Kieran Culkin makes a solid, three-decades-later Saturday Night Live return

At least the Succession star didn't have to compete with his big brother for attention this time

Kieran Culkin makes a solid, three-decades-later Saturday Night Live return
Kieran Culkin Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“What an unexpected and frankly horny surprise.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [mercifully well-adjusted and successful former child] star!!”

In his monologue, Kieran Culkin noted the mixed messaging he gets when people tell him he’s perfectly cast as Succession’s fecklessly snarky Roman Roy. That’s the curse of a character actor, which Culkin has most assuredly become since his days spent in his big brother Macauley’s Home Alone-sized shadow. And while the now middle-aged former child star has forged an impressive resumé since his Father Of The Bride and Nowhere To Run days, being a go-to choice for directors in search of a wanly sarcastic ensemble member isn’t a bad niche to live in.

Culkin wasn’t shy about his past association with Saturday Night Live, playing a clip of the nine-year-old him looking poutily at host brother Macauley’s triumphant ride on the 1991 cast’s shoulders during the goodnights. (The young Kiran eventually, channeling all little brothers everywhere, finally got Kevin Nealon to hoist him up, too, so he could try to steal Macauley’s thunder with some hammy posing.) Referring to his semi-retired brother throughout as “Mac,” Culkin carried over his monologue reminiscences into his own goodnights, with Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson sneaking up for a thirty-years-later cast member ride around the Studio 8H stage which, even if choreographed ahead of time, capped off Culkin’s winning appearance with a warm little touch suited to someone clearly so happy to be there.

And I was happy to see him, honestly. Nothing the writers came up with for him to do was especially inspired, but Culkin was game to appear in a skintight turkey costume and rap at one point, while his acting chops grounded the mostly straight-man roles he was given otherwise. I suppose the one big swing he was given didn’t really work, but the off-key execution of a weird premise (Seabiscuit period piece veers unexpectedly into 90s skaterboy ska-rock video) can’t be laid at Culkin’s Vans. Culkin channeled the era’s extreme Mountain Dew bro vibe pretty impeccably, and, while the tonal switch of the sketch is suitably jarring, the resulting, horse-surfing shenanigans play out with a wheeze.

Culkin’s performances throughout the episode are more than capable, but he was rarely the funniest part of any sketch. Guy who can’t get his cable disconnected; guy who gets stuck embarrassedly reading disaster news in a turkey suit; Jason Mraz, nonplussed as to why Dionne Warwick is making fun of his fedora—these are not roles designed to allow the host to drive a show. Still, Culkin did what character actors do, fitting in and making what he was given a little better. Not funnier, necessarily, but better.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: As invested (literally) as SNL has become in product placement in recent years, I’m giving points for a sketch I assume was not underwritten by cable provider Spectrum. Now, nobody’s saying that this cable company is any better or worse than any other, but I will share that I related pretty strongly to Culkin’s character as he attempted to get Spectrum’s robotically friendly but preternaturally unhelpful customer service people to just let him cancel his service already. (Here’s to the guy who called to say he was outside my apartment ready to install equipment I’d never asked for the day after I inquired about cable prices that one time.)

It’s a hackneyed comic idea, sure, (check out Superego’s Rockstone Investments sketch for an all-around better example) but the sketch gave Culkin some prime fuming to do, and pretty much the entire cast opportunities to get some screen time as the parade of smilingly unhelpful helpers on the other end of the phone. (And Cecily Strong as the recorded on-hold voice touting Spectrum’s “no-nut November” sexless movie recommendations.) Apart from perhaps exorcising some collective customer service trauma, the sketch isn’t hard-hitting or anything. But it is admirably funny in how each successive operator has their own idiosyncratic way of being unhelpful, with the running joke that Culkin’s getting a landline he doesn’t want recurring with expertly timed regularity.

The maddening experience of being ensnared in bureaucracy’s web is ripe for absurdity, and if Culkin’s hapless customer isn’t going to get his cable disconnected (and he’s not), the journey suggests the human toll for people on both sides of the receiver. The reps who aren’t automatons at this point are on the edge of breakdown, with Heidi Gardner’s tearful operator seizing upon the recently broken-up Culkin’s expressed unhappiness to break out in sobs, and Ego Nwodim’s rep seemingly as baffled by the messages the hot-potato transfer system is sending her as Culkin is. It’s a quick-moving, nimbly funny bit of business throughout, finally seeing the frazzled Culkin shocked by installer Kenan’s appearance inside his apartment, ready to hook up that landline. There is no escape. You’re getting a landline.

