This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
“His own thing!”
“And the skeletons are … ?”
“PART OF IT!” the skeletons shouted triumphantly.
Who is David S. Pumpkins? Why does he have a middle initial? Why is he featured in 73 of the Haunted Elevator’s 100 floors? What do the dancing skeletons have to do with any of this? The sketch was written by SNL’s writer Streeter Seidell and performers Mikey Day and Bobby Moynihan (who played the skeletons), and it’d have been goofily funny without the self-analysis. But once Bennett and McKinnon started asking questions, it felt like one of the standout SNL sketches of the year. “Is he from a local commercial?” McKinnon asked trying to make sense the strange character. “I am so in the weeds with David Pumpkins!” Bennett cried.
The sketch has since become an internet sensation. It was overall a very strong night for SNL: The episode featured another star turn from Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, a brilliant “Black Jeopardy” that inverted the sketch’s typical premise, and a mocking commercial for the premium cable “sadcoms” that have taken over the Emmys comedy category. But David Pumpkins was so simple, and so memorably self-aware, that his costume has already sold out on Amazon. It’s the rare sketch that I immediately rewound on my DVR to watch again, the kind where viewers are instantly struck by as many questions as Bennett and McKinnon were. Just where did this demented nonsense spring from?
The show’s topical sketches are its lifeblood, of course, along with the reliable zingers of Weekend Update and its celebrity impressions, but there’s nothing like an out-of-nowhere classic to pore over again and again. The best kind of Saturday Night Live sketch is often one that starts analyzing itself. I’ve shown everyone I know my favorite SNL sketch of all time—“Robot Repair,” starring Phil Hartman—because it has the same perfect mix of originality and reflexiveness, and begins to deconstruct its own premise about halfway through.
“Haunted Elevator” also reminded me of “FBI Simulator,” a sketch from last season that saw Larry David playing an orange-suited weirdo who keeps popping in front of cadets during their firearm training. David’s character, Kevin Roberts, had a weird catchphrase (“can a bitch get a donut?”) and an incongruity with the rest of the sketch. “I’m pretty sure that kind of man does not exist in society,” Kenan Thompson complained of Roberts in the sketch. “I mean, he looks like he came out of a 1980s computer game.” But that sketch worked partly because everyone in it seemed on the verge of breaking character (all the actors involved visibly swallowed a laugh at one point or another). A video posted after the fact that showed David bursting out in peals of laughter during rehearsal is just as funny as the sketch itself.
“Haunted Elevator,” meanwhile, only worked because everyone was 100 percent committed to the silliness. Hanks, already in the pantheon of SNL’s greatest hosts (this was his ninth go-round in the job), somehow fully embodied the character of David S. Pumpkins—whoever that is. His dance moves were perfectly in sync with the inane synth music. There was a gleeful tone to his voice every time he asked “Any questions?” The only time I’ve seen Hanks more locked into a bit is when he got caught in a dry-cleaning bag on an edition of Celebrity Jeopardy.
As happens with many hit SNL sketches, viewers will probably be sick of David Pumpkins in a week. Perhaps Halloween parties will be filled with amateur attempts at the costume (though if you don’t have two skeleton partners, why bother?). But happily, the sketch appeared to be a one-off, and unless Hanks is joining the show’s cast anytime soon they won’t have a chance to run it into the ground. Either way, now is the time to cherish David S. Pumpkins. Any questions?