John Mulaney performs his Saturday Night Live opening monologue.

John Mulaney Gets Why People Were Mad About His Both-Sidesy Election Joke on SNL

“I forgot to make the joke good."
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John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live on Halloween of this year, just a few days before the presidential election—an event he (correctly) 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,” he said in his opening monologue. “You can put it in the mail or you can go and write down which elderly man you like and then we’ll add ’em all up and then we might have the same elderly man or we might have a new elderly man.”

This election between two elderly white men came after the most diverse Democratic primary race in history, so Mulaney isn’t wrong in reducing it to its most basic components. It’s funny in an endlessly depressing sort of way.

But Mulaney didn’t stop there. “Just rest assured,” he continued, “no matter what happens, nothing much will change in the United States.” The rich will get richer, he explained, families will be upended by mental illness and drug addiction, Jane Lynch will continue to book projects, little girls will still get bullied at sleepovers, etc., etc.

The reaction to that joke was … mixed. On the one hand, it is true that we don’t often get to see the sort of change we want just because our preferred political party is in power. Police killings of BIPOC people, hate crimes, opioid and other drug epidemics, destructive immigration policies—all of these existed under Barack Obama too, just as they have under every president.

The flip side of that is that it’s very easy for a wealthy white cis man like Mulaney to say that nothing in the daily lives of Americans will change under a new president. A lot of people have seen a whole lot of things change under our soon-to-be-gone president. A lot of people have seen their rights stripped away, a lot of people live in fear because of his actions, a lot of people have lost their jobs or their health insurance or other basic necessities. And, of course, a lot of people have died because of his inaction on COVID-19.

Also, three days before an election is not the time to be telling millions of people that their vote doesn’t matter.

I adore John Mulaney so I was really glad to see him address this joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live this week and to know that he agrees: the joke was not great.

“I should have said ‘I very much want one to win over the other and there will be improvements if one wins.’ I deserve the backlash,” he told Kimmel.

He also said that his wife and everyone who knows him was confused by the underbaked joke because he solidly identifies as a Democrat, saying “I like people and I’m generally happy and not deeply angry, so I’m a Democrat.”

The ultimate problem with then? “I forgot to make the joke good.”

Mulaney says he just didn’t work through the joke. He thought the funny bit was the Jane Lynch part, so he didn’t really think through the set-up. That happens to comedians all the time. (Usually, they have an opportunity to work through these issues before taking their set on television but with COVID, Mulaney says he just didn’t have anywhere to workshop the material.) But Mulaney gets it and he’s taking the L without getting defensive. That’s pretty refreshing.

By the way, Mulaney also says in the same interview that after he hosted SNL earlier this year (yes, twice in one year!), he had an even bigger reaction to a joke he made tangentially comparing Trump to Julius Caesar who, you know, just happened to get assassinated by the Senate. In addition to getting attacked by right-wing media outlets on Twitter, it turned out the Secret Service wasn’t a huge fan of that joke.

“I guess they opened a file on me because of the joke, and I have to say, am I stoked there’s a file open on me? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it in the moment? Not so much.”

(via Vulture, image: YouTube)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.