The Worst: The Jockey is too flat to carry off its own absurd premise. Again, Culkin’s not at fault here, as his cluelessly rad horse-surfer is pitch-perfect to the period stereotype the sketch gives him. But once the snap of the joke is revealed the energy all bleeds out of this one, leaving the short filmed piece feeling interminably long by the time Culkin’s rider is finally trampled to death. Here I will toss in a compliment to James Austin Johnson, though. He’s got one line as a somber doctor in the old-timey framing device, and he’s so present and inhabited in the role that I wanted to follow him around for a while instead.

The Rest: On the other hand, The Heist takes a simple joke and couches it in a peerlessly accurate approximation of a glib Hollywood crime story. Culkin’s good as the smug mastermind whose plan for a slick Lambo heist is foiled by thief Chris Redd’s inability to drive stick. That is a simple joke, but from such humble ideas come some inspired silliness, as Redd’s cocky Ghost never cops to the fact that the “new-new tech, military maybe” standing in his way is a simple manual transmission. Redd is great at channeling outsized types unwilling to admit doubt, and Ghost, nodding along placidly to the patient instructions of both boss Culkin and sexy Russian client Gardner, never lets his braggadocio waver. (“Bitch, I can drive anything!” “Including stick?” [Long pause while working a toothpick in the corner of his mouth] “Nawww…”) Throw in Kenan unable to contain his laughter as the tied-up security guard, and I’m happy.

The men’s room sketch fumbles at the goal line when, seemingly, everybody blows the closing cue (perhaps thrown off by surprise guest Tracy Morgan’s ever-loose relationship with live TV pacing). Before then, though, its a very funny showcase for Redd, Bowen Yang, Culkin, Andrew Dismukes, and Alex Moffat, as their office workers’ innocent trip to relieve themselves turns melodramatically introspective about guys’ penchant for performative bro-nonchalance at the urinal. The first time Yang turns to camera and, bathed in a blue spotlight, confesses his inability to refrain from mindless chatter with his fellow men’s room men, the premise takes off.

Redd is especially funny, his character’s sweaty need to spout every meaningless bit of guy-talk he can think of (“’See you on the ice’? Is that even a saying?”) collapsing once he, too, stares into the abyss of bluff male banter. I love some unanticipated escalation, so Alex Moffat finally confessing to himself that the too-loud men’s room joshing is the only thing that can distract him from the gnawing guilt of having killed a man back in 2012 took the whole scenario up a notch. And if Tracy’s crowd-erupting emergence from a bathroom stall got swamped by the sketch’s messy ending, the joke that it was his brother that Moffat killed is at least a rare button on an SNL sketch.

“Wake Up Rhode Island” is where Culkin gets into that turkey suit, as his local weatherman unwisely took the last few nights neglecting the approach of an upcoming superstorm to work on both his Thanksgiving costume and accompanying rap. It’s the most energetically goofy as Culkin’s allowed to be all night, even though he once more winds up playing straight man after his rapping turkey dance is interrupted by an especially dire emergency broadcast system alert. (“May God have mercy on your souls,” concludes the announcement’s robot voice.)

The laughs (apart from Culkin’s cluelessly silent dancing behind the interrupting emergency crawl) come from Kenan’s co-anchor inexplicably shouting “Boo!” in disapproval as Cecily’s other anchor keeps trying to get the breaking disaster story back on track. And from Punkie Johnson’s field reporter who, her innocent beachside story about boy scouts picking up litter turned suddenly tragic, responds to Cecily’s question about the boys’ whereabouts with an anguished, “The sea took them!!”

Weekend Update Update

It was all about one correspondent piece tonight, really, so I’ll just give the usual props to Che and Jost for some above-average deliveries of above-average jokes, complain that they’re not doing enough with the whole satirical newscast concept, and move on. (Che won the night by joking about Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe losing to Republican race-baiter Glenn Youngkin by joking that “losers in Virginia usually get a statue.”)

First up was Kenan, bringing back his Ice Cube now that the actor and rapper has publicly added “unemployable anti-vaxxer” to his name. Kenan’s always Kenan, really, as he’s not so much an impressionist as a cheekily endearing put-on artist. But he does snap off Cube’s particular cadence and confrontational style (Che is appropriately baffled by Cube calling him “Bozo” for no reason), and, once Kenan Thompson really sinks himself into a character, the comic momentum is impossible to resist.

