Paying tribute to George Carlin this week reminded me not to live in the past and to take a look at today’s comic talents. Comic John Mulaney was a head writer on Saturday Night Live, and earlier this year, his fifth appearance as the show’s guest host carried more expectation than usual. Mulaney has always made light of his own personal issues through his comedy routines, but abruptly came a cropper when a fairly deranged appearance on the Seth Meyers show led to his friends staging an intervention with positive results. Mulaney has been the season MVP on SNL whenever he’s appeared, and the question was; would the new, improved Mulaney still have the same cache?
The answer was a qualified yes; Mulaney’s opening stand-up detailed exactly how that intervention worked, and made comic hay from his break-up with his cocaine dealer, who, it transpired, was a painter who had turned to shilling drugs for the most altruistic of motives. Mulaney has made a career from his dry, self-deprecating persona, and the confessional tone hit here was just right; at least he could see the funny side of a difficult situation. Mulaney always brings more than most to the table in terms of SNL’s writing, but a sketch reprising his classic Cha Cha Slide deadpan dance routine wasn’t a patch on the original, and his Subway Churro sketch was a worked-over version of his Airport Sushi routine. So far, so warmed-over greatest hits, and some observations of kids tv in the 80’s and of-the-moment virus chat offered passable if not extraordinary material.
But one sketch knocked the ball out of the park; Monkey Trial seemed to take inspiration from the infamous Scopes courtroom event and then head off on an fresh direction. This saw Mulaney as a judge called Tango who happens to be a monkey. Led into court on his knuckles, Tango proceeds to take command of a tricky case of a young woman (Melissa Villaseñor) who has been attacked by one of Tango’s fellow monkey, and out of species loyalty, Tango takes an understandably dim view of the proceedings. The perennially game Keenan Thompson plays the lawyer who tangles with Tango, and the results are pretty funny.
Flicking sand at the court ‘to establish a little dominance’, Tango’s self-aggrandising attitude as an ‘alpha’ is half monkey, half judge, and the social point is impossible to ignore; the foibles of law-makers are as easily read as those of a monkey, and outdated systems require an overhaul in the modern age. Tango’s fierce interest in cake, stuffed toys, shredded newspapers and shiny things makes him easy to flatter and bribe, and both prosecution and defence struggle to match Tango’s increasing demands. This was a brilliant sketch, with strong comic performances all round, quotable lines (“Now I have many things, and I know visually what I have’) and an acidic, relevant social point; neither he nor we may know exactly where he’s been, but as a comic talent, John Mulaney is well and truly back in the New York groove.