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Mario Zucca

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John Mulaney Is Happy to Be Here

The former ‘SNL’ writer and sitcom star has found his career peak as a stand-up—which is just how he always wanted it

John Mulaney performed his biggest show to date with a tear in his hip. Buster Keatons of the world aside, comedy is not a physically taxing profession, nor do comedians usually consider bodily injury an occupational hazard. But sometime last summer, Mulaney knew something was wrong; soon, an MRI confirmed that he’d sustained a labral tear, just in time to refine his new special, Kid Gorgeous, and then record it at New York’s historic Radio City Music Hall. “I saw this physical therapist who does a lot of Broadway,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve seen this injury among the great prima ballerinas, but never someone who just stands there and talks!’”

To say the story is better than anything Mulaney could have written himself would be a vast underestimation of his talents. It does, however, fit so perfectly with his persona that it’s almost hard to believe he didn’t make it up himself. Like many of his stories, the joke is on Mulaney—in this case, the undeniable dweebiness of hurting yourself not from physical exertion, but from a lifetime of walking weirdly. Yet it’s packaged with the expertise of someone who’s long since figured out how to turn minor indignities into mutual amusement. It’s the archetypal Mulaney bit. No wonder he’s been leading with it in the run-up to the Kid Gorgeous release.

To some performers, stand-up comedy is a stepping stone. According to the conventional wisdom about the unconventional business of making other people laugh, there’s a natural ceiling to venturing onstage, alone, with a microphone in hand. In the long term, stand-up is the bridge between anonymity and a hit sitcom with your name on it, or movie stardom, or, more recently, a second life as an auteur.

Mulaney is not one of those performers.

“I wanted to do [the sitcom] to become a bigger stand-up comic,” he explains. We’re in a booth at Little Dom’s, the restaurant described as “a trendy Italian restaurant on the East Side of Los Angeles” in every celebrity profile you’ve ever read; Chadwick Boseman is quietly enjoying a solo breakfast 30 feet away. It’s been more than three years since the cancellation of his eponymous Fox series, Mulaney, an event that would come as a crisis point for virtually any other comic. The show’s failure did seem like a crisis point, if only for a few months. Now, it barely registers as a blip. “One thing I’ve learned is, there’s not these elephants in the room the same way you think there are,” Mulaney says. In Mulaney’s immediate aftermath, “I thought, ‘Everyone here is mad at me, and I need to address that I did a show that no one liked.’ Well, they also came just to see you.”

Since Mulaney’s conclusion, Mulaney himself has released The Comeback Kid, his widely acclaimed second hour-long special; had a successful run on Broadway with the stage version of Oh, Hello, the beloved sketch premise developed with longtime collaborator Nick Kroll; and finished a yearlong tour, culminating in the Netflix hour Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, the first installment of a multispecial deal. “I’ve been very, very fortunate that doing specials and making albums has allowed me to do more and more stand-up,” Mulaney reflects. “I did not think that was something you could do.”

With its grandiose, borderline intimidating locale, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City is a step up in scale even for a comedian used to working in theaters. (The title is a piece of trivia from The Simpsons; “Kid Gorgeous” is one of bartender Moe’s cast-off alter egos from his time in the boxing ring.) “It was kind of aspirational to tape there,” Mulaney says now, even after selling out the room for seven consecutive nights. “It’s like the whole building is the venue. The Wurlitzer organ,” played live by composer Jon Brion, “is built into the arches of the theater. The stage itself had three hydraulic levels that raise and lower.” In the special’s cold open, Mulaney ascends to the stage on one of said hydraulics, though the in-theater audience couldn’t actually see him do it. (“I was like, even if I don’t need to, I want to feel what it’s like.”) He’s still a little disappointed he couldn’t write a joke that required using the in-house rain jets.

Kid Gorgeous is directed by Oh, Hello’s Alex Timbers and set-designed by Scott Pask, who decks out the stage to look like Fritz Lang by way of the Christmas Spectacular. Mulaney describes it as “amazing to see, but still somehow narrow due to this solo performer on this big, old, way-too-big-for-him stage.” Which is a typically self-deprecating way of saying that the special’s setting may be grand, but the performer is still the same. Mulaney’s Midwestern Catholic upbringing figures prominently, as do his parents, his wife, his French bulldog Petunia, and Seinfeldian observations on subjects ranging from password security to zoos. Mulaney riffs on them with a practiced confidence that at least partially belies his frequent jokes about his meeker, more passive tendencies. “I look like I was just sitting in a room in a chair eating Saltines for, like, 28 years and then I walked right out here,” goes a representative line from his Netflix special New in Town.

