Maya Rudolph Puts a Mother’s Day SNL on Her Back

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Maya Rudolph Puts a Mother’s Day SNL on Her Back

And Your Host…

The third of three all-time all-star Saturday Night Live female alums to host in Season 49, Maya Rudolph once more reminded us just how completely a funny woman can own this show. Especially someone like Rudolph, whose multifarious talents and utter fearlessness marked her out as someone who always made an episode better. Fearlessness on Saturday Night Live can backfire, of course—when the writing falters, a performer can be left to sweat and bellow in excruciating isolation out there. Or fart out there, speaking of “backfire.” In this, her third hosting gig since leaving the show in 2007, Maya referenced to her unfortunate pooping scene in Bridesmaids during the monologue, her Beyoncé’s return to Hot Ones saw the singer talk about her swamp butt, and, in a late-show sketch, she loudly passed unseemly gas all the way though her turn as a diva actress doing a coffee commercial.

That’s a lot of butt stuff. But this is Maya, and all the scatology came across less like desperation and more like a writers room acknowledging that they had a go-for-broke guaranteed star to work with this week. And so they let it fly, so to speak. Rudolph is a comic force whose chameleonic presence routinely and almost unerringly smashes big laughs into the cheap seats. She can go subtle and do nuanced character work (I still marvel at her unassuming star turn in 2009’s Away We Go), but Maya is never more Maya than when she’s facing down a cheap gag with unblinking glee. (Or wining Emmys as a vulgarly sexy Hormone Monstress.) Which is not to say that this show was all farts—or all hilarity. With someone like Rudolph in the house, this season’s so-so writing standard stands out even more glaringly. But, hell, it’s Maya, and her opening monologue song, in which the current cast extols her place as Saturday Night Live‘s glam-goddess “mother,” finds just the right celebratory tone for Rudolph’s return.

She’s a mother (four times over, famously, with some film director), but, as Bowen Yang beams before Rudolph strips off her flowing monologue dress to reveal a shimmering, hip-hugging bodysuit as the bit segues into a flashy, backstage-striding musical number, she’s also “MOTHER.” As in the show’s jester-queen-goddess, whose birthright remains to own Studio 8H by sheer force of awesomeness. At monologue’s end, surrounded by fawning young cast members who no doubt grew up imitating her every move, Maya is resplendent in all her matronly sex-goddess majesty. The glittering “Mother” banner unfurling behind her on this Mother’s Day show underscores her unique power to reign. All hail.

The Best and the Rest

The Best: SNL has taken to getting sappy for Mother’s Day, a fact Rudolph herself addressed in the SNL oral history when she talked about how difficult it was to watch all her fellow cast members have sweetly awkward moments in the yearly mom parade cold open. (Maya’s mom, singer Minnie Ripperton died long before Rudolph got SNL.) And, no, I’m not putting this year’s huggy, irresistible cast mom-a-thon in the top spot. I’m a softie, but I’m not that soft, even if the second year now without my own mom predictably socked me right in the solar plexus as everybody did a little comic turn with their mothers to kick off the show. Dismukes’ mom brought a nude baby picture, Molly Kearney and their mom sported matching bald caps, Marcello’s youthful mother hit him with a short joke and explained how Che’s been sending her flowers, Devon’s mom did a callback to his very first sketch by mistaking him for Corn Kid, and Ego’s mother went adorably off the cue cards as she tried to make fun of Lorne, something I could totally see my mom screwing up on live TV. I can’t begrudge SNL for indulging this sort of cuteness and sentimentality (even if it’s delicately punctured with in-jokes and silliness). Maybe it’s odd to invite Maya on for this particular show considering how publicly she’s confessed to feeling left out of the Mom Day festivities, but the show looked to make up for that by throwing Rudolph the lavishly worshipful welcome home party that was her episode.

