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.