Mulaney doesn’t like “to speak in don’t-want-tos.” Still, there are some comedy mainstays he conspicuously avoids: He’s not a confessional stand-up, or even a particularly personal one; though he’s mentioned being cheated on and getting sober in his act, he doesn’t go into great detail on either, simply using them as setups to punch lines. Nor does he draw from the deep pool of self-loathing that the sad-clown cliché would have us believe fuels every successful comedian; he makes jokes at his own expense, but they’re the kind that paradoxically show he’s secure enough to withstand a self-own or two. (“My wife said that walking around with me is like walking around with someone who’s running for mayor of nothing!”) And he’s not especially topical, though he can be when the situation calls for it.

Instead, Mulaney has craft—such deep reserves of it, and such affinity for it, that it’s more than enough to build a special on, and then another special, and then a career. Craft is what makes stand-up such an ideal showcase for him, because the format strips away everything but the joke. Without narrative, without characters, without an ensemble, you’re left with nothing but pure, unadulterated technique. “There’s a muscle memory for when I get a sentence how I like it,” Mulaney says—when he lands on the right turn of phrase or the exact timing of a pause. “That line never gets a laugh,” he admits midway through Kid Gorgeous after speculating that a detective “could look at a child and tell you the price of their coffin.” “But once you write it, it stays in the act forever.” Mulaney takes obvious pleasure in the process of stand-up, which is why he still operates primarily in the most unmediated form of generating laughter: stand-up as an end, not a means.

“One thing I’ve gotten in touch with is how angry I was all the time,” Mulaney says of his early years. “And sometimes ecstatically happy.” There are certain passages in a comedian’s autobiography that they return to over and over, seemingly bottomless wells of inspiration that form the cornerstones of their onstage identities. The way other comics revisit their debaucherous 20s or describe their undignified middle age, Mulaney likes to dwell on his childhood. “It felt incredibly dramatic,” he says. And to tweak a somewhat tired saying, drama plus time equals comedy.

Even at 35, a surprisingly high proportion of Mulaney’s jokes are sourced from the fundamental helplessness that comes with being a kid, even one with loving, supportive parents and a comfortable upbringing. In his debut comedy album, The Top Part, CNBC is like “listening to my parents talk about me in front of me and I don’t know what the fuck they’re saying, but I know that it’s gonna affect me”; Kid Gorgeous includes a lengthy diatribe on the bizarre ritual of school assemblies. “I was very inconvenienced by adults,” he tells me at Little Dom’s. “And also thought I was an adult, and was furious when I wasn’t treated like one. I remember my parents wanted me to go to camp, and I was like, ‘No. Summer’s my one time off. I have friends to see!’”

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Looming over this exaggerated version of Mulaney’s youth is an exaggerated version of Mulaney’s father, a lawyer who cross-examines his own child and once took a carful of kids through a McDonald’s drive-through only to order a single black coffee, an image of steely authority so indelible it spawned a meme. “It’s how he seemed when I was younger,” Mulaney says now. “Which is very stern and cutting. Very funny, but very caustic—someone I saw once in a while, in a suit, who would be like, ‘What the hell are you holding?!’” Though his actual father has warmed up with age and “kind of loves” being a character in Mulaney’s comedy, the person we hear about is the epitome of a kind of retro formality: “I didn’t see him in a T-shirt unless he went swimming. It was very much like Mr. Rogers. He would come home in a suit and, at most, put on a sweater for dinner.”

Mulaney himself has internalized at least some of that sensibility. After recording his 2009 episode of Comedy Central Presents in an untucked button-down and jeans, he now performs almost exclusively in suits, creating the impression that he’s time-traveled from a Johnny Carson set. (This makes for an amusing contrast with the schlubbier look that’s now de rigueur among the professionally funny.) “I did a show at the Laughing Skull in Atlanta, and I was dressed the same as everyone in the audience. And I was, like, 24,” he explains. “I was like, well, there’s no reason I should have a microphone versus everyone else. So after that, I started wearing a suit just because it was funny: The only reason I have a microphone is because I’m the most nicely dressed.” A decade later, he compares the liberating effect of having a default stand-up outfit already picked out, however upscale, to a school uniform—another link back to childhood, which he continues to reenact as a voice actor and occasional writers’ room contributor on the Netflix animated series Big Mouth. Then, of course, there’s the name Kid Gorgeous, complete with art that depicts Mulaney almost literally cherubic, framed by a halo.