No, I’ll be even more of a softie by tagging the pre-tape about Rudolph’s exhausted but dutiful mom’s long history of rescuing her daughter from a succession of sleepovers as my sentimental favorite. The conceit of a “you should really call your mom” filmed piece is now an SNL staple, and this is a particularly good one, as the setup gives Maya a wonderful opportunity to get weird with it while never abandoning the central theme that your mother will do her best, even when she’s yanked out of bed because you’re just not feeling it at your friend’s house. Rumpled and resourceful, Maya’s mom rings each doorbell to deliver multiple iterations of the excuses her daughter demands she come up with, ranging from her husband suddenly turning gay to dead grandmothers. (“She loved the night,” a bleary Maya explains to the host parents in their jammies, barely caring whether they buy her improv or not.) Escalation is well-calibrated, with Maya feigning the inability to speak English on one visit, and finally just hurling a double-handful of bugs for distraction. (“Cicadas!,” she sleepily announces, sending dad Mikey Day reeling.) Kenan matches her as the game but terrible-at-this father, who simply admits that the girl doesn’t like the way the host family’s house smells, or that she’s got her period. Luckily, Maya’s mom is there to pick up the pieces, finally helping her embarrassed daughter save face with the lovingly weary, “Because I’m your mother and I’m a bitch” as the ultimate excuse. It’s warm and sweet with just enough lived-in silliness (and enough Maya) to fulfill its purpose with grace. Now go call your mom.

The Worst: I’ve said it before this season, but the overall lack of true disasters is a mixed blessing. The above-average competence makes for a digestible SNL in the wee hours, but robs us of the messy spectacle that is a true crash-and-burn catastrophe. Picking from a typically workmanlike roster of sketches tonight is to try and work up animosity I simply don’t feel, so I’ll gloss over the worst-of conceit in deference to the fact that I was never unhappy seeing Maya Rudolph on my TV screen.

The Rest: It hasn’t traditionally worked when the Please Don’t Destroy trio has ventured out of their “three loser SNL writers” backstage comic safe zone, but their restaurant short managed to use the triple date concept ably to continue John, Ben, and Martin’s streak of embarrassing themselves inventively. Here, an innocent Instagram phone swap by the girlfriends goes horribly awry, as it turns out all three guys are obsessed with one Uneesa Confidence, a matronly internet figure whose maternally sexual massaging of lonely guys’ egos has developed a serious following amongst PDD-esque insecure losers. With Maya swinging some majestically pendulous pixilated breasts as enticement for her followers to send her cash (sometimes for her “stinky bathwater”), the self-deprecating PDD cruelty is tempered somewhat by waiter Marcello Hernandez pointing out that his restaurant is filled with mid-30’s single male diners, all glued to their phones in infantilized arousal as Uneesa liltingly assures them that they are loved—even if only from afar by a 50-ish mother figure who calls them “my chosen soldier.” That Ben has fatally swallowed his phone rather than let his date see just how deeply he’s into his surrogate sexy mom figure is a fine, gross little capper (Marcello helps him dial 911 through the glowing veil of his throat-skin), nailing home the singularly twisted neediness at the heart of lonely manboys everywhere.

I suppose we should get to the farting, since I teased it up front and all. Maya is vaunted actress and “three-time Oscar presenter” Dawn Faraway, whose ill-fated turn pitching decaf coffee turns into one giant wet fart gag. Now this is neither the time nor place to debate the pros and cons of flatulence as comedy gold. SNL loves it a good fart joke, and also a terrible fart joke. They like fart jokes, is what I’m saying, which is neither a good or bad thing in itself. There have been times when a host  has seemed so aghast at the premise that I’ve wanted to wish them away into the void. (January Jones, you poor, poor, unfunny unfortunate.) But when everybody’s on board, when everybody involved seems on the same page when it comes to how hilarious farts can be, then an extended, fart-based sketch can dig deep into our collective, childish glee. Maya’s diva of an actress admits that she’s never had coffee before, her initial agreeableness at shooting the commercial curdling once her many cups of the stuff start playing havoc with her insides. Cue the farts. So, so many farts, all of different pitches, durations, and degrees of alarming resonance, as the steely Faraway takes out her stone-faced denial on everyone around her. Maya can play imperious and humiliated like nobody’s business, and there’s a special joy in hearing her actress earn her $8 million fee while sternly firing one person after another and referring to Heidi Gardner’s exec (named Tanya) as the deliriously dismissive “Tondelayo.” As she mentioned in her monologue in passing (so to speak), Rudolph brought the house down when she shat herself in a wedding dress in the middle of a busy street in Bridesmaids, and that same sort of earthy enforced dignity buoys this dumb little sketch in the SNL gross-out tradition. Only, it’s got Maya, so it’s marginally better than it has any right to be.

