When a Saturday Night Live host really commits to the job, even a sketch with a simple premise can feel surprising. Consider last night’s “Mattress Store,” in which Rami Malek, the show’s latest celebrity guest, and cast member Aidy Bryant play a couple searching for the right mattress by enacting every over-the-top scenario they might encounter in bed. Their skits escalate predictably, and Malek matches Bryant’s melodramatic line readings, leaning into the absurdity. When the two act out a lovers’ spat, the Oscar winner catches the audience off guard by miming masturbation under a blanket. When the pair pretend an intruder has entered their bedroom and shot Malek’s character, he flops across the mattress, clutching his heart in a pitch-perfect piece of physical comedy.
As a lauded movie star promoting a film (the latest James Bond entry, No Time to Die), Malek may have appeared a typical choice for an SNL host. But he was largely untested as a comic performer—the last time audiences remember seeing him tell a joke on-screen might have been his turn as a pharaoh in the Night at the Museum films. He’s better known for embodying complicated, eccentric characters—the hacker protagonist of Mr. Robot, for instance, or Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. And unlike Kim Kardashian West, Elon Musk, or some other recent hosts, Malek had little personal brand to uphold or reputation to launder.
That led to a show that was both looser and stronger than anything in SNL’s 47th season thus far. The show’s writers seem to have been inspired by their host’s gameness and greenness. They let him take the reins in outlandish parts that would typically go to a cast member (any other episode with “Mattress Store” would probably have inserted the host in Bowen Yang’s role as the perplexed salesman, for example) and capitalized on his intense screen presence. Other times, they treated him like a talented utility player and a blank slate. The dual approach helped stitch together SNL’s huge cast, and was consistently, unusually funny.
Of course, Malek put in considerable effort. The actor enriched his sketches by conveying every part, however small, with the precision he puts into his dramatic roles. In “Bug Assembly,” his seventh grader felt like a nerdy child chasing validation. In “Celeb School Game Show,” he delivered a hammy impression of cast member Pete Davidson, gesticulating wildly, all while Davidson performed a subdued take on Malek. And in the delightfully strange “Angelo,” Malek wrung weirdness from his near-wordless role as a dancer supporting new cast member Aristotle Athari’s “international singing sensation.” Even with his Bond co-star Daniel Craig appearing in the scene, Malek didn’t fade into the background. At one point he grabbed ribbons, one of which was tangled. Maybe the knot was meant to be there or maybe it was unintentional; Malek held it like an object he didn’t understand but cherished anyway.
As my colleague David Sims noted, SNL is juggling its largest cast ever, shifting away from weekly political commentary, and trying to remain fresh. The series has added three new featured players, recruited a new generation of digital-short-makers, and sought unconventional—as well as first-time—hosts. But amid a stacked lineup of stellar performers vying for screen time, a host picked for star power such as Kardashian West requires everyone else to navigate around them, while even an excellent comic actor like Owen Wilson can get sidelined into playing forgettable background characters.
Perhaps the trick to updating SNL requires a fine balance. Like the previous episodes this season, this week was packed with riffs on familiar concepts: The cold open, about the NFL’s latest scandal, repeated the press conference format; “Prince Auditions” was a new take on the classic Chippendales sketch; and “Celeb School Game Show” copied the work of “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Celebrity Family Feud.” The structure of last night’s show also resembled previous episodes: The host got to play him or herself, and at least one sketch allowed for a parade of performers. But the writers used Malek’s earnestness—and the blank slate of his public persona—to make his characters slightly weirder than expected. His commitment didn’t redefine SNL, but in treating the show as purely an acting exercise, he appeared to liberate the creative team behind the scenes. Together, they made the series’ old tricks feel new.