This weekend’s John Mulaney-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live felt more affected than usual by outside circumstances—and not, thankfully, in the sense that it featured topical yuks in a political cold-open sketch. On the contrary, the show opened on a surprisingly somber note with a performance from the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, singing the Ukraine national anthem. While sometimes SNL’s dips into sincerity can feel maudlin, this time it was a blessed relief that the show didn’t feel the need to drag out any “doddering Biden” or “crazy Putin” gags.
If anyone was counting on Mulaney to lighten the mood, well, he did, but on his own terms, performing a stand-up monologue where he discussed his recent off-camera struggles with addiction. Mulaney’s showcase monologue displaced the obligatory ceremonial acknowledgment of his fifth time hosting, which became a sketch later in the show, featuring fellow five-timers Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, Tina Fey, Elliott Gould, and Paul Rudd. Rudd was circling back after his own fifth hosting gig was abbreviated in December due to the Omicron spike in COVID cases; COVID also inspired a dinner-table sketch where friends danced around admitting their darkest and/or least socially acceptable opinions about masking, a format revived from a Will Ferrell hosting gig years ago. It was one of five not-quite-recurring, not-quite-original sketches throughout the night.
This is all to say that Mualney’s fifth episode felt very much of this particular moment in history, even as it recycled and sequelized a number of sketch formats and largely avoided specific current events. At the same time, it managed to offer some genuine comfort from the various horrors of the news, with Mulaney frequently relaxing into the ensemble. Here are the episode’s best moments.
It’s (almost) always a treat when stand-up comedians host SNL, because it means there can be a genuine, professional monologue after the opening. Mulaney’s mini-set, presumably excerpted from his current tour, nonetheless fit the mold of this season’s more earnest monologue offerings, as he discussed his intervention, his trip to rehab, and the birth of his first child. Though he appeared in every sketch of the night, this really felt like his centerpiece.
A high-concept sketch that would have been at home during the Phil Hartman era sees Mulaney playing a monkey (or possibly an ape?) who was appointed to a judgeship as a “prank,” and presides, unfortunately, over a case where a woman has been attacked by someone else’s pet monkey. It’s a near-perfect John Mulaney vehicle, in that it features him describing some relatively common knowledge (facts about monkey behavior) in such beautifully precise and plainspoken language that it becomes hilarious. The sketch looks even better after the fifth iteration of Mulaney’s signature New York-based musical revue sketch, which always has some fun spectacle but has drifted from its beautifully bonkers original premise (a man ordering lobster in a diner somehow inspires an elaborate parody of Les Miserables) into anthology-style vagueness (a man in New York eating other, less ridiculous things somehow inspires a series of unrelated song parodies about New York life in general). It makes sense that Mulaney would want to go five-for-five on his beloved musicals, but giving Monkey Judge the episode’s leadoff spot was the right call.
Blue River Dog Food
Cecily Strong missed previous episodes of SNL for a short Off-Broadway revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, a play that was originated as a one-woman Lily Tomlin show and rejiggered for the original writer for Strong. It would be tempting to say the stage show allowed her to flex muscles she doesn’t always get to use on SNL, and it probably did—but at the same time, this extended ad for Blue River Dog Food shows just how detailed her character work can get on this silly sketch show. Here she uses passive-aggressive tactics, and then genuine aggression, to browbeat her friend into ditching normal dog-food for the vastly more expensive Blue River brand, working herself up into a righteous despair in the process. Most amusingly, this character has a history; seven years ago, Strong played her in a sketch with Seth Rogen, as she had a full-on crisis of conscience over whether they switched dog food brands in time. There are plenty of drawbacks to cast members sticking around the show for nearly a decade, but there is a certain comic poetry in the ability to check in on obscure sketch-comedy characters from seven years ago.