There were a couple of sketches tonight paying dubious tribute to a pair of perennially underpaid and overburdened professions. I liked the teachers one a bit better, as everybody paraded in front of a schoolhouse green screen as beleaguered end-of-school teachers admitting defeat to their increasingly disrespectful and cleverly cruel charges. As far as sketches seemingly designed to provide most everyone with much-needed airtime go, I’ll take this lived-in observational stuff over a parade of quick-hit middling celebrity impressions any day. Maya rode herd over her exhausted colleagues, pronouncing that “Covid broke something we can’t fix” and throwing to a succession of teachers, each with their own minutely observed classroom horror stories. The sketch feels like a submission from a group of real educators fed up with Abbott Elementary‘s feel good episode wrap-ups, with Kenan sporting a neck brace after a beating by two fighting “non-binary 12-year olds” who united against him, Sarah Sherman bringing out an adorable little girl to explain just why she set up a GoFundMe called “Help our broke, single teacher buy some lemonade,” and Michael Longfellow resignedly noting how he’s now known strictly as “Coraline” because he wore a slicker that one time. Ego Nwodim steals things as the Sheryl Lee Ralph-esque seen-it-all veteran who not only admits her ever-present thermos is full of booze, but that she uses the deliciously over- and under-enunciated non-word “TSIDDAHN” over 600 times a day. Best is James Austin Johnson as the southern accented teacher bewilderedly relating how he came across a group of students cooking a rotisserie chicken over a urinal. School’s almost out, people. Hang in there.

Nurses get a shoutout, too, in a similarly affectionate sketch celebrating the unsung heroes of the health care scene. (Here’s where I shout out my late mom, Kathy Perkins, who toiled as an E.R. nurse for decades, nightly saw impossibly awful things without letting her kids ever know, and confirmed that most doctors—including one super-famous one she delighted in mocking after a few white Russians—are the pits.) Anyway, Ego and Maya got most of the laughs as a pair of foreign-born nurses (“The Jamaican part of Ireland,” Maya explains her accent) dealing with even more crap (literal and figurative) than their white colleagues. While the other nurses’ workplace stories are filled with hopeful tales of beating cancer, these two stalwarts have to contend with Mikey Day’s wheelchair-bound old coot and his dueling strains of lechery and racism. “I’m gonna need you to have dementia, Curtis,” Ego responds to the handsy old guy’s assertion that his many faults can’t be attributed to Alzheimer’s, while Maya marvels that it’s “somehow worse” giving Day a sponge bath than cleaning up his frequent bathroom accidents. (Again with the poop jokes for Maya.) Again, it’s affectionate, well-performed, and authentic without being super-hilarious. Still, mom would have laughed her ass off.

A whole lot of costume department effort went into a silly little doodle of a sketch where everybody was kitted out as cave-people in a National Geographic special whose premise is that British protohumans had the same variety of exaggerated accents to their pre-lingual gibberish. It’s hard not to chuckle at Maya Rudolph and Bowen Yang in animal skins making like Jason Statham with a serious head injury, even if the sketch can’t really go anywhere interesting from there. Kenan, as the tough cave-guy who both invented fire and discovered that fire is very, very hot, does so some exceptional face acting while attempting not to betray just how badly he’s burned himself. Sometimes a sketch in the year 2024 brings back echoes of Your Show of Shows, is what I’m saying. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Weekend Update update

In the cold open, Sarah Sherman’s mom joked that she had been looking forward to her gross-out-prone daughter to play the worm that ate part of a spoiler presidential candidate’s brain tonight. Well, she only had half the show to wait as, instead of the cold open, said parasite got a Weekend Update segment for its segmented self, as Sherman donned a lumpy, be-tentacled worm suit and, slurping noisily on a brain smoothie, roasted Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Sherman’s Update nemesis, Colin Jost. Sherman lives for this sort of stuff (even if her SNL material is toned way down from her preferred métier), and it’s bracingly icky and funny at the same time. There was a joke or two about her former host’s dingbat ideas (the worm happily throve in RFK’S vaccine-free skull), a few jabs at Jost for being, well, Jost. (She sucks out the memory of him running over a stationary cyclist with his Porsche.) And the conclusion with the worm messily applying lipstick while trying to woo Kennedy back with a wormy-sexy “Happy Birthday, Mister President” song is the right note of Sherman-esque squirm to leave on.