“I guess I have the most perspective on it,” Mulaney speculates. “I have a lot of trouble talking about things until a lot of time has passed. Most of the movies I reference came out a solid 20 to 30 years ago.” But there’s also a universality to talking about one’s school days that lends itself to Mulaney’s consistent use of old-school showmanship. Mulaney isn’t technically a clean comic, but he’s clean-cut in a way that lends itself to commanding a room.

After graduating from Georgetown, where he first met Kroll as a freshman, Mulaney found success relatively quickly: He was hired as a writer at Saturday Night Live in 2008 at just 25 years old, a position he’d occupy for five years before returning to host last month. “It was like I’d been a dairy farmer and they were like, ‘You should be one of the cows,’” he says of his return to 30 Rock. “I was all flattered, and then I was like, ‘I remember what we used to do to the cows!’ Put them on wires and fly them around. Anytime I thought, ‘Do I get two hours now to sit and rewrite this sketch?’ it was like, ‘You will never get two hours to yourself until this week is over.’”

There’s not much struggling-young-adulthood material in Mulaney’s current act because there’s not much to mine from pitching jokes to Mick Jagger just a few years out of college. Not long after he started at SNL, The Top Part and his Comedy Central Presents episode were released within a week of each other. Combined with a handful of “Weekend Update” appearances and a string of classic SNL sketches often cowritten with Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer, Mulaney’s stand-up propelled him to the logical next step for a comedian on the rise: his own TV show.

NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“Can I tell you honestly?” Mulaney asks when I broach the subject of the Fox show, and how he thinks about it with the benefit of hindsight. “I think it was a really funny show. And I think it had tons of funny jokes. That’s not disagreeing with anyone who didn’t like it, but I think at the time I didn’t want to admit, ‘I thought it was good, guys. I wouldn’t have put it out there if I didn’t.’” Mulaney was a multicamera network sitcom that premiered years after comedians started migrating to premium cable, but before series like The Carmichael Show renewed critical interest in the soundstage-and-studio-audience setup. Expectations had shifted accordingly, and the show was met with accusations of reviving an outdated model without doing much to alter or improve on it. Mulaney himself thought there was a cheeky irony to deliberately leaning into a Seinfeld-esque dynamic well into the 21st century: “By 2013, the notion of being a stand-up and then doing a network, self-named show was corny in and of itself, which I found funny.” But audiences didn’t pick up on the self-awareness. And in retrospect, Mulaney isn’t entirely sure it’s what he wanted out of his post-SNL phase, even if the show had taken off.

“I am thrilled to death I don’t make 22 episodes of network TV a year,” he says. “You get yourself more episodes of a thing that’s wearing you down to the bone.” Even now, he’s in no rush to try again with a more highbrow concept. In the absence of an especially compelling idea, he prefers the rhythm of evening performances to being “on” at the crack of dawn: “There’s no gun-shyness about it. It is tough, I will say, to go from doing comedy at night for live audiences to doing comedy waking up at 6 a.m.” Mulaney was a valuable experience, but it wasn’t a defining one. “I do look back and think, we had a ton of funny stuff. Very few agree. And that’s OK.”

Mulaney’s biggest project in the years between Mulaney and Kid Gorgeous is a testament to pursuing specific passions over consensus next steps, especially if those passions involve diner menus and the bathroom policies at Zabar’s. Oh, Hello does not have the generally understood building blocks of a successful Broadway production. It’s not a crowd-pleasing musical, or a revival of a great American play with A-list movie stars. The show is the culmination of a years-long routine that’s taken the form of Funny or Die videos, Kroll Show sketches, and on one memorable occasion, a 92nd Street Y Q&A with Willie Geist. Mulaney and Kroll play George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon, two archetypal Upper West Siders who channel all the misanthropy of a notoriously misanthropic city into tuna-based pranks, unshakable entitlement, and blood feuds with Alan Alda.

