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10 Thoughts About John Mulaney and the ‘Cha Cha Slide’ Sketch on ‘SNL’

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say this 44th season of Saturday Night Live hasn’t been all that good.

Daring talk, I know.

The writing has been lazy. Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation is soporific, and the jokes the lowest hanging of the fruit. The celebrity cameos for Trump administration members can be awful (Robert De Niro) or really fun (Ben Stiller) but also showing a lack of faith in the actual cast. And they’ve wasted game, talented hosts such as Don Cheadle, Awkwafina, Steve Carell and Rachel Brosnahan.

Even good SNL can be hit and miss, though. I was ready for a surefire hit when John Mulaney returned for his second time hosting March 2, and he delivered a delight.

Not only does the guy know how to construct jokes – like, for real, honest jokes with setups, punchlines, kickers, etc., combining cerebral and low humor with physical comedy. He also knows the rhythms and moves that best suit Lorne Michaels’ live TV sketch comedy machine. He marshals that machine, and all its parts, like a maestro.

That’s why we got the beauty, the glory, the wonder that was “Diner Lobster” when he hosted the first time in April 2018. An all-time sketch combining Manhattan specificity and Les Miserables that you knew would be an all-time sketch as you saw it unfold.

“Bodega Bathroom” went even bigger, with its medley of Cats, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Little Shop of Horrors and Rent.

However, no sketch from Mulaney’s second outing made me laugh – and think – as much as “Cha Cha Slide.”

In this sketch, a white software developer (Mulaney) accompanies his black girlfriend (Ego Nowdim) to her cousin’s wedding, and he’s self-conscious about “fitting in.” Hijinks ensue.

And now, 10 thoughts about the “Cha Cha Slide.”

1. Race jokes can work when the jokes don’t posit the differences as greater-than/less-than. The opening bits of the sketch reminded me of ESPN commentator Bomani Jones’ “two Americas”-style jokes about the breadth of experience amid blacks and whites in America.

2. John Mulaney’s great talent as a comedian is that he digs into the thought behind the joke and is strong on structure and process. He and the writers of the sketch practice that specificity here. The joke here isn’t that he’s the downest white man alive, it’s that he’s the downest white man alive while still remaining deathly anxious about fitting into a black space as a white guy, which (most times) is an unnecessary anxiety, or, at least, drastically minute compared to black people in white spaces. (Nobody’s calling the cops on them.)

3. That ethos continues by not having Ego Nwodim’s straight-woman role in the bit simply be “other person who stares at main person doing something weird” that SNL often falls into. Because, again, should it be weird that this white man knows black people and black stuff this well? Uncommon, sure. Weird, no. Blackness is not abnormal. Right? Of course right.

4. The sketch is well executed technically on pretty much all levels. The music cues, the dancing, the sound mix having to account for all the stepping and claps, all on live TV. SNL this season has been quite technically choppy (they ran out of time in this episode alone!), but they hit it here.

5. I’m deeply looking forward to when Nwodim gets to show off how funny she really is. She’s so funny, in fact, that I even listened to an improv podcast because she was so good in it. But, for now, it’s good to see this first-year feature cast member stand up front in a sketch. That “Thirsty Cops” sketch from earlier in the season, with Nwodim and Leslie Jones sexually harassing men they pull over, wasn’t hitting it for me. Just too much real-world wrong there despite the gender reversal.

6. Even better? All of this was wrapped up in the old joke about “Cha Cha Slide” having a million prompts in it! Like, Martin Lawrence made jokes about this song in his Runteldat concert film – back in 2002! He even called it the ghetto Hokey Pokey! “Lord, the Cha Cha Slide has a lot of prompts in it! Wait, ‘shoot them dice’? ‘Stir them grits’? ‘Pull out the church fan’?! What is happening?!?”

