Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carey Mulligan throws herself into a warmed-over Saturday Night Live

Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“Okay, somehow that went well.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [serious period drama] star!!”

There’s a certain type of British actress that Saturday Night Live struggles to accommodate. Acclaimed, accomplished, award-winning, not especially known for sketch comedy, and, as it turns out, not especially adept at it—if that’s your résumé, prepare to get crammed into some WWII garb and practice your upper lip-stiffening. Even if you are known for being fucking hilarious (like former esteemed Brits Phoebe Waller-Bridge or, way back, battiest Queen Elizabeth I ever, Miranda Richardson), you’re getting into some 1940s wife-wear. Carey Mulligan was actually just fine in her first SNL hosting gig, trying on a few accents, showing up in most of the sketches, and basically being capable, even if, again, the Promising Young Woman star is unlikely to ditch prestige drama for knockabout slapstick any time soon.

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Mulligan was most relaxed and funny as herself, her monologue aptly playing up Americans’ inability to differentiate the former Suffragette, Daisy Buchanan, and Bathsheba Everdine from fellow blonde thespian Michelle Williams, and eventually using amiably goofy husband Marcus Mumford as a comic foil. (Seriously, doesn’t Mumford seem like the guy who thinks busting out an acoustic guitar at the party is super-cool?) That most of the ensuing sketches were built around Mulligan is a good thing, even if her role in those sketches was primarily as straight-person or part of an ensemble in some dusted-off recurring bits. Sometimes a dramatic actor will dazzle with thitherto-untapped comedy chops, but sometimes they’re more to be applauded for throwing their considerable talents into being professional in an unfamiliar setting.

Apart from the monologue, Mulligan was best in the trailer for award-bait Lesbian Period Drama, sending up her own penchant for the sort of intense performances she’s been channeling into her unlucky kids’ bedtime stories (I would watch the one about the pill-popping unicorn), alongside those tremblingly dour repression operas that feature “straight actresses who dare not to wear makeup.” Mulligan and Heidi Gardner make for a spot-on pair of 19th century tentative would-be lovers, whose attenuated and terse courtship in the “grey air and long, rocky walks” reaches of England finally explodes into the sort of explicit, headboard-cracking sex scene that signals, as the knowing narration notes, “Oh yeah, a man directed this.” Points to Kate McKinnon, as the inevitable, out-and-anachronistically proud former flame of Gardner’s demure governess, who, witnessing the long-delayed sex scene, exclaims amusedly, “Gals, it’s 1840. I don’t think that’s been invented yet.” The joke construction of a trailer that plainly states the tired underlying tropes and stereotypes of a particular kind of film is hardly new. (And the review blurb from a lesbian publication sighing, “Sure, I mean, I’m gonna see it,” makes me think back to the Kids In The Hall ketch where a trio of gay guys dutifully plod to see an elliptically “brave” gay drama because what other options do they have.) But the three leads here are excellent, and if Lesbian Period Drama frees Mulligan from having to truss up for her own wan Ammonite, then it will all have been worth it.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: The actual two best sketches show up elsewhere in this review (see above and below), so let’s hop to third place with a poop joke. (I’m not proud, but, then again, I didn’t write it.) It was perhaps funnier that the fake IBS medication taken by Mulligan’s afflicted recital mom in the filmed piece was about one letter off from an actual (not-related) medication actually advertised during tonight’s commercials. Probably just a coincidence, but one imagines somebody’s getting a phone call. As to the piece itself, it was another case of Mulligan being stalwart and professional while other people made with the funny, in this case noted scene-devourers Kenan and Aidy, who, as the school’s horrified janitor and principal, respectively, react with over-the-top (yet finely calibrated) disgust at what the now medication-relieved Mulligan has done to the communal crapper. This is not high comedy, but funny is funny, and Kenan Thompson pronouncing it as “terlet” and exclaiming, “I have kids!” to the unknown bathroom-wrecker in the audience is funny, so sue me. Escalating the seat-shrinking Mulligan’s embarrassment further, Aidy’s administrator puts a stop to the student concert to publicly decry the abomination in her school’s facilities. Mulligan gamely plays along with SNL’s occasional fetish for putting its glamorous female hosts in sketches about butt stuff, but her exiting warning to pill-sharer fellow mom Lauren Holt is delivered with chilling conviction.

