A Vulnerable SNL for a Vulnerable Time

The show has struggled to tackle the grimness of recent events. Last night, John Mulaney proved to be an ideal host.

John Mulaney delivers his monologue on 'SNL.'
Will Heath / NBCU / Getty

John Mulaney’s Saturday Night Live episodes have become something akin to tradition since he first hosted in 2018. The former SNL writer’s grandiose musical numbers and irreverent adoration of pop culture make him a guaranteed bright spot whenever he appears. But between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Mulaney’s recent stints in rehab for drug addiction (which he has discussed publicly), that assurance felt fragile in the lead-up to last night’s episode. SNL’s struggles with how to approach—let alone laugh about—the darkness of recent times sowed doubt about how it would engage with two difficult subjects, if at all.

Rather than try to tease a punch line from the tragedy of war, the episode opened by making space for something more poignant. SNL invited the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York to open with an emotional performance of the song “Prayer for Ukraine.” When Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong stepped in to solemnly utter those famous words “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night,” the camera zoomed in on a table set with candles spelling out Kyiv. The intro recalled McKinnon’s moving cold open—also sung somberly—shortly after Donald Trump’s surprise election in 2016.

Mulaney then delivered a candid opening monologue about his recent personal upheaval: rehab, divorce, and the birth of his son. “In December of 2020, I went to dinner at a friend’s apartment,” he told the audience last night. “But it was not dinner. It was an intervention. For me. My least favorite kind of intervention.” As a comedian, Mulaney is typically personal in a way that doesn’t sacrifice his privacy. In his stand-up specials, he’s discussed his addiction, his now-former marriage, and his childhood, forgoing emotion in order to be clever. But this monologue had a new air of openness. Discussing a product recall that had affected his infant son’s favorite type of pacifier, he noted the need in his little boy’s eyes. “Ah, I want to use those but I can’t, because they could kill me,” he quipped as his son, before replying as himself. “Welcome to my world, homie.” It was novel territory for the comedian. It was also a refreshing approach for SNL: a tonal shift that acknowledged the vulnerability required to address the current moment.

Still, SNL made room for Mulaney to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the episode’s standout was his musical medley, which added to “Diner Lobster,” “Bodega Bathroom,” “Airport Sushi,” and “New York Musical.” Set this time in a New York subway station, “Subway Churro” starts with Andrew Dismukes buying a late-night snack, triggering a phantasmagoria of the ne’er-do-wells that haunt the platforms. McKinnon played “a puddle of unidentifiable origin” constantly threatening subway riders. Delightfully twirling in a shiny blob of a costume, she sang to the tune of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables: “I am the liquid on the floor / Am I pee or Mountain Dew? / Don’t worry, I’m flowing towards the door / Just kidding, I’m gonna touch your shoe.”

The cast mustered the energy to deliver “Subway Churro,” but elsewhere strained to reach the silliness necessary to sell the more absurd sketches. In “Monkey Trial,” Mulaney played a courtroom judge who’s also a primate. But the jokes largely revolved around lengthy verbal bits about specific monkey observations, rather than the mannerisms that might have helped the premise. Meanwhile, SNL kept “Weekend Update” noticeably short—with merely a few surface-level swipes at the conflict in Ukraine—and didn’t invite out any colorful characters.

In another timeline, this episode would have been a celebration of Mulaney joining the Five-Timers Club, an elite group of performers who have hosted the show five times. A glut of alumni appeared to toast and tease Mulaney, including Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, Paul Rudd, Tina Fey, and Elliott Gould. (When Mulaney walked onstage, Martin exclaimed, “Oh, Megan Mullally!”) A sketch is never easy to pull off with so many people, but Conan O’Brien—who isn’t a five-timer—livened it up with a passionate speech about former writers claiming the spotlight. “John and I were never supposed to be on TV,” he exclaimed. “We’re hideous.” The sketch was sweet, though slightly stilted—the A-listers seemed hesitant to fully celebrate anything.

Humor, understandably, feels hard to come by these days. But the concurrence of Mulaney attempting to find his comedic footing after a personally disorienting time and SNL trying to put on a show amid a globally disorienting week actually felt resonant. Mulaney had to reckon with the unfamiliar. He lacked the panache and confidence of his earlier self, yet his earnestness shone through. He was really trying. Perhaps that’s all any of us can hope for right now.