“Who am I?” It’s a line famously sung by Jean Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. It’s also, now, a probing question of self, asked by a crustacean preparing to be boiled alive in one of Saturday Night Live’s best recent sketches. On last weekend’s episode, which was hosted by the comedian John Mulaney, “Diner Lobster” stood out for its goofy surrealism, its high production values, and the fact that it featured a cast member breaking character halfway through (Pete Davidson openly laughing as the camera cut back to him). It also felt like a reminder of the show’s last great, and unfortunately bygone, era of comedy.
Mulaney was an intriguing SNL host choice for multiple reasons. It’s rare that the show invites a stand-up comedian who isn’t currently involved with a TV show or movie (as was the case for recent picks like Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, and Kumail Nanjiani). But Mulaney does have an upcoming Netflix special to plug, and more importantly, he was a celebrated member of SNL’s writing staff for five years, creating characters like Stefon and Herb Welch during his tenure from 2008 to 2012. He’s long been a master of the drawn-out, high-concept punchline—one of my favorites of his sketches is the beautifully bizarre “Rocket Dog”—and “Diner Lobster” was a perfect example of that.
For his return to the show, Mulaney successfully resurrected some of his formerly rejected pitches. He originally wrote “Diner Lobster” with Colin Jost in 2010 but never got it to air, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a complicated sketch with three different music numbers, and a lot of elaborate costumes and blocking, all in service of a fairly specific observation: that it’s hard to imagine ever ordering a lobster meal off a diner menu. Marrying that to a Les Misérables parody might sound absurd, but the ridiculous combination is half the fun.
Mulaney always had a special talent for escalation, a critical part of any good SNL sketch (especially one like this that needs to run for several minutes simply to justify its production values). Each Herb Welch sketch would see the character, a comically aged newsman, die onscreen and then come back to life; each Stefon appearance, of course, was an exercise in growing hyperbole designed to make the performer, Bill Hader, crack up on camera. The Les Mis diner medley was exactly that, featuring reveals of Kenan Thompson as a bearded lobster, Kate McKinnon as his crying daughter, and a massive barricade for the waiters to climb (“This diner has incredible set design!” Davidson noted).
It was a hilarious mix of a specific New York City observation (the endless length of diner menus) and theater marginalia, a quality the sketch shared with another of Mulaney’s recent hits, the stage show Oh, Hello (performed in collaboration with the comedian Nick Kroll). Most of last weekend’s Saturday Night Live had the same niche feeling; the episode was filled with densely plotted sketches aimed more squarely at comedy nerds.
“Switcheroo,” another of the night’s successes, was written by Mulaney in 2009 (along with his frequent collaborators Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer) and felt like a close cousin of “Rocket Dog.” It takes a particular level of craft to build out such a complicated world (in which a horrifyingly problematic old sitcom is being rebooted despite decades of legal strife), but that’s what made “Switcheroo” so funny. It mostly consists of Mulaney, also playing the lead role in the sketch, explaining the high-concept intricacies of “Switcheroo,” but every bit of exposition doubles as a laugh-line. It’s a great kind of SNL sketch—the platonic ideal of which, to my mind, is the Phil Hartman–starring “Robot Repair” from 1989.
There’s a sad irony, though, to the fact that two of last weekend’s best sketches were written almost a decade ago. I’ve long been of the opinion that Mulaney was the ideal choice to become head writer and take over “Weekend Update” after Seth Meyers departed the show in 2014, having the kind of established SNL voice that many performers struggle to achieve during their years on the show. But by the time Meyers left, Mulaney had already moved on to try his hand at sitcom performing in the quickly canceled Fox show Mulaney. Instead, Jost was eventually moved to the “Weekend Update” desk.
Last weekend’s episode was like a hint of how things might have gone differently. Though the show’s current cast is a reliable bunch (which includes the out-and-out star Kate McKinnon), it has never achieved the kind of heights of the previous generation, which featured Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, and others. Still, the newer cast tackled Mulaney’s material with aplomb, leading to one of the strongest episodes of the season.
The better sketches of the night (like the one set in a schoolroom) favored the ensemble, giving every actor involved a chance to shine. The worst sketch of the evening, the cold open, was a creaky riff on the film Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller playing Trump attorney Michael Cohen and Robert De Niro playing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It was emblematic of how SNL has gone wrong in recent seasons, favoring splashy special guest stars over developing its cast; the rest of the night was a window into the opposite approach and how much better it works. If Mulaney can’t return to save SNL every week, the show can at least try to channel its better, bolder days.