Kieran Culkin makes a solid, three-decades-later Saturday Night Live return

Kieran Culkin

Kieran Culkin
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“What an unexpected and frankly horny surprise.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [mercifully well-adjusted and successful former child] star!!”

In his monologue, Kieran Culkin noted the mixed messaging he gets when people tell him he’s perfectly cast as Succession’s fecklessly snarky Roman Roy. That’s the curse of a character actor, which Culkin has most assuredly become since his days spent in his big brother Macauley’s Home Alone-sized shadow. And while the now middle-aged former child star has forged an impressive resumé since his Father Of The Bride and Nowhere To Run days, being a go-to choice for directors in search of a wanly sarcastic ensemble member isn’t a bad niche to live in.

Culkin wasn’t shy about his past association with Saturday Night Live, playing a clip of the nine-year-old him looking poutily at host brother Macauley’s triumphant ride on the 1991 cast’s shoulders during the goodnights. (The young Kiran eventually, channeling all little brothers everywhere, finally got Kevin Nealon to hoist him up, too, so he could try to steal Macauley’s thunder with some hammy posing.) Referring to his semi-retired brother throughout as “Mac,” Culkin carried over his monologue reminiscences into his own goodnights, with Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson sneaking up for a thirty-years-later cast member ride around the Studio 8H stage which, even if choreographed ahead of time, capped off Culkin’s winning appearance with a warm little touch suited to someone clearly so happy to be there.

And I was happy to see him, honestly. Nothing the writers came up with for him to do was especially inspired, but Culkin was game to appear in a skintight turkey costume and rap at one point, while his acting chops grounded the mostly straight-man roles he was given otherwise. I suppose the one big swing he was given didn’t really work, but the off-key execution of a weird premise (Seabiscuit period piece veers unexpectedly into 90s skaterboy ska-rock video) can’t be laid at Culkin’s Vans. Culkin channeled the era’s extreme Mountain Dew bro vibe pretty impeccably, and, while the tonal switch of the sketch is suitably jarring, the resulting, horse-surfing shenanigans play out with a wheeze.

Culkin’s performances throughout the episode are more than capable, but he was rarely the funniest part of any sketch. Guy who can’t get his cable disconnected; guy who gets stuck embarrassedly reading disaster news in a turkey suit; Jason Mraz, nonplussed as to why Dionne Warwick is making fun of his fedora—these are not roles designed to allow the host to drive a show. Still, Culkin did what character actors do, fitting in and making what he was given a little better. Not funnier, necessarily, but better.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: As invested (literally) as SNL has become in product placement in recent years, I’m giving points for a sketch I assume was not underwritten by cable provider Spectrum. Now, nobody’s saying that this cable company is any better or worse than any other, but I will share that I related pretty strongly to Culkin’s character as he attempted to get Spectrum’s robotically friendly but preternaturally unhelpful customer service people to just let him cancel his service already. (Here’s to the guy who called to say he was outside my apartment ready to install equipment I’d never asked for the day after I inquired about cable prices that one time.)

It’s a hackneyed comic idea, sure, (check out Superego’s Rockstone Investments sketch for an all-around better example) but the sketch gave Culkin some prime fuming to do, and pretty much the entire cast opportunities to get some screen time as the parade of smilingly unhelpful helpers on the other end of the phone. (And Cecily Strong as the recorded on-hold voice touting Spectrum’s “no-nut November” sexless movie recommendations.) Apart from perhaps exorcising some collective customer service trauma, the sketch isn’t hard-hitting or anything. But it is admirably funny in how each successive operator has their own idiosyncratic way of being unhelpful, with the running joke that Culkin’s getting a landline he doesn’t want recurring with expertly timed regularity.

The maddening experience of being ensnared in bureaucracy’s web is ripe for absurdity, and if Culkin’s hapless customer isn’t going to get his cable disconnected (and he’s not), the journey suggests the human toll for people on both sides of the receiver. The reps who aren’t automatons at this point are on the edge of breakdown, with Heidi Gardner’s tearful operator seizing upon the recently broken-up Culkin’s expressed unhappiness to break out in sobs, and Ego Nwodim’s rep seemingly as baffled by the messages the hot-potato transfer system is sending her as Culkin is. It’s a quick-moving, nimbly funny bit of business throughout, finally seeing the frazzled Culkin shocked by installer Kenan’s appearance inside his apartment, ready to hook up that landline. There is no escape. You’re getting a landline.

The Worst: The Jockey is too flat to carry off its own absurd premise. Again, Culkin’s not at fault here, as his cluelessly rad horse-surfer is pitch-perfect to the period stereotype the sketch gives him. But once the snap of the joke is revealed the energy all bleeds out of this one, leaving the short filmed piece feeling interminably long by the time Culkin’s rider is finally trampled to death. Here I will toss in a compliment to James Austin Johnson, though. He’s got one line as a somber doctor in the old-timey framing device, and he’s so present and inhabited in the role that I wanted to follow him around for a while instead.

The Rest: On the other hand, The Heist takes a simple joke and couches it in a peerlessly accurate approximation of a glib Hollywood crime story. Culkin’s good as the smug mastermind whose plan for a slick Lambo heist is foiled by thief Chris Redd’s inability to drive stick. That is a simple joke, but from such humble ideas come some inspired silliness, as Redd’s cocky Ghost never cops to the fact that the “new-new tech, military maybe” standing in his way is a simple manual transmission. Redd is great at channeling outsized types unwilling to admit doubt, and Ghost, nodding along placidly to the patient instructions of both boss Culkin and sexy Russian client Gardner, never lets his braggadocio waver. (“Bitch, I can drive anything!” “Including stick?” [Long pause while working a toothpick in the corner of his mouth] “Nawww…”) Throw in Kenan unable to contain his laughter as the tied-up security guard, and I’m happy.

The men’s room sketch fumbles at the goal line when, seemingly, everybody blows the closing cue (perhaps thrown off by surprise guest Tracy Morgan’s ever-loose relationship with live TV pacing). Before then, though, its a very funny showcase for Redd, Bowen Yang, Culkin, Andrew Dismukes, and Alex Moffat, as their office workers’ innocent trip to relieve themselves turns melodramatically introspective about guys’ penchant for performative bro-nonchalance at the urinal. The first time Yang turns to camera and, bathed in a blue spotlight, confesses his inability to refrain from mindless chatter with his fellow men’s room men, the premise takes off.

Redd is especially funny, his character’s sweaty need to spout every meaningless bit of guy-talk he can think of (“’See you on the ice’? Is that even a saying?”) collapsing once he, too, stares into the abyss of bluff male banter. I love some unanticipated escalation, so Alex Moffat finally confessing to himself that the too-loud men’s room joshing is the only thing that can distract him from the gnawing guilt of having killed a man back in 2012 took the whole scenario up a notch. And if Tracy’s…

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