The widely adored standup comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” writer John Mulaney hosted SNL for his fourth time on Oct. 31, and while his iconic style of clever writing and eccentric performance shined through to ease some of the stress leading up to the election, his nonchalant attitude sparked mild controversy.
Mulaney stepped out wearing a simple, professional-looking suit contrasted by posture and mannerisms that didn't quite fit his mature look, instead fitting the description he often gives himself of looking like a “large child.” He opened with a monologue focused on the pandemic as well as the upcoming election. Expectedly, he delivered what so many of his fans love: hilarious storytelling with niche, specific details performed from his array of animated voices. He joked about the pandemic, starting with a discussion of masks inhibiting his ability to listen to the conversations of strangers on the streets of New York City, and drawing comparisons between watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s quarantine press conferences and bingeing a TV show. Mulaney then addressed the upcoming presidential election, or what he referred to as an “elderly man contest.”
“There’s two elderly men, and you’re supposed to choose your favorite of the two elderly men…We might have the same elderly man or we might have a new elderly man. But just rest assured, no matter what happens, nothing much will change in the United States,” he joked.
While it was humorous and not entirely inaccurate, the sentiment of the joke implied that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are interchangeable as presidential candidates in spite of clear policy differences. Such a statement diminished the role voting can play in changing the course of politics, denying the value of voting as a civil right foundational to democracy. Even in a democracy riddled with gerrymandering and voter suppression, this mentality is certainly not what the U.S. needed during such a pivotal election in its history.
Despite the indifference implied by his rhetoric, Mulaney is openly liberal, having donated money to the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and protesting in Washington D.C. in June 2020 to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This also isn't the first time he's employed political commentary within his work—in his 2018 Netflix comedy special “Kid Gorgeous,” Mulaney gave a four-minute-long bit criticizing Donald Trump, comparing the president to a “horse loose in a hospital.” Following the results of the 2020 election, he posted on his Instagram a photo of a horse, referring to Trump, with the caption, “And stay out!” So, it is not so much a question of Mulaney being apolitical in his jokes about an “elderly man contest,” but more a question of the insensitivity and privilege that lie within them.
Mulaney may be progressive in his general political leanings, but looking at the election in the cynical way that he did is simply tone-deaf. Immigrants' rights are on the line, BIPOC rights are on the line, reproductive rights are on the line, the health of our planet is on the line, and so much more. Beyond policy, to deny the value of the vote is to deny that so many of these groups have been systematically prevented from exercising this right and have fought diligently to make sure their voices weren't drowned out in this election.
He did go on to explain why he felt the results of the election won’t bring real change, stating, “The rich will continue to prosper while the poor languish. Families will be upended by mental illness and drug addiction. Jane Lynch will continue to book lots of projects, and when she does, she’ll deliver. She’s so good at being on TV.” Contrasting blunt truth about the realities of this country with humor, he attempted to vindicate his previous tone-deaf comments. He’s not entirely wrong; Biden’s status-quo policies and center-leaning ideology may not bring the change that progressives want, but for many, he offers hope that we might live in a safer and juster country than we've had during the past four years, especially for BIPOC, immigrant, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities.
He continued with political jokes in the skit “Strollin to the Polls,” which featured four Black SNL comedians singing about going to vote. Throughout the song, they faced instances of being turned away from the poll worker, played by John Mulaney, and these instances very much resembled voter suppression of the Black community. After getting rejected from three different polls, SNL cast member Chris Redd’s character said, “I regret living in Texas,” referring to the racist voter suppression rampant in our elections. The message of this skit felt much more relevant than the messages of his monologue, adding a redeeming aspect to the political portion of the night’s show.
As the host, Mulaney provided viewers with some much-needed laughs during a stressful moment, but he could have supplied a stronger critique of the political sphere for a show aired just three days before one of the most important elections in modern history.