Kyle Mooney used to masturbate with Sock ’Em Boppers. Or maybe he didn’t. The Saturday Night Live cast member, who joined last season, sure likes to mess with people, to baffle them into paying attention, so you can never quite be sure what’s real. In the same video where he admits he used to stick his “little dingy” in the fistholes of the ’90s inflatable boxing-glove toy, he points to a poster of Michael Jackson and calls him Prince, points to a poster of Conan O’Brien and calls him David Letterman, and introduces himself as, “Ryan, from that new show!”
Most of the people who tuned into Saturday Night Live last season were most likely unable to distinguish Mooney, a 30-year-old Angeleno with ratty curls, from the small army of unfamiliar white dudes jostling for screen time. As stars like Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers left for higher profile opportunities, SNL compensated by testing out an avalanche of new comedians — five white men and one woman, initially (supplemented mid-season by Sasheer Zamata, in response to mounting Internet outrage over the racial disparity). The resulting 17-person cast was the largest in the show’s history.
Lost in the pasty scrum, then, was Mooney, the season’s most talented yet bizarre addition, who tends to play phonies and strivers in slouchy hoodies and tacky plastic jackets. His surreal digital shorts, which typically aired at the very end of the episode, likely prompted squinted eyes, cocked heads, Beavis-and-Butthead-style giggles, and finally the half-baked question of whether it hadn’t been a dream.
But now, Mooney and comedy partner Beck Bennett are the only two, other than Zamata, to have survived into the 40th season, which begins this Saturday with host Chris Pratt. There's no question he's got the goods. But will he manage to distinguish himself and find a fanbase?
In Mooney’s world, beer pong involves rollercoaster design and pen pals. Scheduling a date with a cute girl for right after she has sex with another guy is a reason to leap joyously in the air. And dim-witted ice cream parlor employees twitch, hallucinate and foam at the mouth when they don’t understand a joke.
Some of Mooney’s strongest contributions to SNL skewer the vacant-eyed bros, the chill kickbacks and the intricate stoner culture of our own fair city, a city that Mooney misses dearly and flew back to visit on every hiatus.
The night before Mooney’s first, failed SNL audition, two years ago, he steeled himself for executive producer Lorne Michaels’ legendary skepticism by doing karaoke — sober — at the Silver Lake outpost of the Mexican chain restaurant, Acapulco.
“It’s a very Hispanic crowd,” Mooney says, speaking earlier this summer from his office on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center. “I feel like the audience was never totally on my side, so I thought it would be a good way to prepare.”
Mooney’s vision of Los Angeles, like all of his work, is remarkable in its combination of verisimilitude and weirdness. A digital short called “Inside SoCal” that aired in January and purported to be a local news show broadcast live from a party at a condo, was peppered with lingo and in-jokes that Mooney says “the Harvard dudes” at the rewrite table couldn’t fully understand.
“I love ‘The Californians,’ but what we were trying to do is a realistic version of what life down there can be, especially within the beach communities,” Mooney explains. “It’s a lot of guys who like watching the Chargers game and smoking weed and wearing flat-brim hats.”
Though he hasn’t had much time to explore New York beyond his block in the West Village, he doesn’t sound too excited at the prospect.
“It’s kinda scary out here, because there are so many human beings,” he says. He’s liable instead to spend an entire Sunday watching drum covers of Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” on YouTube, binging on old episodes of “Step by Step,” or combing through his collection of about 800 VHS tapes for sketch ideas. Or perhaps he’ll be in Brooklyn at his brother’s place, practicing his skateboarding while queuing up pop-punk classics from NOFX and MXPX on Spotify.
Mooney grew up in San Diego and befriended Bennett when they both auditioned for USC’s improv and sketch comedy group, Commedus Interruptus, which performs every Friday afternoon on the lawn next to Tommy Trojan. After graduating in 2007, Bennett, Mooney and their friend Nick Rutherford formed a sketch group called Good Neighbor and started making YouTube videos directed by Mooney’s childhood friend Dave McCary. In an uncomfortable blow, Rutherford was the only member of the group not hired by SNL last summer, but this season Michaels rectified the situation and hired Rutherford as a writer.
For some, Mooney and his Good Neighbor buddies recall Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island sketch group, who were hired in 2005 and ushered in an era of digital shorts and pre-taped sketches to what is now, despite its name, a merely somewhat-live show.
But while Samberg’s digital shorts were notable for succeeding wildly in the then-new medium of YouTube, ultimately they were modeled on a widely recognizable, pre-Internet form: the decadent pop-rap music videos of the late nineties and early aughts. In retrospect, the Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” feels like a paean to the boom economy: taxis headed uptown, expensive cupcakes coated in too-sweet frosting, mediocre blockbusters with gratuitous CGI — all implied as rewards for a hard work week. (Hence “Sunday,” not Tuesday or Thursday, when the underemployed gals from Comedy Central’s brilliant millennial comedy Broad City might get stoned and catch a movie.)
Mooney, McCary and Bennett’s strange sketches, on the other hand, take inspiration from the insular mood of social media feeds and the furthest reaches of the Web. Steeped in nostalgia and so layered in code words and subtext that they can be inscrutable to outsiders, Good Neighbor videos often feel like an obscure reference wrapped around a non sequitur placed inside a familiar trope. The effect is more horse_ebooks than Diddy.
“I definitely like that idea where people are like, ‘Oh, I recognize that, but I can't put my finger on what it is,’” Mooney says.
Although both New York magazine's Vulture and comedy blog Splitsider put Mooney near the top of their in-house calculations of which SNL newbies received the most screen time, and Louis C.K. said in a Reddit AMA a few years ago that Mooney was the up-and-coming comedian he’d most like to work with, the fact is he doesn’t yet have nearly the face or name recognition of Cecily Strong or Jay Pharoah.
One reason could be that his face and voice morph so drastically from character to character that even the most sober viewers have trouble connecting his performances to his SNL opening-credits photo, in which he resembles a child molester who wandered onto the set of a Pantene commercial.
But another reason may be that his YouTube-originated comedy style is simply too esoteric, too specific, too of-the-Internet in its ability to capture a subculture and spit it back out to amuse the community that recognizes what he’s doing. If you didn’t grow up in the nineties, you might not recognize Mooney’s hilarious Fred-Durst-wannabe character Chris Fitzpatrick. If you’re not an Angeleno, you won’t find “Inside SoCal” quite as funny. If you don’t watch football, you won’t realize Mooney is making up the names of the players he asks about in his mumbling man-on-the-street interviews leading up to the Super Bowl.
And sometimes even the internet community doesn’t get it. Mooney holds the distinction of being the only person to ever be booed off-stage at VidCon, the annual gathering in Anaheim of perennially cheery YouTube stars and their rabid teenage fans, because the sexualized PowerPoint that he gave, in character, offended and disgusted the crowd.
“My friends really enjoyed seeing it,” Mooney says now. “The people who were there who knew what I did really enjoyed what I did.”
Traditionally, succeeding on SNL requires entertaining a national audience, which is something the micro-targeted nature of the web doesn’t much prepare you for. But in a world where pop culture has fragmented beyond belief, with each consumer focused on personalized streams of media, is there room for a comedian whose jokes only land with a tiny audience and can’t be understood by those who fondly recall the accessible weirdos of Kristin Wiig or the manic enthusiasm of Will Ferrell?
Perhaps we’ll have to tune in this season to find out.
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