The Worst: “Starcharter Andromeda” went where many, many sketches have gone before in mocking those darn Millennials and their over-sensitive woke-speak, and whatnot. Mulligan and Mikey Day are the privileged new recruits in another Star Trek prequel/sequel/spinoff/reboot/whatever, reacting to the bridge crew’s no-nonsense battle stations orders with huffily mis-applied outrage. Alex Moffat was giving it his all as the Spock-esque adjunct to Beck Bennett’s captain and Kate McKinnon’s Number One (and here’s to SNL’s plasma ball budget for the Paramount Plus throwback bridge design), but the whole joke spun on a bit of workplace hackery at the expense of two under-realized, not especially funny types. It never helps when someone in a sketch (Ego Nwodim’s turn this time) is called upon to just straight-up explain the premise for us, in this case that Mulligan and Day’s over-it crew members are, “rich white kids who, for the first time, are experiencing a world that doesn’t revolve around them.”

The Rest: Late McKinnon and Aidy Bryant took one look at former SNL star Nasim Pedrad’s most recent foray into adolescent cross-dressing cringe comedy and thought, hey, we can do that. As the nerdy teen whose jellyfish knowledge has somehow attracted the amorous affections of “Beyoncé of our science class” Mulligan, McKinnon seeks the line between underdog and over-explaining bore in her study buddy’s cluelessness in the face of Mulligan’s attentions, calling in help from best friend and fellow unlikely expert, Aidy (as another boy). Any time Kate and Aidy team up is good for me, and their characters kept tacking away from some of the worst pitfalls of Big Bang Theory-esque geek-speak, but the way that Mulligan’s pretty classmate is so passively manipulatable while McKinnon takes very obvious cellphone advice on how to win her over is ultimately pretty souring.

Weekend Update Update

It must be a relief for Jost and Che when there’s an evil little twerp whose political career is circling the toilet (sorry, “terlet”) so inescapably as is that of alleged sex creep, financial criminal, and empirical bigot Matt Gaetz (R-FL). I mean, with the other guy gone, a left-leaning topical comedy segment needs a prominently suspended punching bag, and the sweatily headed-for-prison Gaetz not only looks like “all the dudes from American Pie combined” (according to Jost), he could only wheel out character witnesses like Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Green, and Jim/Gym Jordan at a recent conservative women’s group appearance. You don’t need to write many actual jokes, which is good, since the jokes Jost and Che did write about current tackling dummy Gaetz were just okay. Still, fuck that guy.

Che did better mocking perennial second-banana Republican asshole Mitch McConnell’s warning for business to stay out of politics following Georgia’s passage of an even more transparently racist than usual for the GOP voter suppression bill. “’Stay out of politics,’ is also Georgia’s new rule for Black people,” noted Che.

Three correspondent pieces tonight, and let’s get the first two out of the way first. Good for Punkie Johnson for getting her biggest show piece yet—Update is traditionally the best place for struggling-for-airtime featured players to stake out some space on the show. And Johnson’s fine here, even if her topical character piece isn’t so much ripped from the headlines as sort of glanced and shrugged at. (Former NBA star turned ESPN commentator Paul Pierce got Disney-canned for filming himself partying with some strippers.) As Pineapple (sorry, Pineapple Penelope Peters), one of said strippers, Johnson did yeoman work in a flat piece that never really justified its existence. Che got the biggest laugh, coughing up Pineapple’s mercenary request for payment to dish dirt, admitting, “Lucky I keep my stripper money here.” There’s no reason Johnson’s big breakthrough couldn’t have been as a stripper, I suppose, but this wasn’t it.

Chris Redd and Beck Bennett both did creditable versions of unlikely pals and podcast-mates Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, respectively. (I mean, Redd’s no Fred Armisen in blackface or anything. But I kid SNL’s groan-worthy recent past when it comes to representation.) The joke here is that neither of the two illustrious neophyte podcasters is especially good at off the cuff banter, and they show that by not being especially entertaining being bad at off the cuff banter. It’s fine, and if Redd, especially, wants to come back as Obama at any time, for any reason, I’m all for it.