The joke here is twofold. One rests on Cube’s belligerent belief that nobody tells Ice Cube what to do, as the prolific former rap icon angrily laments all the projects derailed by his decision to hop on the anti-science, coworker-endangerment train. Sadly, we’ll never get to see Cube starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s aborted Uh Oh, Twist Comin’. (The twist: there is no twist. As Cube tells Che, “Everybody went home and the day was a good day.”) The second spin is that Kenan’s Cube can’t help but admit that Che’s suggestions for how Hollywood will proceed without him are actually pretty reasonable, with Kenan downshifting into head-nodding reason at Che’s reasoning that finding a second lead for a movie called Oh Hell No might not be that difficult. We’ve reached the pandemic tipping point where mocking the willfully unvaccinated is the only way to go (see below), and at least Ice Cube (no stranger to some deeply disappointing personal beliefs) finally admits, in Kenan’s version at least, that it’s all about being scared of the needle.

But it’s Cecily Strong’s night. At the end of her appearance as Goober the Clown, Strong urges SNL to “disable the comments,” but, in her four minutes as the garishly decked-out Goober, Strong offers up one of the most eloquently strange (and sure to be commented on) pro-choice statements on TV this year. There to address the upcoming Supreme Court debates on Texas’ latest, Old West bounty-based end-run around Roe v. Wade, Strong’s Goober persona functioned as a bracing commentary on how the comedian felt she had to find new and disarming ways to introduce the topic. And it fell away almost immediately, as Strong’s clown, hurriedly and loudly twisting an indifferent ballon animal for Colin Jost, revealed that she had had an abortion when she was 23.

Is this Cecily Strong telling her story through Shakes The Clown-style metaphor? I honestly don’t know, although the way that Jost, interrupting Goober’s manic presentation, refers to Cecily by her real name, sure suggests that it is. “It’s a rough subject, so we’re gonna do fun clown stuff to make it more palatable!,” exclaimed Strong’s Goober, before getting Jost to lean in for the old squirting flower gag, leaving the anchor mopping his face as Goober laid out her clown-abortion story on live television. Cecily Strong’s long been a vocal pro-choice advocate, a spokesperson role that’s often been couched in comedy, and her appearance here deconstructs just how it feels to be a professional comic tasked with talking about something important to her. And it’s riveting stuff.

“It’s a worm, I don’t know,” Strong brushes off Jost’s question about her snakelike balloon creation, her animated clown voice slipping for just a moment before she hurriedly throws it back on. The current move by Republican legislatures to ban abortion (emboldened as they are by a GOP-stuffed conservative Court) has brought the ever-simmering issue to a head, and Strong’s appearance here emerges as a bizarrely affecting plea for people to understand how many women have had abortions, how talking about their abortions needn’t be loaded with shame, and how now is the time for real talk, should Americans have any hope of thwarting the anti-abortion movement’s momentum. All while punctuating her points about how a third of all American women have abortions in their lifetime, and the deeply personal pain of navigating societal judgements about abortion (and doctors’ dumb-ass jokes), with helium voices, spinning bow ties, and other distracting clown patter.

“I know I wouldn’t be a clown on TV here today if it weren’t for the abortion I had the day before my 23rd birthday,” Goober/Cecily says, finally, her voice squeaky with balloon-gas, a performer’s smile plastered on her face. The best jesters tells the truth while distracting you with tricks, and Strong making the necessary and heartfelt statement that all abortion bans will bring about is “a bunch of dead clowns in a dark alley” while inhaling helium and dressed in clown clothes is an all-time striking TV moment. Sometimes you laugh so you don’t cry, and sometimes you make people laugh to make them listen for a change. Bring on those comments.

“What do you call that act?” “I Married A Monkey!”—Recurring Sketch Report

It wasn’t a “sneaker-upper,” per se, as singing legend Dionne Warwick’s appearance on Ego Nwodim’s Dionne Warwick talk show sketch was obviously planned for the 80-year-old guest star. “Sneaker-uppers” are, according to Tina Fey, backstage term for when SNL engineers a would-be surprise appearance from a celebrity, supposedly incensed at a cast member’s impression of them. And, as Fey explained in Bossypants, they roundly and routinely drag the show down, along with the mood of writers assigned to the crowd-pleasing but generally deadly stunts.

