You could tell right away by the seriousness of Kate McKinnon’s jaw and the tenderness in Cecily Strong’s eyes that Saturday’s cold open wouldn’t be played for laughs. Nobody was going to be called up to try and play a Russian monster. The heroic and embattled president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not be mined for humor tonight on the SNL stage. Instead, the twin moral compasses of the show introduced the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York: 18 somber men and women, dressed in traditional garb, giving mournful voice to “Prayer for Ukraine.”
The shadows and tautness on their faces, the tragic brightness of the three vases of sunflowers, and the candles spelling out “Kyiv” on an old-fashioned wood table brought an elegant wallop of emotion, reminiscent of McKinnon’s performance of “Hallelujah” after the 2016 election. “I’m not giving up,” she said back then. “Neither should you.” Hang in there, President Zelensky. The world watches, hearts in throats.
This week’s episode achieved something of a miracle in balancing tone. The cold open was sincere and galvanizing, a true throat-lumper. Yet the segue into new Five-Timer host John Mulaney’s zingy monologue was an easy relief. He wisely understood that the Chorus Dumka had paid grave and lovely respect, and now the audience needed to laugh. To laugh at him.
“After a very complicated year, it is wonderful to be in a place that’s always emphasized sobriety and mental health,” Mulaney cracked. Few of his tabloid highlights were off-limits, as he politely skewered his intervention, breaking up with his drug dealer during his two months in rehab, and the birth of his son with girlfriend Olivia Munn. All babies should have calzones for legs. A picture heading into commercial break later in the episode revealed that his child also has meatballs for cheeks.
The funniest sketch of the night saw a group of friends gathering inside a restaurant for dinner, with Kenan Thompson forgetting that he still had his mask on at the table. There followed a tentative, terrified conversation in which the pro-vaccine, pro-science group dared give voice to the chaos of supposed best practices. “The science changed!” says one, excusing the CDC’s mixed messaging. (“But how does science change?” whispered another.) Bowen Yang smashed his glass in his hand, Aidy Bryant disappeared under her purse, Heidi Gardner busted out the Avengers gauntlet and shot herself to dust rather than bear witness to a table of her liberal friends wondering if masking had in fact been a meaningful sacrifice.
“At least Biden sent out all those tests over Christmas!” someone said hopefully, to which Yang sniffed: “You mean, the two tests for a family of eight that froze in the mail?” Sigh. One laughs to keep from tearing her hair out at what a goddamn mindfuck this has all been: truly a Lynchian montage of squirming maggots and exploding rats and Brendan Fraser smiling from his Golden Globes table.
Mulaney had the show in the smooth palm of his hand throughout the night. The whole episode bore the mark of his crispness and batshit absurdity. There was, of course, a big production number, where he launched into a parody of Fiddler on the Roof in a New York Mets cardigan. He was the Blackest white guy at a family reunion, trumping Ego Nwodim in the dance line by having cards for Spades on hand. He introduced LCD Soundsystem’s second number still splattered in green paint. And he got his Five-Timer velvet jacket, taken from Paul Rudd—he who had already lost so much when his Five-timer episode was torpedoed when cases surged before Christmas. “Not to be a total bitch,” Rudd said, “but my five-timer show was going to be a lot better. That is, until the whole cast decided to call in sick.”
Also on hand to celebrate Mulaney joining the club were Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, Tina Fey, Elliot Gould, and Conan O’Brien. One wonders if Russia hadn’t declared war on the Ukraine whether this wonderful and splashy sketch had been originally planned for the cold open. And a free bag of Blue Buffalo dog food for whomever wrote the line of Martin calling out “Oh, Megan Mullally!” when Mulaney first entered the room.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism