‘Saturday Night Live’ Pays Tribute to Ukraine

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This weekend, “Saturday Night Live” faced two questions of significantly different orders of magnitude: Would the show try to find topical humor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

And, of far less importance to the global order, but still a noteworthy matter within the “S.N.L.” realm: How would it address the return of John Mulaney?

To answer the first question, the show avoided an opening comedy sketch altogether and instead began with a performance by Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, which sang the hymn “Prayer for Ukraine.” At the conclusion of the performance, cast members Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong took the stage behind an arrangement of candles which were shown to spell Kyiv.

Then, in his opening monologue, Mulaney addressed what he acknowledged has been “a very complicated year” for him.

Mulaney, making his fifth appearance as a host, has long been seen as an “S.N.L.” success story: a former writer and sometime Weekend Update panelist who became a popular stand-up and a star of unexpectedly tender comedy projects like “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch.”

His past visits to the show promised new installments in signature franchises like the “Diner Lobster”/“Bodega Bathroom” series of musical sketches. Mulaney had also been a faithful friend, on and off the show, to Pete Davidson while Davidson was working to preserve his sobriety and improve his mental health.

But in December 2020, it was reported that Mulaney had entered a rehabilitation facility for drug and alcohol abuse. As Mulaney later explained in a 2021 interview with Seth Meyers, he had first entered rehab in September 2020, exited that October, hosted a Halloween episode of “S.N.L.,” relapsed and returned to rehab after Meyers and other friends organized an intervention for him.

In that time, Mulaney divorced his wife, the artist Anna Marie Tendler, and began dating the actress Olivia Munn; he and Munn have a son, Malcolm, who was born in November.

At the start of his monologue this weekend, Mulaney said with obvious sarcasm that “it is wonderful to be in a place that’s always emphasized sobriety and mental health.”

He shared the story of his intervention, which he said was presented to him as a dinner at a friend’s apartment but whose true purpose he knew the moment he entered.

“Do you know how bad of a drug problem you have to have, if, when you open a door and see people gathered, your first thought is, this is probably an intervention about my drug problem?” Mulaney said. “There’s no other reason people would be behind a door.”

Mulaney described the experience of contacting his former drug dealer to tell him he was deleting and blocking him from his phone. But before he could do so, Mulaney said, the dealer texted him back to say, “I only bought drugs to sell to you because I was worried about you. And I didn’t want you to get worse stuff off the street.”

Speaking to the dealer, Mulaney said, “This is a weird time to ask, but are you a drug dealer? He said, ‘No, I’m a painter, we talked about this.’ Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea how I know this person.”

Mulaney also talked about being a father to his 12-week-old son, whose favorite brand of pacifiers was recently recalled. Even so, Mulaney said, his son continues to eye a bowl full of those pacifiers with a look that seems to say, “I want to use those but I can’t because they could kill me.” He paused and added: “Welcome to my world, homey.”

Since it was Mulaney’s fifth stint as an “S.N.L.” host, which meant it was time for another visit to the show’s fabled Five-Timers Club. It also meant that “S.N.L.” could finally make good on its obligation to Paul Rudd, who crossed that threshold when he hosted the show last December in a curtailed episode that was missing a musical guest and most of the cast because of concerns about Covid.

This time, both Mulaney and Rudd received their welcomes (and a single jacket to share between them) from other veteran hosts that included Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, Tina Fey and Elliott Gould, as well as Conan O’Brien, who has only hosted once but said he was dropping by to sign up for Peacock.

Over at the Weekend Update desk, the anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to riff on the worldwide fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Jost began:

This week, Russia began their invasion of Ukraine. President Putin launched the attack with support from allies like Belarus and Tucker Carlson. Many analysts were surprised Putin went through with the invasion, even though it was obviously going to be a colossal mistake. But he couldn’t back down after all that buildup. Kind of like how NBC still had to go through with airing the Winter Olympics. Experts on Russian politics are saying that economic sanctions in the West will not deter Putin because his money is in nontraditional assets that are difficult to trace. Ugh, so on top of everything else awful about Putin, he’s also into crypto.

Che continued:

After the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian stock market fell by 30 percent, to negative 90 percent. This is a tough subject to make jokes about. I mean, in my lifetime I’ve seen footage of attacks like this on other countries but never a white one. I don’t know very much about this whole situation but I have a very close friend who’s Russian and I asked her what she thought about it. And she said, “Michael, you no pay me to talk, baby.” I am very impressed by all the Ukrainian citizens signing up to defend their country, even the famous ones. Imagine that here. If you ever read on the news, Michael Che has joined an American war, we have just lost that war.

If you let out a little sigh of relief the moment you saw Mulaney operating a subway newsstand at the start of this segment, then you probably recognized it as the latest entry in his long-running series of musical sketches, set in familiarly seedy New York locations.

This time around, the song-and-dance numbers are triggered by a subway passenger (Andrew Dismukes) looking to buy a churro from a vendor of questionable standards (Melissa Villaseñor) — watch for homages to “South Pacific,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Music Man,” “Les Misérables” and more, all in the grimiest contexts you could possibly imagine.

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