‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: The Best and Worst of John Mulaney’s Hosting Return

As “Saturday Night Live” returned from Winter Olympics hiatus, it did so with a returning host, comedian and former “SNL” writer John Mulaney. Last night’s episode marked Mulaney’s fifth time hosting “SNL,” an anticipated return, both in terms of his past contributions to the show (both in front of and behind the camera) and in light of what’s been going on in his personal life.

Host: John Mulaney

As tends to be the case, a stand-up comedian like Mulaney went with a stand-up comedy set for his host monologue. And he addressed the very public things that have been going on in his life, from his relapses and rehab to his newborn child. Mulaney described it all as “a very complicated year,” but it was clearly a year that provided him plenty of new great stand-up material — even when it came to the January 6 insurrection. (Perhaps Mulaney is right and it wouldn’t have happened on his, “Baby J,” watch.) After a more serious start to the episode, Mulaney’s stand-up monologue reminded the audience that they were watching a pretty fun guy do his pretty funny thing, circumstances be damned.

“He’s smiling.” “No, he’s bearing his teeth.”

“Monkey Trial” is probably a sketch that only works at all right now because it’s a John Mulaney sketch. There’s an air of ‘90s “SNL” to it that’s not necessarily a good thing, and the bit itself was extremely simple: He’s a monkey. A monkey that’s relatively smart for a monkey but not quite smart. Mulaney definitely committed to the bit — he always does — which was a lot of very literal explanations of the thought process of a monkey, if not too many actual jokes. The sketch also relied on that initial “reveal” that it was a monkey judge, as the “Monkey Judge” title card at the end was clearly the type of thing that would usually open the sketch.

That this was the first sketch of the night was an interesting choice, especially when you’re also able to consider what sketches were cut. It’s ultimately a 10-to-1 sketch that somehow kicked things off.)

Back in 2020, it looked like Mulaney was wrapping up a sketch trilogy. “Diner Lobster,” “Bodega Bathroom,” and “Airport Sushi” all had the same essential premise an execution: Someone foolishly (and with such unearned confidence) orders something you don’t dare order at certain places, and Mulaney and an eccentric cast of characters all sing Broadway riffs about it. Ultimately, following “Diner Lobster,” there was a sense of diminishing returns with each version of the sketch.

This week’s “SNL” revived the sketch premise with “Subway Churro.” Featuring riffs from “South Pacific,” “Les Miserable,” and more, Andrew Dismukes played the foolishly confident character this time, summoning mole people, women on the subway tracks, and all the colorful type of people you’d expect in a New York City subway. As usual, it was a sketch designed for theatre nerds, both the ones watching and the ones in the cast.

It may not be a crime for “SNL” to do a Nickelodeon sketch without having Kenan Thompson be present, but it possibly should be a crime for “SNL” to do a Nickelodeon sketch with Chris Redd playing Nick Cannon without having Thompson play himself. So “SNL” is clearly on thin ice for its “Nickelodeon Show” sketch. The Nickelodeon show in question, however, was “You Can’t Do That on Television,” the show that introduced the green slime to the kid-centric world of Nickelodeon — which led to the sketch’s premise on the effort taken to figuring out the right slime in 1980. Despite the lack of Thompson, Redd’s constant hand wringing as Cannon was stealthily one of the best parts of the sketches, alongside his reminders of things taking place in the Wild West of 1980 and awkward anti-chemistry with Alex Moffat’s Marc Summers.

While “Subway Churro” was an expected sketch, given Mulaney’s past hosting stints — though, one could argue the sketch format is one of diminishing returns — “Cupid Shuffle” was a pleasantly unexpected surprise. A sequel to “Cha Cha Slide” from Mulaney’s second time hosting back in 2019 (Season 44), this sketch saw Mulaney and Ego Nwodim’s characters now married and at her family reunion. Unlike “Cha Cha Slide,” “Cupid Shuffle” felt a bit light in terms of content — leading to the weak ending — though the material it worked with was good (and possibly actually stronger than the original), especially when it came to things like “good air” (don’t let it out) and “home training.”