Here, however, Ego’s Warwick, born as it was out of the singer’s unlikely emergence as Twitter’s amusingly unplugged auntie, has always been more affectionate than cutting. And Warwick finally showing up at the end of this one to sing a duet of “What The World Needs Now” is undeniably as sweet as it is comically inert. It’s nice. Nwodim having a recurring character is a good thing, and the concept of the sketch—that the regally out-of-touch Warwick can barely be bothered to know what a Post Malone is—is low-key charming whenever it pops up. Here, Chloe Fineman’s solid Miley Cyrus is brushed off as “Miley Circus” after clearing up Warwick’s confusion about Doja Cat. (Singer, not a Pokémon.)

When the real Warwick comes out (in a nearly matched silver-spangled ensemble to Nwodim), there’s no bite to the stunt, and that’s fine. I’m not looking for Saturday Night Live to really stick it to the estimable Ms. Warwick. But “nice” isn’t very exciting, is all I’m saying.

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

James Austin Johnson was hired for SNL largely thanks to his viral impression of Donald Trump. Of his genuinely impressive Trump, Johnson has said that the improvisational approximation of Trump’s own rambling, track-hopping oratorial style is what made it work, noting, prior to getting the SNL gig, “When I go online and I watch other people’s Trump impressions, they’re so written out, with these written-out jokes. It just doesn’t sound like Trump.” So it was with some trepidation that I saw Johnson’s Trump finally make his SNL debut in this fifth episode of the season, wondering just how Johnson’s inimitable, free-form take on Trump would translate to SNL’s more necessarily cue card-bound format.

I needn’t have worried. There’s the impression itself, which simply eclipses all of Alec Baldwin’s years of labored, lurching hamminess right from Johnson’s first lines. Johnson is a technician, and it’ll be interesting to see if his meticulous craftsmanship will extend to regular sketch work out of the prosthetics. But, man, is he outstanding at the craft, his Trump’s swallowed syllables and garrulous topic-jumping punctuated with specific vocal tics that all ping off of our collective memories of the man. (Baldwin basically just hit the misapplied soft “G” in words like “China,” while Johnson marks out an entire lexicon of elided consonants and sudden pitch changes.) It’s uncanny enough that the crowd wasn’t roaring in the easy laughter Baldwin’s Trump was greeted with, a comically potent unease I can only hope Lorne doesn’t see as a weakness.

As to the necessary looseness of Johnson’s portrayal, the whole ESPN-style rundown ticker of topics at the side of the screen is a masterful compromise. With the ever-showboating Trump shunting aside Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (Alex Moffat) in favor of a 60-second clock for him to run through everything that’s on his mind, we watch each upcoming subject line (“advice,” “Star Wars,” lasers vs. swords,” “Dune”) with anticipation, as Johnson’s Trump careens through his off-the-cuff gibberish, ticking off point after point in deliriously funny meandering lockstep. It’s like a glorious little magic trick, melding Johnson’s need to imbue his Trump with a freeform absurdity with the show’s need to keep the sketch moving forward.

These cold opens have long been a dire slog, the obligatory nature of the beast—and, it’s got to be said, SNL’s lukewarm satirical instincts—turning the top spot of the last four-plus years’ shows into a chore for everybody involved. And while Season 47 has introduced some variety in the all-Trump formula, I have to say I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing James Austin Johnson turn the cold open into appointment viewing again.

Oh, the actual sketch was about Pete Davidson’s outed anti-vaxxer NFL QB Aaron Rodgers, and Alex Moffat’s Youngkin, both interviewed with reliably hilarious dippy aplomb by Cecily’s Jeanine Pirro. Everyone was fine—Rodgers’ Joe Rogan-consulted, tone deaf anti-vax bullshit gets taken out for a walk, with Davidson assuring Pirro that his teammates were in no danger, even though they’re consistently huddled three inches from his “wet mouth.” And Moffat’s Youngkin, whose campaign tried to distance itself from Trump’s twice-impeached toxicity while successfully appealing to white voters who view the ginned-up outrage over “critical race theory” as their latest white supremacist bulwark against diversity, unsuccessfully tries to dodge both a definition of critical race theory, and the confused yet effusive Trump’s linking praise.

