John Mulaney and Pete Davidson on Saturday Night LiveNBC

Pete Davidson has been largely absent from Saturday Night Live for the past couple of months. The 25-year-old comedian has had a tabloid spotlight trained on him since June 2018, when his engagement to the pop star Ariana Grande became the story of the summer. Davidson, whose comedic approach is raw and personal, would often stop by SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment to joke about the volatility of his relationship, which eventually collapsed. In November, he apologized to then-incoming Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw for mocking the veteran’s combat injury on the air. Less than a month later, Davidson posted on Instagram about feeling suicidal, alarming people enough that a police officer was sent to the SNL studios to check on him.

This is all to say that when Davidson showed up behind the “Weekend Update” desk in the most recent Saturday Night Live episode, the first of 2019, the jokes felt even more charged than usual. “I’ve had a really crazy month, and I want to talk about something that matters a lot to me,” he said. “Oh, okay. Mental health?” the “Update” host Colin Jost asked. “No,” Davidson replied, “the new Clint Eastwood movie The Mule!” As Jost and his co-host, Michael Che, confessed that they had not yet seen Eastwood’s latest auteur effort, Davidson tagged in a friend and “Mule appreciator,” the comedian John Mulaney, kicking off the only truly outstanding segment of the night.

Mulaney was a staff writer on SNL from 2008 to 2013, co-created one of the show’s most legendary “Weekend Update” characters (Bill Hader’s Stefon), and has since returned to host. But of late, Mulaney has forged a curious public bond with Davidson, something the guest acknowledged in his introduction. “I didn’t actually realize that you guys hung out together,” Jost remarked. “We do, but a lot of times it looks like I’m Pete’s lawyer,” Mulaney joked. “For real, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Pete to try to show him that you can have a life in comedy that is not insane, a sober, domestic life,” he continued. (Mulaney himself has been sober for many years, a subject he has incorporated into his stand-up.)

“Yeah, and after observing John’s life, I publicly threatened suicide. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t make that joke, but it is funny,” Davidson said with a chuckle, toeing his usual line between confessional comedy and cringe-inducing shock humor. “Pete, look me in the eye,” Mulaney said. “You are loved by many, and we are glad you are okay. Now, back to The Mule.” It was a jolting, sweet, and undeniably sensitive moment—a way for the show to acknowledge Davidson’s struggles without dipping into pure, po-faced sincerity (something Davidson would likely despise). The duo’s connection is also clearly genuine—Mulaney recently talked about his trip to a Steely Dan concert with Davidson on The Tonight Show and has posted several Instagrams while on the road with the comic.

Their shared delight at the plot details of The Mule, which stars Eastwood as a late-in-life drug runner, was equally genuine. “You remember when Clint Eastwood berated an empty chair at the Republican National Convention?” Mulaney asked. “It’s like if that was a movie!” Davidson replied. The pair marveled at Eastwood’s character still being allowed to drive at the age of 90: “This was a superhero movie for old people about a guy whose superpower is that he can drive unsupervised,” Mulaney quipped. “Fulfilling another elderly grandpa fantasy: that a 90-year-old white man can do any job better than a Mexican, even when the job is Mexican drug trafficking.”

Beyond the jabs at Eastwood’s movie, though, what elevated the segment was Davidson and Mulaney’s vibrant odd-couple chemistry. Mulaney has the clipped, precise delivery of a veteran, Johnny Carson–esque comic (his talent as a stand-up includes knowing exactly which syllables to hit hardest in every joke), while the hyperactive Davidson seems like he could misread a cue card at any moment or break into unplanned guffaws. Their pairing felt more alive than the show’s ongoing “Update” team, Jost and Che. The segment has long been in need of revamping, and unfortunately, Mulaney, who has for years been an obvious pick for the hosting job, is likely too busy with his own career to return to SNL full-time.

New year or not, this SNL season remains in flux, quality-wise. The political material is still quite wanting—this week’s cold-open sketch, starring Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump, cast the ongoing U.S. government shutdown as a Deal or No Deal game show, a premise that would’ve felt stale even in 2006, when Deal or No Deal was popular (new episodes now air on the cable channel CNBC). Some of the episode’s other, sillier sketches were worth a laugh, such as a parody news report from an office where people were trying to change their (ridiculous, sometimes obscene) name, but it was an overall lackluster return to the airwaves for the show, with the host, Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), feeling lost in the shuffle. SNL’s season cannot be saved with a Mule appreciation alone, but the authenticity of Mulaney and Davidson’s glee, and their unmistakable bond, certainly gave the episode a much-needed boost.

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