John Mulaney Doesn't Really Want To Talk About Mulaney.
If the widely panned Mulaney sitcom on FOX is your only reference point to John Mulaney, the promising young comic for whom the show is named, then you're probably way off in your perceptions of the guy.
Because here's the thing: The just-a-little-too-Seinfeld-ian sitcom is basically the sole misstep the comedian's made in his career.
On the flip side, the argument could be made that the 32-year-old Mulaney is the funniest stand-up of his generation. His pair of specials — 2009's The Top Part and 2012's New In Town — are as uproariously funny as any recent specials this side of Aziz Ansari's Intimate Moments For a Sensual Evening.
And Mulaney's got cred elsewhere, too: He spent five years as a writer for Saturday Night Live, where he became best known for co-creating Bill Hader's Stefon character — and, y'know, also being the guy that would switch up Hader's cue cards between dress rehearsal and the show's live taping to try and make him laugh and break character.
So it's more than understandable that Mulaney was the last thing Mulaney really wanted to talk about when recently caught up with him by phone and in advance of his stop through town for a gig at the Majestic Theatre tomorrow night. And that's fair enough. Plus, we were just as happy to chat his ear off about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, anyway.
Still, we had to ask…
Let me just jump right in and ask you about the status of Mulaney. I know FOX recently cancelled some of its order. But that doesn't necessarily mean the show itself is cancelled, correct?
No, the show's not cancelled. We had our order cut back a little because the traditional number is 13 [episodes] and we were about to make 16. It's had some rocky moments to it in trying launch the show, but they're airing all of them. So I'm very excited about that.
How does that bode as far as getting a second season of the show goes?
You'd be surprised how little I know about that. I knew that when we wrapped, I'd go on tour. So I did. I'm waiting to hear.
It's a weird time we live in, where shows aren't often given a lot time to find their footing. It's kind of like NFL coaches that don't win a certain amount of games in their first season. They might not get a second chance to get their sea legs in this day and age.
I have no complaints about it. I know it's pretty cutthroat. No one knows what to do, and you have to come out of the gate really big or it's a problem. I knew that going in. I was really happy that we made so many episodes and I got to work with all these people for over a year. We had a ton of fun. How it does is how it does, but that's not really how I personally judge it.
So it doesn't necessarily worry you that FOX is the same network that aired Firefly.
I actually don't know what that is. What is Firefly?
It was this Joss Whedon show that ran for, like, 14 episodes on FOX and then got cancelled and has since achieved this huge cult status. There was a movie and there are conventions.
Oh, wow. Well, I'll say this: In a year, no matter what FOX does, I'll be doing comedy regardless.
One thing you're probably sick of at this point is people comparing your show to Seinfeld.
Oh, of course. I'm sick of talking about the show. Do you want to talk about the stand-up show?
Oh, sure, we can talk about that.
I just kind of wanted to make sure I hit the show I have in Dallas this week.
Right, and we'll definitely mention that. I did have a lot of things I wanted to ask about the show, though.
Alright, well, I'll answer one more.
One of the biggest criticisms the show gets — and again, sorry for the Seinfeld comparison, here — is your kind of Jerry-like approach to non-acting. It's not so much bad acting, so much as the show as a whole seems to be making a lot of meta references to '90s sitcoms, and maybe a lot of that goes over audiences' heads. Is that fair to say?
There's a few different things in that question. I don't have much of an answer for that, sorry. I don't like to dissect anything about critiques of the show. Comedy is kind of like when you like a girl in high school. If she does not like you back, she does not like you back. People sort of form opinions quickly — about TV shows especially. Out of all the jobs I have on the show, one thing that's not my job is to be a critic of it. I don't really like to dissect people's critiques of the show. I definitely wanted to make a network multi-cam that looked and felt like one that had stranger jokes to it and a stranger tone. We accomplished a lot of what we wanted.
Is TV a world you want to end up in? Or do you see stand-up as always being your bread and butter?
Comedian, first and foremost. I wanted to do this particular show, so I did it. I sort of do what I'm interested in, and doing a TV show like that, I was interested in. Beyond that, nothing really beats doing stand-up. Hence why I wanted to do a live sitcom, too. There's nothing better than being in front of a live audience.
Is it just that immediate reaction of not having to wait around a year for the show to air to see if the jokes land?
Let alone two years! I had two pilots. I had one at NBC. So, yeah, getting away from that is a good thing — especially because I had done stand-up and I worked in live TV, where you'd find out in one week what people think is best.