Saturday Night Live has addressed Trumpism most effectively when it’s come at it most obliquely. In talking about his Trump, Johnson has said that the more accurately hateful and incident-specific his Trump got onstage, the less effective it was comedically, and I’m all for SNL allowing its Trump satire to emerge through Johnson’s glancing glimpses of what exactly is going on in that guy’s head. So, in a direct entreaty to Lorne Michaels, I’ll be so bold as to request at this point: Don’t fuck with what Johnson is doing here. Lean into it, extrapolate out from it, but do not bend it closer to the flabby, prosaic thing it’s been on SNL for so long. Seriously—I’m watching you.

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Look, at this point you love Ed Sheeran or you don’t. I think his scrubbed ginger pop stylings are pleasantly manufactured for my easy listening pleasure. The singer (and occasional actor)’s appearance as himself in the Warwick sketch suggests perhaps that someone at the show is eyeing a possible, Halsey-style double-duty appearance in the future, but, since I’m offering unsolicited advice to the powers that be: Nah.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Kate remains elsewhere, leaving the field wide open once again. And I’m torn, as James Austin Johnson was a game-changing revelation at the top of the show, while Cecily matched him there as her indelibly bananas Pirro, and provided an Update piece for the ages. I could weenie out and call it a tie, but Cecily has gifted us with her unexpected return this season and been throwing strikes all season.

On the second tier, Redd continues to impress, Kenan is Kenan, and Ego had another good night.

On the other hand, no Aristotle that I could see, Sarah Sherman had a brief one-scene appearance alongside Melissa Villaseñor, and Punkie, though she had two speaking parts tonight, continues to be underused. Even platooning a cast this big still leaves a lot of people out in the cold.

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

The trio that is Please Don’t Destroy gets another branded short tonight, as SNL’s quest to mint a Lonely Island successor marches on. I like these guys, actually, as Ben Marshall, John Higgins, and Martin Herlihy’s office hangout schtick continues to impress with some reliably offbeat laughs. Here, John’s heartfelt talk with his pals about a recent breakup leads to an attempt at telephoned reconciliation, only for his buried resentments to surface in some deeply unproductive (heavily bleeped) abuse.

Three twenty-something slacker types indulging their inexpensively filmed backstage penchant for absurd goofiness is certainly a well SNL’s gone to, quite profitably, in the past. But Marshall, Higgins, and Herlihy (the latter two literally born into the show’s family) have an undeniably assured and idiosyncratic style, here seeing John’s unwilling assholery seemingly jumping to each friend in turn as they try to smooth things over with his unheard ex. The shift from intentional sincerity to blurted insults is deft and deeply funny each time, as the guys are all genuinely freaked out at their inability to suppress the ugliness inside. (Higgins managed to make a sincere apology, finds out the phone’s been muted the whole time, and then immediately snaps, “Fuck you, dickhead” once it’s back on.)

I’m on record as thinking that ten-to-oneland should expand its territory into the show as a whole, so I heartily endorse the concept of just handing over the last five minutes to whichever writers and performers have the weirdest idea that week. There’s always plenty of airtime for the talk show, game show, and celebrity impression sketches that Saturday Night Live relies on to get YouTube clicks and pay some bills. The Please Don’t Destroy guys therefore have my support to do whatever the hell they want.

Stray observations

  • The Saturday Night Live tradition of booking very young hosts is, thankfully, looking like a thing of the past. Honestly, the queasy unease of imagining a kid, however professionally seasoned, in that pressure cooker of an environment has never been anything but anxiety-inducing, and a little creepy.
  • Strong’s Pirro, after agreeing with Rodgers’ “my body, my choice” stance, admonishes, “And please never use that quote for any other issues.”
  • “Screw you, science, I know Joe Rogan.”
  • Heidi Gardener’s CRT-obsessed white mom runs down her list of books (Beloved, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man) to ban, just to remind everyone that the GOP is currently, actively banning fucking books.
  • The aside from Redd’s Ghost about “Fred Flintstein” pushed the nitro button on the car heist sketch for me.
  • Bowen Yang didn’t have too much this week, but his turn as Spectrum (the disembodied consciousness of all data, who still really wants to sell you a landline) was quality over quantity.
  • Jost, on Trump’s World Series aping of Atlanta fans racist-ass “tomahawk chop,” reported that Native Americans were especially offended that their culture was being mocked by someone who can’t even run a decent casino.
  • Next week: It’s another intriguing booking, with rising The Harder They Fall, Loki, and Lovecraft Country star Jonathan Majors being backed by musical guest Taylor Swift, who you may have heard of.

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