is “still kinda dicey.” Whereas the final sketch this week is pure musical celebration, this one sits alongside Mulaney’s deconstruction of Back To The Future in terms of applying modern eyes to what hasn’t aged well about classics from the past.