Photo: NBC/Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
If any recent SNL host might put the population a bit more at ease before this election day, week, month, or season, it was probably John Mulaney. His three previous hosting gigs—including one just pre-pandemic—have shown off his comfort at 8H, his facility with the format, his willingness to go big, and his ability to rejuvenate old favorites (e.g. Bill Hader as the chaotic evil game show host Vince Blake). And not for nothing, his bit about Trump (a.k.a. the “horse in a hospital”) is one of the best out there and it’s alllmost nonpartisan.
While this show feels a bit less consistent, and less surprising, than Mulaney’s other outings as host, it’s still very solid. Sure, Hader doesn’t pop back in, and the big musical number feels more like a high school production this time around, but there are standout sketches and some unexpected source material. It’s Halloween-y, but not annoyingly so. And Mulaney brings it in the monologue, naturally.
As per tradition, this week’s sketches are ranked here from best to worst
Given his track record, it’s not surprising that Mulaney can still put together a solid SNL set even when clubs are closed and he’s probably delivering much of his material to his Frenchie. The Cuomo material flirts with feeling a little too local—but then again, the entire country lived through months of lockdown, and found Cuomo’s press briefings while Trump was AWOL. Mulaney’s election bit, replete with carefully crafted, lengthy aside about the tragic sleepovers sure to transpire regardless of who is in power, is excellent. Likewise, the bits about his 94-year-old grandmother, who seems to have plenty of funny things to say without much comedic embellishment. While the material isn’t quite ready for a new special, all of Mulaney’s hallmarks are there: the idiosyncratic obsessions, the attention to detail, the calm yet precise delivery. He puts the election in perspective, momentarily, and then provides a great distraction otherwise.
The ever-charming Reese De’What (Kenan Thompson) introduces deleted scenes of Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, which try to explain why the birds are so terrifying. The writerly observation at the heart of this sketch is smartly articulated, and the accumulating absurdity arrives in perfect little waves. As the Tippi Hedren character, Kate McKinnon brings that mid-century melodrama, even as bird butts eject eggs at her feet. The props department deserves credit for creating not just a flock of doofy looking seagulls, but for bird feet clutching guns, flying turtles, and gooey bird carcasses. Even Beck Bennett’s brief walk-ons (as the victim of bird violence) elevate the action.
With the election on everyone’s mind, Update can’t help but dwell on it, too. There are several intelligent jokes, including one that flips Trump’s idea of the atypical politician, and one that derides politicians who see rappers as Black leaders. The anchors also have a fun bit of banter about feeling like those doomed musicians aboard the Titanic while telling useless jokes about constipated accountants; the juxtaposition of the grander circumstance with a poop joke just feels right.
Then Kyle Mooney returns as Baby Yoda to tout the return of The Mandalorian. Underneath that adorable exterior, of course, is a bro hustling his way through Hollywood. The combination of noxious and adorable works a little better this time, but there’s still a fair amount that falls flat.
Some of the jokes in Update’s second half are surprisingly cutting. There’s a Panera Bread gag that turns on aunts becoming white supremacists, and one about the instances in which NYPD officers are allowed to stump for Trump. Both are great. The sillier stuff, about holiday flavored Bud Light Seltzer and Ron Jeremy’s prison sentence, also works well.
This suitably spooky open, a warped version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” is led by a somewhat more muted version of Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden — while Carrey still hasn’t quite hooked into his character, at least he makes a bit more room for Biden to appear. The entire sketch is packed with walk-ons; the one that justifies itself best is Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon), who does her best to poke holes in Biden’s confidence. Again, Maya Rudolph is pretty well wasted here, so it’s good she gets a bit more time to shine in the musical number. The overall framework is creative, and the content definitely taps into the underlying election fears that voters hold just three days before Election Day.
Though almost obligatory by now, this outing’s big musical number exemplifies SNL’s commitment to going big when Mulaney hosts. This time, the clueless dope (Pete Davidson) wants to buy a pair of I Heart NY underpants at a souvenir shop; from here, the denizens of Times Square pop up to sing versions of primarily Sondheim tunes, and join together for one big closer from Les Mis. The energy is admirable, but this one suffers from a bit of diminishing returns. The highlight has to be Maya Rudolph as Lady Liberty, grousing through Sondheim’s world-weary “I’m Still Here.” The message is nice, and there are smart lyrics that pop in, but the parade of wild characters feels jumbled. And while COVID restrictions may have made this one harder to rehearse, it winds up feeling a bit more uncoordinated than the other Mulaney musical numbers.
This stylized ’70s video for R&B jam “Strollin’” is all about taking one’s sweet time to get to the polls. Okay, that and voter suppression. As the crew of would-be voters (Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim, Chris Redd, Punkie Johnson) get turned away from polling place after polling place, their fun, little calibrations make it seem like every setback is totally manageable. The song itself is pretty catchy, and the quartet’s well-timed slides and shuffle steps earn many of the laughs. There’s a complaint lobbed about living in Texas—the place in which the governor inexplicably has been allowed to limit ballot drop boxes to one per county—a nod to the frustrations that many Black voters feel in 2020, and in general. Though this quartet is never fazed, the underlying anger is real.
While true blue New Yorkers laud their fellow city dwellers for their fortitude during the coronavirus crisis, really, this PSA is about a gray-haired lady (Kate McKinnon) frolicking in the background. While McKinnon has a ball embodying a certain sort of unique New Yorker, the V.O. adds some colorful theories about her—e.g. she’s “not not a professor at Columbia.” The specifics of this woman’s life in Central Park are well articulated: Every topless sunbathing session and one-woman version of The Lion King make this type of indomitable character even clearer. This pre-taped sketch does have the feeling of a both pep talk and a genuine PSA.
For anyone who felt Washington Irving just didn’t use enough BJ jokes, this sketch is for you. Ichabod Crane (John Mulaney) and a couple of townspeople aren’t so much terrified by the Headless Horseman as they are intrigued about his whole severed head situation, and how close that severed head is to his junk. The puerile, pervy stuff gets to the Horseman—understandably. It gets a bit more interesting when Ichabod and the townsfolk start discussing freakier ideas about clean-up and neck holes, but for the most part, it’s one long blowjob joke. There’s not much to distinguish the performances, either. Bonus for the writer who came up with the Puritan name Goody Chastity, and a good context for it.
This time, the uncle (John Mulaney) has invited his nephew Tyler (Pete Davidson) to be an intern at his workplace—and Tyler tossed his nasty memes about his uncle on Slack. There’s little difference between this sketch and its previous edition — it’s all about the smarmy photos and the uncle slams, e.g. “When You in a Sex Cult but You Still a Virgin.” Whereas the extended family in the first edition had some emotional stake in the outcome, the nodding chorus of coworkers here doesn’t add much. While the writers do well to give the uncle some creepy online behaviors, it’s hard to capitalize on a sketch that was just so-so from the outset.
Mulaney continues his streak of strong shows, even though this one may be a half-step off from his previous host appearances. While there’s some dull and childish stuff, all of that is far outweighed by well-crafted comedy and thoughtful messaging. There’s plenty of pro-NYC material for New Yorkers, and with the election looming, a nice balance between electoral politics and sheer escapism. (For those interested in a bit more politics, there’s a fun, distressing sketch of frazzled liberals trying to keep it together that was cut for time. ) Next week, what should be the last show in a run of six live shows in a row, Dave Chappelle will host. Despite what anyone thinks of his recent output, those who remember his show after the 2016 election will know he’s a great choice.