7. I love basically any SNL sketch that has background dancers. They are better even than when they have a bunch of people who act all serious in the background of congressional hearing, news conference and courtroom sketches. (How do they stay so straight-faced? ACTING! THANK YOU!) The background dancers are great because it’s another low-key flex about New York being New York. Where else but in New York can find a bunch of dancers ready to do their thing on live TV at 11:30 on a Saturday night?

The big man in the three-piece suit is a riot when he hops into the frame. An older gentleman in the vest and tie is having a genuine good time. The tall woman in the black ruffled number was really, really good.

8. We have a fine combination of thoughtful cultural observations along with the physical comedy of John Mulaney dancing. He’s so skinny and angular, and his pianist hands stand out in that gray suit. His movements are so precise. He’s like Mark Ronson regarding his version of white-guy cool.

8. The details are key here with the Mulaney character’s being steeped in black culture. Key. “I’m gonna pray on it.” “On punishment.” Resting sore feet in epsom salts? Power on Starz. Being unable to afford Starz. All of these things are in my black bones. The bit about the Tom Joyner cruise with Sinbad and Anita Baker didn’t draw as many laughs from the audience; they ain’t know that one.

9. Did we just find out Leslie Jones can’t dance? What is she doing during the Beyonce Two prompt?

10. Here lies the masterstroke: John Mulaney’s character is anxious about being corny in front of these black people, only for him to be a Kappa who went to Morehouse! For the uninitiated, Kappa Alpha Psi is reputed to be the corniest/uptightiest frat of all the black Greeks. You know, herbs. (And they’re uptight herbs about being called uptight herbs.)

And peeps consider Morehouse to be the most conservative, uptight and corny of the HBCUs because of its self-proclaimed rep as a black leader factory? I mean, if Martin Luther King Jr. went to my college, I’d be throwing that in everyone’s faces, too. But, yeah, you get it.

Now, before Kappas and Morehouse alums flood my mentions: I didn’t call y’all corny and uptight. It’s just y’alls reputation, and I am repeating that without either validating it or denying it.

So the joke goes deeper than the obvious points of belonging to a black Greek letter organization and attending a historically black college.

Bonus No. 11: Can somebody, anybody, tell me who the thick sister in the blue faux wrap dress was? Insert comment about jelly and jam.

Beyonce Two on repeat.

On repeat, I say!

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. AC

    April 7, 2019 at 11:21 am

    They were Kappas at Howard University, not Morehouse. I only know bc I’ve had the sketch on continuous play I love it so much. Great post breaking down why it was/is so perfect.

  2. Test

    April 30, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    It was Howard. Not morehouse.

  3. Hopi Auerbach

    June 22, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    I love this sketch – watched it a million times. Thanks for helping me understand why it’s so good! A couple questions:
    In Real Life, at the prompt, “Pull out the church fan”, do people actually pull-out real church fans?
    And, is there any way to explain to a white person the bit about the Tom Joyner cruise with Sinbad and Anita Baker?
    Thanks!

  4. Rick Feely

    July 8, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    Hopi. Joyner was a radio guy now selling cruises maybe alot of white ppl dont know. While on such a cruise they saw 2 black celebrities. Sinbad a comedian/actor and Anita Baker a singer

    • rick

      July 8, 2019 at 1:34 pm

      PS. I thought for sure most people heard of Anita Baker and probably Sinbad.

      • Hopi Auerbach

        July 10, 2019 at 2:13 pm

        Thanks for your response. Yes, you’re correct, I’m familiar with Tom Joyner, Sinbad and Anita Baker. Just thought maybe I was missing a nuance or something.
        What about the actual church fan at the prompt in Cha Cha Slide?
        Hopi

  5. Tariq

    July 11, 2019 at 4:39 am

    Pull out the church fan: There is no such prompt.
    Much like most (but not all) of the prompts, it was a joke prompt. Like the shoot them dice and the Beyonce 1 and 2.

    Although, you know someone is going to do that at a real cookout or wedding … I better stock up on church fans.

    • Hopi Auerbach

      July 15, 2019 at 1:24 am

      Okay, that’s what I figured. Thanks!

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