After his career as an SNL writer, it’s nice that the crew at Studio 8H have come to see John Mulaney as a performer. Could be his increasingly masterful stand-up sets, including the 2017 Netflix special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. Could be his run of Oh, Hello on Broadway with Nick Kroll. Could be his successful turn as host last year, with sketches ambitious (“Lobster Diner”) and clever (“Sitcom Reboot”). Could be the just-released, loving parody of Company: Original Cast Album he wrote with Seth Meyers and (yes, yes, yes) musical director Eli Bolin for IFC’s Documentary Now! Ultimately, who cares why he’s back? It’s nice to have a sketch in the hands of someone who knows how to make it work.
In Big Nick’s Bodega, they’ve got water, snacks and, if you require it in an emergency, a terrible, terrible bathroom. A guy (Davidson) asks the bodega owner (Mulaney) for a key while the guy’s pal (Redd) looks on in horror. The bodega cat (Thompson) directs the guy to the toilet while singing a ditty called “Zero Sanitation” — sung to the tune of “Pure Imagination,” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. From there, a pair of singing cockroaches (Strong, Villaseñor) and a Audrey II-like toilet (Beck Bennett) start belting, too. There’s a version of “The Candy Man” strictly for the bodega guy, a take on “Memory” sung by a lifesize Virgin Mary votive (McKinnon), and very Oompa Loompa-like Sour Patch Kids (Aidy Bryant, Mikey Day, Kyle Mooney) singing about the swine HPV one will get from the toilet seat. The whole thing climaxes with a “Seasons of Love” parody that lists all of the things one might find in the bodega. “What about Fla-a-a-an?” the ensemble wants to know. Since when does a megamusical sketch parody get a second beat? This could become Mulaney’s SNL signature: megamusical mashups based on observations of very specific New York phenomena. This one is fantastic, too.
Michael Cohen Hearing Cold Open
Michael Cohen (Ben Stiller) arrives in Congress to testify before representatives about Trump, whom he characterizes as a racist, a cheat and a con man. “Wow, I thought that would get a bigger reaction,” he says upon hearing a distinct lack of gasps. Chairman Elijah Cummings (Thompson) prepares everyone for Republicans to “get mad at everybody but the president.” Ohio’s Jim Jordan (Bill Hader) fumes and flubs all of his good material; Arizona’s Paul Gosar (Kyle Mooney) stumbles over words and renders himself nearly incomprehensible; North Carolina’s Mark Meadows (Moffat) drags out a Trump employee he calls Omarosa (Ego Nwodim) to prove the president isn’t racist. Meanwhile, Jackie Speier (Heidi Gardner) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Kate McKinnon) just prank Jordan. And everybody just waits for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Melissa Villaseñor) to take the stage. While it’s overstuffed, it does feel a bit more focused than past weeks. Stiller is good, but Hader and Mooney both shine here.
John Mulaney’s Monologue
Mulaney brings some of his own really solid material to this monologue, which includes bits about cocaine, subway announcements, convincing your Jewish fiancée to convert to Catholicism, and what it means to run into Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn in New York while pushing a bulldog in a stroller. It’s Mulaney, so the observations are playful and the jokes are crisp. The set reaches its crescendo when Mulaney talks about (and does impressions of) different sorts of police sirens. The new “funky” ones make the comic feel like there’s a DJ in the back of the car; the classic ones (as heard in classic films) sound like “an old gay cat was dying.” No, no, not in a bad way — the cat “lived a full life, surrounded by loved ones, holding hands with a rabbi.” The entire set is worthwhile, but this very silly bit kills.
What’s That Name?
In another beat of this sadistic game show, contestants Doug (Mulaney) and Courtney (Cecily Strong) are simply asked to identify people by name. First, host Vince Blake (Hader) shows them pictures of Chrissy Teigen and Lil Xan— easy enough, five bucks for each of them. Then they’re offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to ID their best friend’s girlfriend and the wife of their business partner, respectively. They can’t, and Blake mocks them for their failure. In particular, Blake picks on the visibly uncomfortable Doug, who can’t properly name just one of his wife’s bridesmaids — even when provided three of the four letters in her name. “Why do you do this? What do you want?” Doug cries out. Blake says, “In a word: Chaos.” The game show element is still incredibly fun, and digging into the life and psychology of Blake makes this sketch deliciously dark, too. And Hader is wickedly precise in delivering lines like the one about his “problematic bachelor” friends who call themselves “the Squad.”
At the top of Update, Colin Jost compares Michael Cohen to images that appeared on the internet this week of the fat, German rat stuck in a manhole cover: “Usually gross but you kinda feels sorry for it. Michael Che wishes Cohen wouldn’t play the “damsel in distress” after “stealing the presidency.” “At least Donald Trump has the decency to slowly fall apart until he’s dragged off in handcuffs — like a boss,” Che says. “That’s how I want to leave SNL.”