But Update was Bowen Yang’s once again. This time, he—in corpse paint and a huge styrofoam head-topper—was the iceberg that sank the Titanic, and there is no reason why this should work as well as it does except that Bowen Yang is really, really good at this. His Update showcases have been largely about various kinds of self-obsessed media types, and his iceberg here really just wants to talk about his new album, you guys. (It’s a “hyper-pop, EDM, new disco fantasia” named Music, and it features the breakout hit, “Loverboy.”) An anthropomorphized ice chunk complaining to Jost, “Okay, no, these are not the questions we discussed,” upon being asked about that whole Titanic thing really only could work with Yang under the ice cap, and if there were a more deliriously dippy way to satirize celebrity would-be comebacks, he’d be the one for that, too. And, to be fair, the iceberg (we never do find out his name) has a point, breaking down, “Okay, you came to where I work and you hit me!” Plus, those 20 or 1,500 people or whatever died from drowning (and not being “iceberg-ded” to death). Makes you think.

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“What do you call that act?” “Cajun Man!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Mulligan was slotted into a pair of so-so repeaters tonight (see opening thesis about what SNL falls back on in a pinch). “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” is all Kenan’s (game) show, and, as ever, he’s just entertaining as hell to watch be exasperated at his contestants’ cluelessness. Kenan’s great at giving someone a side-eye and asking, “You happy with that answer?,” but, especially wheeled out as this was for the first sketch of the show, the bar was clearly being set right in the middle. Redd had a few funnier-then-usual, left-field wrong guesses (“She wants to pick up the hitchhiker but her car is a bed” made me smile), but a recurring game show bit to kick things off isn’t the best omen.

Better, although still unnecessary and perfunctory, was Mulligan’s turn at the letter-writing desk for “The War In Words.” Mikey Day (who needs to learn some underplayed reactions from Kenan) writes letters from the front to his wife back in England, an innocent exercise derailed by said wife’s alternately uncomprehending and alarmingly revealing missives back. Again, it’s what you do with a British actress in the house, I guess, and if there were more juice in the sketch, it’d take someone more into the bit than Mulligan seemed capable of being to wring it, while Day toiled away in his rut of being the go-to guy for exaggerated, premise-deflating reactions. There were the usual amusing details to Mulligan’s end of the correspondence (Day’s bashful request for “something naughty” nets him Mulligan’s answering gift of a honking huge vial of cocaine), but a recurring bit needs either a more inventive upping of the comic ante or a performer who can bring some new energy to it.

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“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

The cold opens this season have at least had to stretch in Trump’s absence, and the Minnesota news report tonight opened the show with a bracing bit of comedy about the ongoing murder trial of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin for his caught-on-camera killing of George Floyd. (Here we pause so that police violence apologists can rant themselves out.) Saturday Night Live is, as shocking as it may be some weeks, far, far better equipped to handle comedy about race than it’s ever been. You know, since there are finally non-white writers and performers in more than an exception-proves-the-rule capacity. And while the entrenched discourse about racism in policing as spotlighted by this latest(?) videoed act of blatant street execution of a Black person by a white cop is a tough field to walk comedically, Ego Nwodim, Kenan, Kate, and Alex Moffat all find refreshingly nuanced tones as their four-person news team discovers that, when it comes to agreeing on the horrific nature of Chauvin’s actions, there’s agreement, and there’s agreement.

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Proclamation isn’t comedy, no matter how loudly you yell it. There are plenty of things to scream about when it comes to this trial and the wider systemic horrors underlying it, but this sketch works as well as it does because of how it examines the gradations of debate, even when everyone seems to be on the same side. Nwodim and Thompson’s anchors agree with their white colleagues that this shit is egregious, blatant, and clearly murder of an unarmed Black man by a cop who kneeled on his neck until that man was dead. But they’re not willing to nod along with their colleagues’ somber assurance that things are going to work out in the interest of justice, Ego and Kenan’s, “Wellll...” edging their morning news chit-chat into uncomfortable territory. It’s Nwodim’s response to her well-intentioned co-hosts’ appeals to the truth that really hits hardest, as she takes a breath and says, not unkindly, “Look, y’all seem like good people.” And they do. But McKinnon and Moffat’s natural inclination to attribute fairness and inevitable comeuppance (while slipping in some advice about the proper way to protest) finally grates even on their patient colleagues, with Nwodim snapping, “I really wanna hear what Craig Jorgensen has to say about the Black experience.” (It’s the soft “J” that really sells the joke, and her later expansion to “Craig Matthew Jorgensen” is even better.)

