Comedian John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live this week for the third time in three years, and once again handed in one of the funniest, weirdest, and most ambitious episodes of the season. Mulaney, a veteran of the writing staff, made his hosting debut in April of 2018, returned in March of last year, and this week became the first person in history to host Saturday Night Live on Leap Day. That’s good news and it’s bad news: It means John Mulaney’s annual return to SNL has become a small, hopeful sign that winter is coming to an end, but also it means John Mulaney’s annual return to SNL is happening a little earlier every year, due to global warming. This year’s unseasonably warm John Mulaney episode featured seven on-air sketches, two cut-for-time sketches, and one monologue, adding up to 56 minutes and eight seconds of new John Mulaney material (plus nine minutes and thirty-five seconds of David Byrne). It would be churlish and counterproductive to pit those sketches against each other, as though ranking things were a substitute for looking closely at craft, as though individual taste were disputable or even particularly interesting, as though art were nothing more than yet another degrading competition for time, attention, and money. So let’s dive right in! Here are John Mulaney’s sketches from this week’s episode of SNL, ranked from worst to best.
10. Coronavirus Cold Open
The devolution of SNL cold opens from laser-focused comedic premises like “Chevy Chase falls down” to loosely structured cavalcades of celebrity guest appearances continues apace. There’s just no reason a sketch about the Trump administration’s incompetent response to a potential pandemic should feature caricatures of the entire Democratic field, except that the underlying message of SNL’s political coverage lately is “what a zany cast of characters.” Last place.
9. The Admiral
John Mulaney is good in this, and there should be an entire television program in which Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon try to kill each other off Spy vs. Spy-style, but the big attraction is Beck Bennett’s flustered admiral ping-ponging back and forth between strict military discipline and the cartoonish lust of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf.
8. Jackie Robinson
Kenan Thompson is congenitally unable to stop his eyes from twinkling, which means he was born for roles like Terence “the Enlarged Heart” Washington, the “first black man to boo Jackie Robinson at a baseball game.” Thompson’s hilarious performance edges out Beck Bennett’s work in “The Admiral,” but was not quite up to the standards established by Kyle Mooney in “Kyle’s Transformation,” which is why this sketch is ranked one slot higher than “The Admiral” and one slot lower than “Kyle’s Transformation.”
7. Kyle’s Transformation
This sketch exists for one reason and one reason only: To let SNL’s makeup department go apeshit gluing things to Kyle Mooney’s face and torso. They did not waste the opportunity, but viewers should keep in mind that Mooney was able to transform himself because he used NBC’s money to hire a team of experts. You should not expect to achieve similar results by slathering liquid latex all over your face at 24 Hour Fitness.
6. Love Is Blind
This sketch was cut for time, but it’s a much funnier look at coronavirus than the cold open, because it leans farther into the gallows humor and doesn’t inexplicably feature surprise appearances from Mike Bloomberg or Bernie Sanders or Amy Klobuchar. (The downside is that it doesn’t inexplicably feature surprise appearances from Fred Armisen or Larry David or Rachel Dratch.) But the best detail here is the way the sketch repeatedly undercuts the bombastic smarm of reality TV scores, interrupting string crescendos with the wail of biohazard alarms or the quiet sound of a man passing out and faceplanting in his isolation cell.
5. Uncle Meme
“A self-serious man sputters with rage as he explains exactly how and why he has been humiliated, further humiliating himself in the process” is an evergreen premise and John Mulaney is very good at executing it.
4. You Go Show
Another cut-for-time sketch, “You Go Show” is a brilliant showcase for Mulaney at his driest. His voice has a television cadence that instantly evokes professional insincerity: You expect his words to be polished and positive, but you also expect them to be essentially meaningless. So a sketch like this one, in which Mulaney politely says terrible things plays to his strengths. The fact that his character’s name is “Danny Rash” is just a bonus.
3. Sound of Music: Rolf and Liesel
Structurally, this is similar to the “You Go Show”: Mulaney takes a form that is smarmy and familiar enough that we’re used to half-listening to it, then packs it full of arsenic. But this version is slightly funnier, simply because Mulaney’s character in the “You Go Show” sketch is better at keeping a lid on his madness, while his Rolf is running around the gazebo singing verses like, “I am thirty-three, / Next month I’ll be thirty-nine, / Baby, I’m forty-one!”
John Mulaney’s routine about the Founding Fathers is typical, run-of-the-mill John Mulaney standup, which would put it toward the top of this ranking even if there were nothing more to it. But Mulaney was also the first Saturday Night Live host in a long time to use his monologue to suggest that it might be time to assassinate the president. Here’s the joke, which has got to be some kind of landmark:
It is a Leap Year, as I said. Leap Year began in the year 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar. This is true. He started the Leap Year to correct the calendar and we still do it to this day. Another thing that happened under Julius Caesar is that he was such a powerful maniac that all the senators grabbed knives and they stabbed him to death. That’d be an interesting thing if we brought that back now! I asked my lawyer if I could make that joke, and he said, “Let me call another lawyer,” and that lawyer said yes.
That’s funny, but it’s still a profoundly dangerous and irresponsible thing for John Mulaney to say on national television. After all, “all” of the Roman senators didn’t grab knives; only about 60 out of 900 were involved, and raising the false hope of bipartisanship like that after the Obama years is nothing but a recipe for inaction.
1. Airport Sushi
John Mulaney’s first big Saturday Night Live musical was “Diner Lobster,” which featured three songs from Les Misérables with new lyrics about the wisdom of ordering a lobster at a diner. His second-go-round was “Bodega Bathroom,” which began as an investigation into the wisdom of using the bathroom at a bodega, but over the course of five songs—three from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, one from Cats, and one from Rent—expanded into a much wider salute to the mysteries of bodegas. Now there’s “Airport Sushi,” a sweeping portrait of LaGuardia Airport that borrows from The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Annie, Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors, and American Utopia for its seven songs, and features surprise guest appearances from David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal. Bigger and broader and more and more guest stars: It’s the same thing that happened to Saturday Night Live’s cold opens over the years, except that “Airport Sushi” is a masterpiece.
So how is it that the same creative process delivers such disparate results? Part of it is that “Airport Sushi” answers the burning question, “How would Little Orphan Annie pronounce “de Blasio?” Part of it is that Beck Bennett shows up halfway through dressed in a giant baby costume. And part of it is the tantalizing possibility that Jake Gyllenhaal’s deranged performance on John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch was not a one-off but the first page of an exciting new chapter in his career. But mostly, what makes “Airport Sushi” so much funnier, smarter, and objectively better than “Coronavirus Cold Open” is that it made me, personally, laugh more and I liked it the best. That alone is more than enough to propel “Airport Sushi” all the way to the top spot of Slate’s official list of John Mulaney sketches from his third time hosting Saturday Night Live.