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Some of the brightest stars to come out of Saturday Night Live never got any screen time. Comedians like Conan O’Brien, Bob Odenkirk, Larry David, Hannibal Buress, and Stephen Colbert all famously worked on the show’s writing staff but were never invited to join the cast and step on stage. Occasionally a writer will get promoted to cast member — like Tina Fey, Jason Sudeikis, and Leslie Jones — but many of them reach their highest heights long after they’ve left the show.
John Mulaney is one such writer. The comedian made a name for himself working on the writing staff for five years, until he left in 2012 to star in his ill-fated Fox sitcom Mulaney. During his tenure on SNL, Mulaney popped up as himself for the occasional Weekend Update bit, but he was best known as one of the show’s sharpest, most off-kilter writers, helping to create memorable characters like Stefon and Herb Welch. Since leaving, Mulaney’s star has only risen, and although his sitcom was a slight hiccup, he’s earned a hardcore comedy nerd fanbase for Oh, Hello on Broadway with Nick Kroll, Big Mouth on Netflix, and, of course, his standup specials.
And now, with another standup special hitting Netflix soon, he returned to Studio 8H, this time as a star. But not a big enough star that he wasn’t introduced twice as “John Mulvaney,” which is exactly the kind of mistake the comedian would self-deprecatingly joke about in his standup. But if the general reaction to his hosting announcement was a mix of shocked delight and “uh, who?” Mulaney proved himself as a more than capable host, and the result was one of the strongest SNL episodes of the entire season. He’ll always be more of a storyteller than a true actor or performer, but after five years in the trenches of the show, he has a firsthand knowledge of what does and doesn’t work.
Best intro to John Mulaney: Monologue
It’s always a delight when the host brings out a handheld microphone during the monologue, and Mulaney’s opening essentially let him do what he does best. The seven-minute monologue serves as a perfect introduction to Mulaney’s particular brand of standup: self-deprecating, charmingly grumpy, and packed with pop culture references and weird, obsessive observations over things that literally no one else would notice (like the inherent absurdity of building a gazebo during the Civil War).
But the best bit comes at the end, as Mulaney riffs on the ridiculousness of having to prove you’re not a robot online. “You spend a lot of your day telling a robot that you’re not a robot,” he says. “Think about that for two minutes and tell me you don’t want to walk into the ocean.”
Biggest cameos: Meet the Parents Cold Open
The most headline-grabbing bit of the night came at the top of the show, and after a quick intro from Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions and Beck Bennett’s Vice President Mike Pence, Ben Stiller showed up as embattled Trump lawyer Michael Cohen — “attorney at law, and sometimes not at law.” (Stiller himself is one of the most famous examples of an SNL alum who found his biggest success after leaving the show.)
“You know how much evidence I’ve got in my office?” Stiller-as-Cohen asks. “I’m Donald Trump’s lawyer. I’ve got a whole hard drive that’s just labeled ‘yikes.’”
Then, Robert De Niro walked on as special counsel Robert Mueller to interrogate Cohen in a Meet the Parents reunion. “You broke the law,” De Niro tells Stiller. “And now we’re gonna catch all of you little Fockers.”
Best sketch: “Lobster Diner”
Lobster diner, guys. Lobster diner.
The premise starts simple enough: Pete Davidson and Chris Redd are two patrons at Big Nick’s Greek Diner, and Mulaney is their apathetic waiter. That is, until Davidson transgresses an unwritten law and commits the unforgivable sin of — gasp — ordering lobster at a diner. And so ensues an absolutely bonkers parody of Les Miserables, with Kenan Thompson as a bearded lobster in a tank, who breaks out into a lobsterfied version of Jean Valjean’s “Who Am I?”
As Davidson and Redd try not to crack up, the entire diner breaks into an elaborate, Les Miserables-inspired musical number, complete with lobster trap barricades and lyrics like, “Do you hear the lobster scream? Screaming the scream of scalding flames?” Everything about it is perfect. The production design, the costumes, Davidson’s enthusiastic seat-dancing — perfect. Mulaney later explained on Twitter that it’s a sketch he first wrote with Colin Jost back in 2010, and … ugh. Lobster diner forever.
Most soul-cutting insults: “Drag Brunch”
Mulaney’s best performance of the night came in this early sketch about a drag queen waitress named Tawny Pockets, who delivers quippy one-liners and insults with a side of sass. But Tawny gets a little too real with one of the patrons, played by Alex Moffat, telling him, “You’ve never worked for anything in your life. You’ve had everything handed to you. But the one thing you haven’t been able to purchase is a personality and a soul.”
Man, Mulaney really does some of his best work in diners, doesn’t he?
Best return of a former cast member: Wild Wild Country
Netflix’s latest bingeable hit is the documentary series Wild Wild Country, about a controversial commune in the 1980s. The show got the SNL spoof treatment with this pretaped trailer — including a fantastic cameo by the eternally underrated Nasim Pedrad (who also co-starred on Mulaney’s sitcom).
Best pretaped short: The Real Intros of Reality Hills
This sketch cut out all the catty insults and wine-throwing and focused on the most entertaining part of Bravo’s reality TV lineup: the ridiculous intros. From the real-estate mogul who can’t read to the 20-something married to a 100-year-old man, it’s a pitch-perfect parody of all the best Bravo catchphrases and one-liners.
Weekend Update highlights
SNL sure had plenty of political material to work with this weekend. As Michael Che put it: “Well, Donald Trump has had a really, really tough week. But you know what? I think I’m still going to make fun of him.” Che and Jost proceeded to dress down all the latest Trump administration scandals, from Michael Cohen and Syria to the revelations in James Comey’s book.
Kenan Thompson once again stopped by the Weekend Update desk as the outspoken LaVar Ball, while Kate McKinnon swung by as controversial Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who’s been bleeding advertisers since criticizing a Parkland school shooting survivor in a tweet.
“You see, the totalitarian left can attack me all they want,” McKinnon’s Ingraham explained. “But I will continue to defend the First Amendment — that’s my right to bully people without being bullied in return.”
Musical moment: Jack White
Jack White and his guitar showed up to perform two tracks off his latest solo album, Boarding House Reach: “Connected by Love” and “Over and Over and Over.”
As a bonus, White also popped up as a guitar-wielding wedding crasher in a sketch that was cut for time but shared online after the show, starring Luke Null as a best man who gives an inappropriate and increasingly ridiculous wedding toast.
Cast MVP: Kenan Thompson
The 15-season veteran (!) brought his usual brand of reliability to LaVar Ball’s Weekend Update appearance and the Wild Wild Country parody, but let’s be real: He deserves this week’s top spot based solely on his tearjerking performance as the ill-fated lobster.
The multitalented Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) will make his SNL debut as both host and musical guest May 5. Until then, remember, kids: Don’t order seafood at a diner.