It’s easy to be cynical. Hell, it’s likely the only sane way to approach a trial where a white cop is up for repercussions for killing a Black man after, well, everything, ever. It’s hard to write comedy in the face of well-earned cynicism. This sketch, as narrowly focused on the disconnect between Black America and its supposed white allies as it is, finds one way to unpack all that baggage. Sometimes just mocking the hell out of someone for their blinkered bigotry is a big, cathartic laugh. But sometimes that effect is achieved in subtler ways. Neither solves anything, perhaps, in the grand scheme, but both achieve something akin to comedy’s potential to cut through the rhetorical flourishes used to obscure what’s really going on. Beats the hell out of Alec Baldwin’s Trump singing Queen, anyway.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Our own Baraka Kaseko is high on the long-awaited return of musical guest, actor, (and former Comedy Bang! Bang! sideman and sketch standout), Kid Cudi, and it’s pretty evident why. Intensely personal, intimate, and passionate, Cudi’s two songs tonight were the sort of performances that make up for a lot of SNL’s long tradition of fluffy music bookings. You pay attention when Cudi’s onstage. He also looks really good in a kicky floral party dress, favoring the audience with a demure curtsy during the goodnights, for good measure. That the self-proclaimedly troubled Cudi wore both the dress (in apparent homage to Kurt Cobain during “Sad People”) and a Chris Farley T-Shirt (for “Tequila Shots”) only made his appearances that much more immediate, and sort of haunting.

His sketch cred also came into play as he took center stage alongside Chris Redd and Pete Davidson in a music video extolling the singular virtues of that “weird little flute” riff that’s livened up rap songs from “Sure Shot,” to “Big Pimpin’,” to “Mask Off”. The yardstick for goofy rap parodies on SNL is always going to be The Lonely Island’s still-sublime Digital Shorts, and, while this one never quite rose above slight and silly, it did take some appropriately weird little detours to keep things lively. (Mulligan’s beleaguered music store clerk shows the guys security footage of exactly how un-chill they’ve been while browsing the store’s flute and piccolo selection.)

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

I’m tempted to go back-to-back with Ego for the first time ever, but Kenan was just so present all night, as ever enlivening everything he was in.

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With Punkie getting a shot on Update, Lauren and Andrew took the new kids’ backseat, for the most part. (Bowen Yang’s already a full cast member, no matter what the opening credits say.) But—and I in no way intend this repeated refrain to be a criticism of a performer I quite like—where the hell was Melissa?

“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland

Now this is a classic ten-to-one sketch. In that it was clearly spawned from some writer’s weird pet idea, worked a little bit, and played to mostly silence. I dug it, as Aidy and Mulligan busted in on a lunchroom rap session (the kids are a high school rap squad, with matching T-shirts and everything) to try to sell the youth of today on the economical, leg-enveloping glories of those panty hose that came marketed in “big eggs that are not bio-degradable.” Again, it didn’t quite work, as Mulligan couldn’t match Aidy’s customary pitch-person’s zeal, and a would-be funny extended shot of the stealth marketers’ L’eggs-encased, middle-aged gams strutting on the cafeteria linoleum only showed off the blocking marks on the stage. There were a few details around the edges that should have landed better than they did, somehow (Aidy touts her chosen hose shade, “chicken tender nude”). But there’s a halting lack of commitment to the weirdness, sadly, with the duo’s hatred of the hose-less “whore trends of the 2000s” not quite manic enough. Still, it’s a live ten-to-one sketch that about 20 percent of the still-awake audience will be into, and that’s what I love about it.

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Stray observations

  • Former musical guest DMX’s death this week gets a single title card, which makes sense, I suppose. (He did only guest once, back in 2000, from what I can tell.) But Anne Beatts deserved a bigger tribute, a posthumous kick in the pants about which the infamously and defiantly outspoken Beatts would no doubt have had something funny to say.
  • Nwodim and Thompson’s anchors attempt to use their colleagues’ white guilt to slip in a co-sign on reparations. “I thought I had em,” notes Ego.
  • To Mulligan’s surprise at him being in the audience, Mumford assures his wife that their kids are in the care of the Sons. (Here’s hoping not all of them.)
  • McKinnon’s study pal, Josh, incorrectly surmises that his post-project, pre-pickup fate is to “stand by the door” or “clean something.
  • According to Lesbian Period Drama’s trailer, one review site (not the A.V. Club) was all-in on the film, its reviewer enthusing, “I saw their nude backs which made me think of the fronts which is where the boobs are.” Can’t argue there. 
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