Heidi Gardner and Update are a great combination as a rule. Gardner broke through at the desk, and the dedicated character block of a correspondent piece offers this talented actress enough opportunity to develop her character sketch fully. Here, as a Mother’s Day mom who is in no way upset, Gardner channels every frustrated, understandably passive-aggressive wife and mother as she assures Jost that everything is fine, even as she angrily produces and folds laundry and responds to Jost’s interruption about late brunch reservations with a chillingly hilarious, “Yeah, it probably is!” that reminded me just how great a character actor Gardner is. (Seriously, she and James Austin Johnson are the tops when it comes to injecting often unsettling humanity into brief characterizations.) Here I sensed the audience feeling that unease at Gardner’s coiled energy, perhaps sensing its clenched need for a target. There’s a physical bit where Gardner’s threat to storm off (even though she’s not mad) extends into delirious excessiveness, all without Gardner losing focus on who she’s playing. Outstanding.

Gardner complains at the end of her piece that she thought she’d been invited by Jost to host the Mother’s Day show, only to wind up on the “worst part of the show, Weekend Update.” It’s a gag rendered merely amusing since Update is consistently and reliably funny under Jost and Che, my usual caveats about them not taking on the news part of their fake news position as ambitiously as they might. Tonight, Che kept bombing with the audience, something Che always seems to enjoy from his position as the hippest cat in the room. Some lulls were in response to his usual “women, amirite?” schtick (a scientific vacuum-related breakthrough is pronounced just in time for Mother’s Day), and his usual target of women’s sports. Others were more ambitious, as when he reported on Israel’s outrage at the Biden administration pausing weapon shipments to Israel after that country’s civilian-heavy bombing of the city of Rafah by noting offhandedly, “Sometimes people get angry at their intervention.” He also got in another round of Jost piñata, claiming his co-host’s country club aligns with the rise of anti-Semitism in America, which is a tried-and-true crowd-pleaser of a concept, even if the sting has gone out of it with overuse. Jost held down his end as well, a decent political job about star witness Stormy Daniels supposedly having sex with Trump to further her career compared ably to pretty much the entirety of the Republican Party at this point vying with some more put-on self-deprecation about needing his wife to make more Marvel movies to pay for his ferry-buying habit. It’s a comfortable formula where the edges have been sanded down with smirky knowingness and the occasional on-target bit of satirical bite. As Season 49 comes to a close next week, that’s as fitting an epitaph as I can come up with.

Recurring Sketch Report

Of all the Maya Rudolph characters the episode could have brought back, it only makes sense that the queen would essay the queen once again. When Rudolph first portrayed her inimitable Beyoncé unwisely tackling the wings of death on Sean Evans’ stunt interview gauntlet webseries Hot Ones, some explanation of concept was in order. Hot Ones is now a regular PR stop for A-listers willing to risk embarrassment (and genuine gastrointestinal issues) for the sake of self-promotion, with some celebs now seeking out the hot sauce sit-down either as a dare or in genuine admiration for the weird little enterprise. (If you haven’t watched Conan O’Brien’s recent epically conceptual takedown of the whole premise yet, you should get on that.) The joke initially was that Queen Bey was booked on the show without knowing the concept, Rudolph embodying the singer’s signature regal composure while her mouth catches fire and stage sweat pours from under her wig. Here, it’s that nobody, especially not “the whitest man I’ve ever seen,” is going to stop Beyoncé from accomplishing what she sets her sights on, Maya’s Bey steeling herself to conquer “the one thing I did not slay.” There are some decent gags for fans of what Bey calls “this janky-ass show,” including the requisite stupid hot sauce names (Satan’s Taint is fine, but I appreciated the one that was just a picture of a flaming toilet), and Day’s Evans, while not an impression of the famously prepared and leather-tongued host, manages to capture some of Evans’ aw-shucks everyman demeanor as he impishly matches his famous guests wing for wing. The real show is Maya, of course, and while her Beyoncé is too contained a creation to reach for belly laughs, watching Rudolph steadfastly channel the singer’s signature unflappability as she feels her bones begin to sweat is undeniably a hoot. (Maya can do that thing where only one of her eyes crosses inward, an invaluable tool when you’re playing someone who’d rather die than admit defeat.) Kenan returns too as Beyoncé’s fretfully loyal assistant, here pumping his boss’ $6,000 cocoa butter lotion into her flaming mouth in a vain attempt to stop the pain, and eventually whipping out a Men In Black flashy thing to make Evans forget this ever happened. Once more, Maya + enforced dignity + intestinal discomfort makes for begrudgingly good comedy, as her Beyoncé can’t help but complain that Evans is trying to “make a bitch kaka herself” before blurting, “You need to shut your Charlie Brown-looking mouth” to one of the host’s questions. The bit where Beyoncé politely asks to borrow Evans’ milk before hurling it in his face and stating matter-of-factly, “You need to kill yourself, Gollum” is spicy fun.

