This Saturday, John Mulaney hosts Saturday Night Live for a third time, which has to be quite the triumph for the former SNL writer. Since leaving the show, Mulaney of course has achieved great success as a stand-up comedian, voice actor and Broadway star (to say nothing of his most recent Netflix special).
There's every reason to be optimistic about this week, based on the many standout sketches he's been personally responsible for, both as writer and two-time host.
But by far the most absurd and delightful sketch in Mulaney's SNL canon is the Diner Lobster sketch from his first hosting gig in April of 2018. The premise was simple: a pair of friends are at a diner, and one of them impulsively orders the lobster from the darkest corner of the diner menu: the seafood section. The mood in the diner immediately changes as the waiter (Mulaney) calls to the kitchen to announce that, the first time ever, someone has ordered the lobster. What follows is a musical fantasia as the lobster (Kenan Thompson) is wheeled out in his tank and begins to sing a plaintive song lamenting his fate, a barely-altered version of "Who Am I" from Les Miserables. By this point the sketch has already jumped the track and is on a runaway course towards immortality, and that's before we even get to the lobster's distraught daughter, Clawsette. Not to mention the barricade!
The Diner Lobster sketch is iconic for so many reasons. It's a well-studied marriage of comedy and deep knowledge and appreciation for musical theater. It's a smart, true, and very specific observation about an aspect of modern life (the insanely expansive and detailed menus at diners). It's another opportunity for Kenan Thompson to display his incredible talent for absurdity. And it's another entry into the Sketches That Are Perfect Despite Pete Davidson's Awful Delivery and Dumb Mugging canon.
According to Mulaney and Colin Jost, the sketch was originally written in 2010, for an episode hosted by Zach Galifianakis (the same episode that featured the iconic "Pageant Talk" sketch, but that's a subject for another time). The Diner Lobster sketch turned out pretty much perfect as it stands, but imagine the glory of seeing such a sketch with Will Forte, Andy Samberg, and Kristen Wiig.
One underrated aspect of the sketch is how completely unmoored it is from the rest of pop culture. It's not like Les Mis is of the moment right now. The movie version of the musical, which represented its most recent spike in pop cultural awareness, was released more than 5 years prior to the sketch. The original sketch was written two and a half years before the movie was released. Its appeal is based only on a deep love for one of the more melodramatic musicals in Broadway history.
Now that Mulaney is hosting again, hope springs eternal for a revisitation of this type of sketch. Hopefully one that lands better than last year's Bodega Bathroom sketch, which pretty clearly tried to recapture the same alchemy, down to Pete Davidson and Chris Redd as the customers. Once again, Davidson requests a rare and unthinkable urban transgression: using the bathroom at a bodega. The result, rather than a committed deep dive into one musical — the thing that gave the original sketch its audacity — is a hodgepodge of songs from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Cats, and Rent. It's limp and mild, and the best joke in the whole sketch (the cinderblock keychain) happens before the musical stuff even begins.
So I guess when we say "Let John Mulaney deliver another Diner Lobster sketch," we don't mean literally do the same sketch again. We're just hoping for something as daring, insane, hyper-committed, and hilarious as that little miracle was. So please give us that once-in-a-season wonderment, SNL. That's all we ask!
John Mulaney hosts Saturday Night Live this Saturday at 11:30 PM ET/8:30 PM PT on NBC
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.