After a couple of shots at Trump’s failed summit in North Korea, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant come on as Vaneta and Wylene Starkie of Smokery Farms. Due to the spread of veganism and internet sensations such as Picasso the Pig, these ladies decided to kill and sell only stupid, bad livestock. They display a basket of meat, pointing out that a steak came from “a cow that bit a kid in the wiener” and chops from a lamb “who would not stop body-shaming the goats.” Everything about this segment wins: the writing, the hair, the costumes, Bryant and McKinnon giggling together and a meat basket that smells disgusting, apparently. Comparatively little happens in the shorter second half of Update, and none of the remaining jokes hit all that well. There’s an R. Kelly joke, a Jussie Smollett joke, and a joke about a new line of Target underwear: “Lingerie that’ll have your man saying, ‘Not tonight.’ ”
To Have and Have Not
As Cinema Classics host Reese De’What (Thompson) reminds viewers, the scene from the classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall flick To Have and Have Not is primarily remembered for its line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow.” The first time Bacall (McKinnon) tries to demonstrate whistling technique for Bogey (Mulaney), it’s obvious she has no idea what she’s doing. The sound is something like a stampeding elephant. In subsequent attempts, she spits, stuffs fingers in her mouth and hollers, sings “Guantanamera,” and stops to wonder if she’s gay. The idea may be silly, but with McKinnon in charge, it’s a series of carefully crafted moments of mugging and physical business. She’s also having a ball.
Legal Shark Tank
Lawyers Michael Avenatti (Pete Davidson), Jeanine Pirro (Cecily Strong), Alan Dershowitz (Mulaney), and Rudy Giuliani (McKinnon) — as well as the ubiquitous personal injury attorneys Cellino and Barnes (Alex Moffat and Kyle Mooney) — consider pitches from would-be clients who need legal help. The first is Patriots owner Robert Kraft (Beck Bennett), who may be “the first person to take a private jet to get a $50 hand job.” The second is Jussie Smollett (Chris Redd), who swears he was attacked by Donald Trump outside the studio … until he’s told there are cameras there. “A gay, black man lying about an attack,” Pirro gushes, “I wrote Fox News fan fiction about this, but I never thought it would come true!” Essentially, the format is an excuse to take shots at these infamous figures in the news, as well as the collection of eccentrics committed to helping them. It’s fast-paced, quippy, and perfectly brutal at times, too.
Chad Horror Movie
This Scream parody finds the recurring character Chad (Davidson) ostensibly tortured by a masked villain (Mulaney) over the phone. Given the usual tenor of the monosyllabic cipher, terrorizing him is not easy. The villain can hardly even get Chad to put on pants, much less truly take in a dead body or face the fact that he’s about to be stabbed. “I’m going to kill you, Chad,” the villain (whose real name is Ferguson) says when he finally shows up. Chad’s response, “No, thanks.” And though Chad did some seemingly terrible things to poor Ferguson, the universe has already chosen its golden child. It’s not a timely parody, but the Chad character has had enough of a break to make this a worthy return.
Toilet Death Ejector
This new product aims to calm old folks who are afraid of dying on the toilet. If an elderly person is atop the seat and feels her or himself begin to fade, all they need do is press the big, red EJECT button on the side of the tank. The toilet will hurl them through the doorway where they can die on their beds — and, as a bonus, a tome that signifies intelligence will drop from the ceiling onto their dead body. (The choices here include the Bible or the latest Malcolm Gladwell title.) There’s a complication, in that one’s pants might remain around one’s ankles, but at least the grandkids will not talk about nana dying “while taking a dump.” As far as scat jokes go, this one’s got some fun visuals.
Cha Cha Slide
During this wedding reception, buttoned-up dude Daniel (Mulaney) gets nervous about making a good impression in front of his girlfriend (Ego Nwodim) and her family. Though he seems very, very white, Daniel proves he knows all the extra moves to Mr C the Slide Man’s “Cha-Cha Slide,” including “stir them grits,” and “shoot them dice.” He also seems to know just about everyone in the room intimately, including his former Howard frat brother (Chris Redd) and his girlfriend’s aunt (Leslie Jones). It’s a fun idea, but between the constant oddball dance moves and Daniel’s insider information, the sketch splits its focus and never clearly paints Daniel’s dilemma.
Top to bottom, this is one of the best SNL episodes in a long time. Mulaney’s writing fuels not only the monologue, but truly excellent sketches including both “Bodega Bathroom” and “What’s That Name?” Bill Hader’s presence delivers comic precision to the latter, as well as in his role as furious Republican Jim Jordan in the cold open. McKinnon and Strong both have incredibly good nights, and the character feature of Update is fantastic. And, of course, “Bodega Bathroom” lives up to the high standard set by last year’s “Lobster Diner.” This one will be hard to top, but Idris Elba will give it a shot next Saturday.