Political Comedy Report

Eh, what’s going on in the world anyway, other than the terrifying rise of white supremacist Christo-fascism in America, massive worldwide outcry over a U.S. ally committing at least genocide-adjacent violence, the Republican Party openly and suspiciously rooting for a Russian dictator’s latest invasion, the first ever criminal trial of a former President, one party being all-in on a court-defined rapist and insurrectionist reality show host for a third time, a looming election for all democracy’s marbles, anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry becoming mainstream GOP policy and the like? But I kid a sketch comedy institution whose self-mythologizing reputation for cutting edge political satire far outstrips actual comedic courage or ambition. Aw hell, the Mother’s Day cold open was nice.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

In Tina Fey’s book, she relates a mortifying time when her visiting and very unimpressed father cornered Lorne Michaels after a show and berated the venerable producer at length. It’s presented by Fey as a wrenching confrontation between two father figures, but I’m here for the idea that any one of the moms of some of the perennially underused cast members similarly gave Lorne a talking to about airtime. (For the record, I can see Punkie Johnson’s mom making this happen.)

Only one episode left in Season 49 means only one more outing in the SNL careers of some of these performers. Which is a shame—the overpopulation and SNL‘s continued habit of slighting its own employees in favor of some more famous faces means that, as ever, some talented people are going to write in their memoirs about how they missed out on Saturday Night Live stardom. As popular a pastime as it’s become, I’m not much for predicting who’s going to get the axe after next week. There’s nobody here I think doesn’t deserve to stay, even if I’m 100 percent standing by the idea that there are far too many mouths to feed, comedically.

Ego and Maya work well together—they just have a simpatico energy, so I’ll give Ego the crown this week. Heidi’s a solid second, thanks to Update. Kenan’s third, not because he’s third-funniest or anything, but because his position on the show at this point is always guaranteed a place on the medal stand somewhere.

10-to-One Report

An under-the-radar SNL sketch template has become that of a married couple hawking their business concern in a low-rent local TV ad. There’s something attractive about the combination of observational small business detail and barely repressed interpersonal conflict that keeps pairing people up, and Andrew Dismukes and Maya Rudolph make for a fine addition to the tradition as the married owners of a lawn care company that—for reasons that become apparent eventually—only employs gardeners as skilled in horticulture as they are off-puttingly inept at interpersonal relations. The fact that Maya’s co-owner had her own stereotypical dalliances with hunky gardeners comes out, complete with Dismukes’ repressed resentment exploding in the revelation, “So that’s why you two discussed killing me?” (Maya and her lover even bought one of those Breaking Bad plastic, husband-dissolving barrels before cooler heds prevailed.) Meanwhile, the “hopeless, sexless, socially awkward zeroes” in their employ give some of the male cast a chance to show off some silly voices. Again, JAJ steals it as the guy who can’t stop doing “what if?” bits, guaranteeing that housewife Heidi Gardner will in no way be cheating on her husband. The one complaint I have is that this format is so cozy that it lacks the surprise this slot at its best can provide right at episode’s end. Still, like this episode itself, I couldn’t bring myself to complain too much.

Parting Shots

Not to steer anyone away from Paste, but I put Maya at number 14 on my list of the best SNL cast members of all time, and I may have underrated her. (Also, see if you can guess which other hilarious female cast member was originally ranked even higher that that before being completely edited out of the piece without my knowledge! Freelancing is fun!)

Fronting Vampire Weekend, it’s The Good Place creator Mike Schur!

Punkie has guns.

The Please Don’t Destroy guys introduced their fathers instead, substituting a trio of chain-smoking drifters for their real, in-two-cases, SNL alums.

Robbing us of a musical sketch with Maya and Kenan as a pair of sexy, crooning soul singers is a personal attack.

Next week: It’s the season finale, with Jake Gyllenhaal and musical guest Sabrina Carpenter.

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