Best Sketches of The Night: “Please Don’t Destroy – Good Variant” & “Five-Timers Club”

When a Please Don’t Destroy video sketch makes it onto the episode, it’s pretty much a guarantee that a Please Don’t Destroy video sketch is going to be one of the best sketches of the night. And much like a Stefon feature, this sketch had everything: Paul Rudd on synth, submarine sandwiches, John Mulaney doing the Carlton dance, Al “40 Hands” Roker, Pokemon, and long luscious locks.

While there were very clear timing and delivery issues in “Five-Timers Club” — it was messy! — the sketch worked from the jump for two very specific reasons. The first was the way the sketch transitioned from the previous one, “Please Don’t Destroy – Good Variant,” with Five-Timers Paul Rudd, Steve Martin, and Candice Bergen all watching the sketch before leading into this one. Simply put, an “SNL” sketch transition — much like an “SNL” sketch follow-up in one episode — is always a good thing.

The second reason was because of Paul Rudd’s continued “grudge” against the way things turned out with his Five-Timers Club induction episode. With this season having more than one induction, Mulaney’s episode allowed Rudd to participate in a more traditional version of things, even though he ended up having to “retire” in order to bring Mulaney in. Despite playing a Marvel superhero and being dubbed People’s Sexiest Man Alive, Rudd’s brand of goofiness and self-deprecating humor has thankfully not gone anywhere.

Both with the state of the cold open and Mulaney’s stand-up monologue, “SNL” had to figure out a creative way to do the requisite Five-Timers Club bit, and this sketch succeeded in doing so. Conan O’Brien’s stumbling and aloofness also worked so much better here than it did in a show like “Murderville.”

Plus, the crack Mulaney made on Dan Aykroyd’s vodka was one of the best jokes of the night, even if the live audience didn’t quite get it.

Worst Sketch of The Night: “COVID Dinner Discussion”

The thing about “COVID Dinner Discussion” is that there’s something to the bit in terms of it all being about reactions and inflections… but it shouldn’t be five minutes of that. Especially with less than stellar timing all throughout it. It’s also not saying anything particularly interesting about COVID in its execution. Whereas, even in all of the absurdity, “Please Don’t Destroy – Good Variant” had more to say about the state of COVID in the world than this sketch did.

Best Male Performer: John Mulaney

Maybe it feels like a cop-out when non-cast members are considered the best performers of the night, but with a hot like Mulaney — someone who comes specifically from this world — his hosting stint is inherently designed to be the (or at least one of the) standout performer of the episode.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong & Heidi Gardner

As Cecily Strong returned to “SNL” this week after some time off for her off-Broadway show, she was able to immediately be featured and once again remind the audiences just how much of a key ingredient she is to the show. Mulaney’s role in the “Blue River” sketch, as the husband to Strong’s character who let her know just how important she is, seemed to speak for all of us.

But Gardner has also been holding down the “SNL” fort lately, and her work as a reliable hand in sketches can’t be understated. Despite the weakness of “COVID Dinner Discussion,” that was more the result of the writing than anything sketch standouts like Gardner and Aidy Bryant did in it. Gardner also got to shine this week in cut for time sketches like “Family Band” and “Podcast Set.”

Final Thoughts

Colin Jost ended up referring to this week’s Weekend Update as “Oops, All Jokes.” No features, and the entirety of the segment was contained in one YouTube video post-show. As Michael Che also noted, this week was an especially strange and difficult time to make jokes about. But the jokes they did make, they did so with a focus and a hit ratio that is often lacking during the segment.

Despite being the big one of Mulaney’s hosting stints — as his fifth time doing so — this wasn’t Mulaney’s best episode. Had the cut for time sketches (“Family Band” and “Podcast Set”) replaced the weaker sketches of the episode (“Monkey Trial” and “COVID Dinner Discussion”), that definitely would’ve boosted the episode. But there probably still would’ve been something lacking, with the return to the familiar (in “Subway Churro” and the fine but not great “Cupid Shuffle”) not quite hitting as hard as previous iterations. The strength of Mulaney’s performance ability and charm, however, still shone through.

Grade: B

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