Are you working new material on this tour?
Yeah! I'm working on an hour that I'll be shooting as a special. I was not on the road for a long time, so it's very cool to be back, working on a whole new chunk of material and going to a lot of cities I haven't been to, like Dallas.
So, no stuff from the previous specials.
Oh yeah. There's nothing from the last two specials. You can't really do that. It's been on Pandora, it's all out there, people have already heard it. That's great — I'm psyched that they have. But you always want to give people a new show.
I guess that's a way comedy's changed a lot in recent decades.
Well, people wouldn't record whole hour specials all the time. So people kind of saw your act when they saw you live.
Do you enjoy that? Does it keep you on your toes given the quick turnaround you used to work with at Saturday Night Live?
Yeah, I think I do like it. I think it's a pretty cool time that there's a general peer pressure to always turn over new material. That's the way it is in the U.K. Comedians have their hour show that they do at something like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they turn it over every year. It's a great bar to set for yourself. I should say, I think it's OK if people wait a couple years — if, like myself, they were working on other stuff.
That's kind of the same way they approach their sitcoms over there in the U.K., too. They write one season and then, oftentimes, they don't ever plan on coming back for a second season.
Yeah, which is cool. I really like that. Kroll Show decided after three seasons that this is the final one. They felt they did everything they wanted to do. I think that's a very cool model.
Before you left SNL, was there ever any talk that you'd take over the Weekend Update segment?
There's not a lot of talk like that, in general. You'd be surprised. Things kind of happen when the time is ready for them to happen. People don't plan as much as you think in this business. It's a place that kind of lives in the moment, and, in general, things just kind of happen when the timing is right. It wasn't like something that was discussed. I certainly liked doing bits on Update.
Not to keep going back to the sitcom, but Elliot Gould plays a weird neighbor in your show, and I was wondering what weird neighbors you've had while living in New York.
I had a neighbor, many years ago, this woman, and her friend was always over. He was this gay guy in his 50s and she was in her late 60s. They were always kind of stoned, and would eat chicken nuggets from the freezer. Like, they would make chicken nuggets on a pan and they would be eating them. I'd go over there to borrow her cart — she had this pushcart with wheels that I would borrow to move stuff around New York. I really liked the idea that, I'd go over there — and I don't drink or do anything myself — but these older folks were always stoned. That was sort of the genesis of the Oscar character. They were both old New York people, too, who told me lots of stories about the West Village and Greenwich Village, where we lived, and knew about what bar used to be a gay bar and then after that was a leather bar and now is an expensive bistro. They would tell you the history of everything.
A lot of history — but a lot of bar history.
Yeah, it was a lot of, “I went there once to complain about the noise, and they gave me some coke so I was like, 'OK, fine!'” and stories like that.
Are you still watching a lot of SVU these days?
Yeah, I watch it every week! I wish they made more episodes. I noticed they take a lot of time off.
They've always done this, but I've noticed that this season they seem to be doing the ripped-from-the-headlines thing more than usual.
There's been a surplus of perfect-storm SVU stories, where there'll be some sort of notable person in a sex scandal that they can spin into a murder. They've really got their plate full.
They've been turning some of these around pretty quick, too — like the Ray Rice episode.
That was good. Yeah, they turned that around quick. I noticed that. I was like, “Oh, look at them!”
So the show hasn't lost any of its charm for you over the years?
I think it's gotten better. They have these more-dramatic cold opens to the show now before the theme song. It used to just be someone going through their day, stumbles across a dead body and theme music hits. And now they have these sort of operatic things. Sometimes there are, like, montages set to music. They're really stepping up their direction. I like it a lot.
It's good to hear I'm not the only one that doesn't think the show's lost something.
No, I've never thought that. I miss characters for, like, two weeks. Then I just get into whoever is there. I appreciate the past of SVU, but I'm always ready for the future. It's the most healthy attitude I have about anything.
I thought it was pretty genius for you to have Ice T do the intro on your show.
We didn't want him to self-identify. We recorded it, but we thought it'd be funnier if only some people know. He's the perfect narrator.
It was an embarrassing amount of episodes before I put two and two together and realized that he was involved because you love SVU so much and have so many riffs about it in your specials. Once I did get it, though, I just thought it was the greatest thing.
That's my show's approach! Nobody gets it, but we hope they eventually do.
John Mulaney performs on Thursday, January 22, at the Majestic Theatre. More information and tickets are available here.