I cannot tell a lie: I really enjoyed that episode of SNL! John Mulaney brought his formidable talents to bear as host, giving us some of the most inspired writing and performances we’ve seen in a very long time. Almost across the board, the night’s sketches were interestingly premised and sharply written, with consistently effective punchlines and jokes that escalated to (usually) natural conclusions. It felt like an episode out of another era, and if the frequency with which Pete Davidson breaks character is any barometer, I’d wager the cast felt it too.
Well, with one glaring exception. The cold open was a steaming pile of lazy, hack topical references, beginning with Jeff Sessions (Kate McKinnon) and Mike Pence (Beck Bennett) commiserating over the week’s events, before Michael Cohen (Ben Stiller) appears for an interview with Robert Mueller (Robert De Niro, who manages to flub “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.”). First of all, I do not understand why SNL keeps bringing out McKinnon’s thoroughly unenjoyable Sessions as a surrogate for the audience’s emotions—trapped, filled with dread, desperate for a way out of the Trump presidency. The jokes, if you can call winking acknowledgements that the Trump Administration sucks “jokes,” demand some degree of empathy that Sessions certainly doesn’t deserve, and McKinnon and Bennett both sleepwalk through the characters. Secondly, what is with that Mueller/Cohen scene?? After a few perfunctory lines riffing on how Cohen is a crook, they skipped right to a string of Meet the Parents and Little Fockers references. It had, uh, nothing to do with anything, coasted purely off the fleeting high of recognition, and neither De Niro nor Stiller looked particularly happy to be there. I suppose it’s marginally preferable to another appearance by Alec Baldwin’s Trump, but yeesh, what a thin margin.
On the other hand, the cold open offers a useful foil for the rest of the episode, which generally avoided ponderously long writing or topical material that runs on the dwindling force of its own topicality. A better world is possible! Or, alas, maybe the better world already happened and ended almost a decade ago: Two of the night’s best and weirdest sketches, “Sitcom Reboot” and “Diner Lobster,” were apparently written and tabled in 2010 and 2009, respectively. The first, a followup to 2009’s Rocket Dog, features Mulaney as a film director describing his perverse body-switching comedy to an increasingly horrified journalist (Cecily Strong). “I think viewers expected us to focus on a different aspect of the switcheroo,” he says, “perhaps seeing the son trying to work at his dad’s office as an astronaut, or the dad trying to make the son’s football team. Instead we focused exclusively on the sexual ramifications of the switcheroo.” His unflappably cheery straight-man routine does wonders here, as does his facility with precise, maze-like flourishes of dialogue: after a few weeks of shooting the show in Port-au-Prince, “a general walked into my office in full military epaulets, and he said in thick patois—I won’t do the voice—well, I’ll do the voice a little—he said, ‘no money can make me forget God’s laws.’” As for “Diner Lobster,” well, it’s lobsters doing Les Miserables, with Kenan Thompson as a lobster Jean Valjean and Kate McKinnon as a lobster Cosette—like all the best SNL sketches, it absolutely shouldn’t work, it totally does, and let’s get Mulaney back on Broadway, shall we?
Mulaney’s great strength is the delightful specificity he mines out of every sketch, character and standup premise, always going deeper where lesser writers would stay at the surface. The episode was dense with outstanding lines, from his monologue—a traditional Mulaney stand-up set, with stories about the Civil War, Patrick Stewart and robots—to the most throwaway moments of other sketches, like in “Sitcom Reboot” when he names “Little Andy Cunanan” as “Switcheroo”’s original child star. I was especially fond of Kyle Mooney’s appearance in “National School Walkout,” in which Mulaney’s arousal delays his class’s protest. When he says he doesn’t want old white people crafting gun policy, Mooney rises and declaims: “That’s ageist and really offends me! I work at a home for the elderly, and I go every Tuesday and I hold their frail hands. And some of them, their skin is paper-thin, their cartilage like firm jelly, and underneath? You can see their bones.” While the sketch verges at times on punching down, bits like this keep it in the realm of joyful irreverence. That describes most of the episode, really, which by and large avoided topical grounding in favor of good old-fashioned absurd premises and character. (The exception is “Wild Wild Country,” a riff on the documentary in which Kenan Thompson joins the Rajneeshpuram for sex, then gradually concludes that it’s a gang.) I do believe every cast member got a turn in the spotlight, even Luke Null in “Horns.” He’s has never been the ensemble’s most charismatic member, but he shines as a dimwit with ridiculous body modifications (including “calf-holes” that go straight bone), and Mulaney, of course, is pitch perfect as his flabbergasted plastic surgeon. It’s rare enough to see SNL’s dullest cast members front-and-center, but for their sketches to actually click, too? It really makes you wonder what this show would be like with other writers at the helm.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.