What’s the deal with John Mulaney?
Tall, thin, and pleasantly attractive in a way your mom would call “quite handsome,” he’s the stand-up comedian, former Saturday Night Live writer, and, now, creator-writer-star of a brand new Fox sitcom that bears his name, Mulaney—the show that’s being getting buzz for being called a copycat of Seinfeld.
Mulaney knows there are similarities between a certain iconic show about nothing and his new Fox sitcom, which is loosely based on his life as a stand-up comedian and intersperses stand-up sets with traditional sitcom setups revolving around his own peculiar cultural observations. (The awkwardness of prostate exams and the awkwardness of job interviews get the Mulaney treatment in the pilot.)
“I sort of made peace with it a long time ago,” Mulaney says of the Seinfeld comparisons.
He and the network executives were among the first to make them, with hopes that by owning it first, maybe they’d become less of an obsession. “I knew people were going to say it, but I really wanted to do stand-up on the show,” he says. “I wanted to play a comedian and I didn’t want to invent a fake job and pretend to be an architect or pretend to be a columnist, so that it makes sense that I’m home all the time.”
His one qualm? “My only worry is that people will think that I said that it’s the next Seinfeld.”
The thing is: Mulaney could never be the next Seinfeld. Because Mulaney is so unequivocally Mulaney.
In his own words, it’s a “weird version of” classic sitcoms like Cheers and Golden Girls, about a stand-up comedian striving to make it big (a la a certain New Yorker who once wore a puffy shirt) with a small orbit of borderline-deranged friends to drive him crazy in the meantime (though Martin Short never barrels through a door into a living room, Michael Richards-style).
But more than all of that, Mulaney says he wants “the show to be about how it feels to be at this point in your life, in your late twenties, trying to figure out how to be an adult.” And with more than a handful of situations lifted nearly directly from his own travails as a traveling stand-up and comedy writer for other comedians, it’s all told with a very distinct, very Mulaney point of view. Considering that, as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Mulaney wrote the infamous Stefon sketches, suffice it say that it’s a very interesting point of view, to boot.
Reviews thus far for Mulaney haven’t been glowing—perhaps what you might expect when a sitcom in 2014 aggressively adheres to a throwback, multi-camera format, and perhaps what you might expect when a sitcom spends more than two years across two networks in development before finally premiering. But each criticism of Mulaney, the sitcom, is qualified with not just polite, but effusive praise for Mulaney, the comedian, and the brand of humor he peddles.
To that regard, Mulaney opens with its star spinning a longer joke-yarn based on something that had really happened to him. He had just moved to New York City and began running to the subway one late night when he heard the train coming. A woman who had been walking in front of him began sprinting, too, in an alarmed manner. She thought he was chasing her, perhaps poised to attack. He had no clue.
“There’s so many people who have never heard me do stand-up and I just wanted to come out of the gate with something I liked,” he says. “And also it just set up me and my character well, which is a well-intentioned person and a naïve person who gets into these situations, which that story kind of crystalized.” Realizing that he was at a point in life to be believable as a threatening assailant: “It was a real wakeup call. ‘Oh, right. I’m an adult.’”
(The joke’s punchline: “I wanted to go up to her and be like, ‘Hey, no—I’m not a man!’ But I think that would be equally creepy, if you were in a subway at 2 o’clock in the morning and I chased you down, grabbed you and said, ‘I’m not going to kill you—I’m a little boy.”)
The monologue also sets up the existential crisis his character has about closing in on 30, which leads him to be more emboldened about making his comedy career take off, eventually leading to a job as a writer for a game show host played by Martin Short.
“It just crept up on me that the grace period is over,” Mulaney says about his subway-chase revelation that he was getting older. “The very lengthy adolescence you get now from 10 to 28, where you can just not be doing anything and people kind of get you a pass, is done.”
Mulaney spent many of those formative years on the road and in writer’s rooms. After graduation from Georgetown University, where he was in comedy group with Nick Kroll and Mike Birbiglia, and moved to New York almost immediately. But while other comedians’ aimless years are marked by their debauchery and lack of ambition, Mulaney quit drinking at age 23—he told The A.V. Club in 2011 that he had become a “bad, annoying drunk child”—and began working prolifically…but for other people.
He wrote for VH1’s pop-culture news skewering Best Week Ever in 2008, occasionally appearing on camera, and for short-lived Comedy Central series starring Demetri Martin and Michael Ian Black. His stand-up career leveled up after Comedy Central specials that aired in 2009 and 2012. But his biggest career boost, quite obviously, came when he was hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 2008.
He found out on a Tuesday night that he’d be auditioning for Lorne Michaels on a Thursday.
For his tryout, he performed a bit about the three types of people you always see on Law and Order. He recycled impressions he had done on Best Week Ever of Kevin Federline and George Takei. He told an elaborate joke about how Donald Trump bases his life on what a hobo thinks a rich man is.
“That had some characters in it,” he says. “There was this guy who lives under a bridge who was like, ‘When my number comes up I’m going to put up buildings with my name on it and have fine, golden hair.”
Mulaney’s stint as a SNL writer was a bit more high profile than is typical of the show, thanks in part to Seth Meyers and Lorne Michaels putting him on camera for some Weekend Update segments that let him show off his stand-up. (One was about Girl Scout cookies and the other was aptly titled, “I Love It.”) But he also garnered a lot of deserved attention for his role in co-creating and co-writing Bill Hader’s night club maven, Stefon.
His own “holy hell I’m turning 30” crisis was a bit different from the character he plays on Mulaney, then, considering that he was a writer on the most famous sketch-comedy show there has ever been at that point. “I was writing for other people and really wanted to strike out on my own,” he says.
He pitched Mulaney the week he turned 30. Two years later, it’s finally premiering.
After ordering his show to pilot, NBC ultimately passed on Mulaney in May 2013. The bad news was short-lived, however, as FOX ordered a new script and new pilot the very next month based on the same concept. In October 2013, Mulaney was officially picked up, but it would be a year before the show would make it to air.
“It’s crazy after doing stand-up and live TV to be working on something for a year that no one has seen,” he says.
And recognizing the target on his back now that he’s fronting a sitcom that bears his own name, he’s braced for the critics. After all, he’s had practice.
“Stand-up, that’s the most immediate feedback, in terms of positive or negative,” he says. “Even the Internet isn’t as fast as people sitting drunk in front of you, which is the fastest heckle that you can get.”
That very idea is actually a major plot point in Sunday’s premiere of Mulaney.
His character thinks he gets his big break when Short’s character, Lou Canning, lets him open for him at an a charity appearance—a glory that never occurs when Canning cancels and John’s mic time is spent breaking the news to the audience. He’s mortified.
It’s a feeling Mulaney could easily conjure from his own stand-up salad days. He was working in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at an outdoor campground and four in the afternoon next to the beer truck. Not even a minute into his set, a guy pipes up: “Excuse me, sir, I think I speak for everyone here when I say we prefer silence to the sound of your voice.” Unable to muster a comeback any wittier than, “Hey! Shut up!,” another guy came on stage to his defense.
“I think he’s doing OK!” the guy said, handing Mulaney a beer in support. Mulaney had already quit drinking by that point and put the beer down. The crowd, however started chanting for him to chug it. When he informed them that he was sober, they booed. So he turned around, and got in the back of the golf cart that was supposed to take him back to his car.
“I said, ‘This is over,’” he remembers. “And we sped away. On the golf cart.”
What’s the deal with that?