Will Heath / NBC

Nearly two years ago, Saturday Night Live aired “Diner Lobster,” a musical fantasia starring the host John Mulaney about the absurdity of ordering lobster at a New York City diner. Kenan Thompson dressed as a crustacean Jean Valjean and sang a song inspired by Les Misérables’ “Who Am I?” It was the sketch of the night, a wonderful reminder of the inventiveness the show had when Mulaney was on its writing staff, from 2008 to 2012. When the comedian returned to host a 2019 episode, there was a sequel, “Bodega Bathroom,” and on last night’s episode, the trilogy of musical medleys about unsanitary New York dining was completed with “Airport Sushi.”

No matter what your opinion of SNL’s recent quality, the episodes hosted by Mulaney have become a sort of annual tradition to look forward to, one that the producer Lorne Michaels should keep alive. As Mulaney himself said during his opening monologue, he didn’t have any projects to publicize—“I have nothing coming up; I’m here to promote the month of March,” he deadpanned. But as Mike Shoemaker, a longtime SNL producer who now works on Late Night With Seth Meyers, put it on Twitter, Mulaney hosting is like Steve Martin hosting in the ’70s—“you knew the whole show was going to be better.” And it was, with one particularly standout sketch.

“Airport Sushi” followed the same format as the prior musical numbers, with Chris Redd and Pete Davidson playing befuddled customers at an equally beloved and reviled New York institution—this time, LaGuardia Airport. When Davidson’s character opts to buy some packaged sushi, he inadvertently summons the “Phantom of LaGuardia,” a tortured-looking goose played by Thompson. “In dreams it’s haunting you, that fish you ate / The expiration date ends in 18,” he crowed, eventually revealing himself to be one of the birds “that took down Sully’s plane.”

Befitting the third entry in a trilogy, “Airport Sushi” was even more extravagant than Mulaney’s other two musical parodies. “Diner Lobster” was originally written by Mulaney with the now–SNL head writer Colin Jost in 2010, and the former insisted on reviving it for his first appearance as a host. Watching the mythos around these sketches build year after year has been delightful, and their zaniness seemed to feed into Mulaney’s recent Netflix special, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, a kid-focused spectacular with plenty of musical numbers.

Some of the special guests from that show dropped by for “Airport Sushi.” There was Jake Gyllenhaal, suspended on wires and dressed in pajamas, singing an ode to getting attention from the TSA (to the tune of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”). There was David Byrne as a baggage handler parodying his own Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” with a group ditty called “Plane to Nowhere.” Byrne also performed as the night’s musical guest, showing off two incredible numbers from his American Utopia show.

It was the best Saturday Night Live has been this season, and further evidence that Mulaney’s presence inspires some of the oddest and most ambitious sketch writing from the current staff. His appearances always have more of a niche comedy-nerd appeal, but Mulaney’s strength is that his persona isn’t cynical or cliquish—his observations just have an intense specificity to them, making their insights feel either deeply trenchant or completely irrelevant. That same magic makes The Sack Lunch Bunch such a charming watch (that special includes an ode to “a plain plate of noodles with a little bit of butter” and a song that asks whether flowers exist at night).

Will Mulaney call it quits upon the completion of his trilogy, or try to keep his musical hot streak going? With any luck, he’ll at least keep returning to the show. I still hold out hope that he’ll return full-time at some point, perhaps to take up head-writing or Weekend Update–hosting duties whenever Jost has had enough of the gig. But Mulaney seems to be having too much fun as a comic jack-of-all-trades who can make children’s specials, do surprising voice work in major blockbusters, and continue his thriving stand-up career, rather than being shackled to one show. As he noted in his monologue, this was SNL’s first episode on a Leap Day; apparently there has never been a show that fell on February 29 during the program’s 45-year history. So think of last night’s episode, and “Airport Sushi,” as an unexpected gift of sorts, a freebie for 2020’s extra day and a sign that the longest-running show on TV can still do something new.

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