The Rapid Rise of Mikey Day on Saturday Night Live

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by NBC

All week long, Vulture is taking a close look at Saturday Night Live’s biggest season in years.

Saturday Night Live is not a job that one settles into — not right away, at least. Once inside the offices at 30 Rock, a tenderfoot performer needs to team up with writers, find their voice in the established framework of the show, and then compete with all of the established teams of writers and performers fighting for airtime on any given week. Some comedians fold under the pressure within a year, and some don’t find their niche even after many seasons. (See, unfortunately, Sasheer Zamata.) But in a season that was dominated by political news, presidential scrutiny, and lingering, semi-permanent special guests who were not cast members, debut player Mikey Day made definitive strides — and in his first season as a featured player, at that. In one short year, Day insinuated himself as not only an invaluable writer, but a go-to SNL player capable of performing a number of functions.

There are a few reasons for this rapid rise. First and foremost, Day has been a writer since 2014, and already had a clear handle on the tone and idiom of the show. His notable pieces, often written with the help of fellow writers Streeter Seidell and Bobby Moynihan, tend to be either genre mash-ups or a category we’ll have to call “the curious disturbance.” The former asks questions like, “How would Kylo Ren do on Undercover Boss?” or, “What would Lord of the Rings characters do on the set of The Office?” For the latter, think of the sketch that broke Ryan Gosling, “Close Encounter,” which finds Kate McKinnon’s oft-probed abductee Mrs. Rafferty trying her best to protect her “coot coot and prune chute.” More on the curious disturbance in a moment, but regardless of the style of scene presented, they tend to be crowd-pleasers.

If sketch-writing gave Day a head start on understanding the landscape of SNL, his stint as scribe and featured performer on SNL-spinoff variety show Maya & Marty provided him a complete lap around the track. Day anchored the silliness of the Civil War–era “The War in Words”; played the noxious, whining heir to Martin Short’s legal practice in the “Barnes & Son” blackouts; and showed off physical-comedy chops with the rest of the cast in “Marionettes.” And that’s just a start. Day helped make his bosses look good, while giving himself space to play in sketches like “Submarine,” about a guy coming up with (and quickly abandoning) those “so crazy it just might work” plans in action and sci-fi movies. If Lorne Michaels had an inkling of what Day could do onstage at Studio 8H, an extended preview at Maya & Marty made that abundantly clear.

While people like Seidell can support Day’s weird notions, Day has an advantage over many of his castmates in that he generates material for himself. After auditioning with his smug, semi-conscious Donald Trump Jr., Day then wrote himself a Trump Jr. bit into Weekend Update, alongside Alex Moffat’s clueless, infantilized Eric. He created and played the broad, wacky center of attention in “Theater Donor,” an old, decrepit man whose health problems interrupt the play happening only feet from his high-tech wheelchair. And if a sketch isn’t about him, Day always has the option of writing himself into a supporting role as the calming voice of reason or the willing accomplice. Day went the route of the straight man in “Escorts” opposite Emily Blunt and Leslie Jones, and “Drill Sergeant” opposite Alec Baldwin. He was a partner in crime for Jimmy Fallon’s needy extra in “Basketball Scene,” and for Chris Pine’s platonic partyer in “SWAT Recon.” He’s played the put-upon male counterpart to Leslie Jones and Cecily Strong in other Update bits.

There’s a clue planted in several of Day’s sketches that helps to explain not only his comedic worldview, but something of his allure as a writer, too. “Haunted Elevator,” Day’s most popular sketch so far, features Tom Hanks as the gourd-bedazzled David S. Pumpkins — an ostensibly scary feature of the Halloween-y “100 Floors of Frights” ride that completely baffles its customers. Note this snippet of conversation as average riders Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon do their best to make sense of cheery, dancing weirdo David Pumpkins:

Guy: Who are you?

David Pumpkins: I’m David Pumpkins, man.

Gal: And David Pumpkins is …

David Pumpkins: His own thang.

Guy: And the skeletons are …

Skeletons: Part of it!

One aspect that connects many of Day’s sketches, other than weirdos hollering unconventional catchphrases (see Kevin Roberts’s “Can a bitch get a doughnut?”), is the aforementioned curious disturbance — the sense that the strange phenomenon at the center of the sketch is its own thang. And each thang stubbornly refuses to step forward and explain itself. Take another sketch, “Alan,” which was cut for time during the 2014–2015 season. In it, a couple (Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer) is gifted a weird robot called Keith Alan Croft (Bill Hader) who does cheeky dances in a plexiglass box and generally plays the “stinker.” While trying to understand why Alan is the “future of casual entertainment,” Killam’s character says, “I’m not against Alan; I just don’t know what it is.” The same might be said by audience members watching the cotton-candy/backpack party of “Swat Recon”; the Space Pants song of “Mafia Meeting”; or the anachronistic “Party at My Parents’ House” hook of “Civil War Soldiers.” (Yes, several of these head-scratching happenings are songs.) Day enjoys a lite absurdity, a half-step away from reality, but not quite off the deep end in the way that, say, Will Forte’s “The Falconer” or other ten-to-one sketches are. Viewers can cock their heads and try to figure it all out, or forget what it means and just jump around singing, “Oh, oh, oh, oh / It’s a party at my parents’ house.”

It should be said that Day is not a breakout performer in the way Amy Poehler was in her first year at SNL. As an actor, Day is versatile and constant, but is more of a charming, pleasant foil than a superstar. While Beck Bennett has emerged as the incredulous Everyman of choice, Day has certainly benefited from the vacuum left behind by Taran Killam. (No remaining players are as grounded or assured in the role of charming, handsome man as Killam was — these parts have been handed over to Bennett, Day, and Moffat.) It’s a boon, but ultimately Day doesn’t need these parts to thrive. He excels as the goofy confidante role, preferably one that has a bit of physical business involved — e.g., the B-boy skeleton of “Haunted Elevator” or the owl trainer of “Talent Competition.” He clearly has a big imagination, one that toys with historical events, invents new twists for existing properties like Bambi, creates funny ads (see the Kohler “Koohl Toilet”), and is full of weirdos such as Jonathan Comets. If Day isn’t already invaluable in Michaels’s eyes, as both a writer and a performer, he will be soon enough.

Mikey Day’s Rapid Rise on Saturday Night Live