The quickest answer of our entire interview comes when I ask Mulaney whether he and Kroll ever worried about getting enough material from two characters who confine themselves to a single ZIP code. (It’s a no; conversations have already started about a potential sequel.) “There’s no waters they won’t wade into,” he laughs. “Wherever they are, they deserve to be there. It’s why it’s the most fun to do.” It’s also why lines about improperly hung mezuzahs and tired stage play tropes brought in packed houses at the Lyceum Theatre for months, from late 2016 to early 2017. As with the carefully honed wording in Mulaney’s solo work, the enthusiasm is infectious.

Oh, Hello splices Mulaney’s eye for detail with the broad, committed character work that Kroll specializes in, a complementary skill set Mulaney says has cross-pollinated over time. “I used to say that I like precision and Nick can improvise and provide the anarchy, and the mix of them is great,” he notes. “I have a knee-jerk fear of not having a loaded gun.” Now, he’s more comfortable without a set agenda: “I enjoy the no script, no plan, no-ness more. I definitely started to enjoy just being lost in character working with Nick.” Mulaney’s attention to detail has served him well, but his acquired taste for winging it continues to come in handy. “The reason I like this tour and this special is it was written,” but when it came time to film, “it was pencils down, and there was an urgency to that. Some things were still new to me in a fun way.”

“When you say those people’s names, there’s a gasp of, not, ‘Oh, please don’t’—it’s like PTSD,” Mulaney recounts. He and Kroll have cohosted IFC’s Film Independent Spirit Awards for the past two years, an otherwise routine gig that came this year with some extra responsibilities. Like every host this past awards season—like every comedian working right now—the duo had to calibrate their humor to treat the current cultural moment with the gravity it deserves. A crack about Harvey Weinstein’s tombstone reading “XXL unmarked grave,” one of the night’s sharpest and best, was met with stunned quiet from the immediate audience. “Some things we just wanted to say, and I think said knowing they were room silencers.”

Joking about the post-Weinstein moment in the belly of the beast is a highly specific situation, but it’s also a microcosm of a larger quandary for comedians in 2018: how to address the elephant in the room without puncturing the mood. “We’ve been thinking about this all day,” he says, paraphrasing the attitude toward Trump jokes he was picking up on tour. “A new take would be great. Some sort of silly side road would be great.” Mulaney’s response to that perceived desire is a lengthy diatribe comparing the president to a horse loose in a hospital, Kid Gorgeous’s only direct mention of what Mulaney calls “the current sitch.” The effect isn’t unlike the “why buy the cow?” bit from The Comeback Kid—an analogy that starts off as clichéd, but snowballs its way to novelty by pushing the hypothetical to its breaking point, then several lines past it.

Mulaney is also aware that even jokes that aren’t explicitly topical tend to be an indirect product of their context. “It’s called Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” he says. “I wanted it to be, more so than other specials, ‘This took place at a certain time, at a certain place.’ The place being this incredibly dynamic, crazy-beautiful venue in New York in the winter, during one of the weirder times in recent memory.” There are subtle traces of the national mood in an hour that also works as an effective distraction from it: “Even if I didn’t mention things, there’s a level of anger and insanity in every joke. I was like, ‘You’re getting exasperated about renting a tux. I think maybe your anger is about something else.’”

Political commentary isn’t a cornerstone of Mulaney’s image, but a certain conscientiousness is. There’s a paradoxical quality to Mulaney’s old-school aesthetic, because it’s paired with a distinctly contemporary outlook. Mulaney is the kind of guy who fits your grandma’s stereotype of a classical comedian, but also happily takes you up on your request to spend a few minutes talking about why he enjoys RuPaul’s Drag Race: “I think lack of sense of humor really hurts a contestant in a way that I’m like, ‘This is far more a comedy competition than I would have thought.’ They make nothing look worse than someone being unfunny.”

There’s a sense of decency and guilelessness to Mulaney’s self-presentation that goes beyond how he handles hot-button issues. It’s what gives a mid-interview aside about absorbing Lou Reed’s misanthropy the cognitive dissonance that makes it so endearing: “I was driving Petunia to and from day care the week before SNL, and I was listening to this Lou Reed biography on an audio book, and I had this attitude all of a sudden, like, ‘Man, this is all bullshit.’ I was like, What’s going on with me? Oh, you’ve just been in the car with Petunia and Lou Reed for too long. Both of whom are very over life.” It’s what allows him to pull off telling jokes about how performing in front of adoring crowds makes famous people crazy to a 6,000-person audience that sounds pretty adoring. And it’s what gives him some admirable perspective on a trajectory that hasn’t followed expectations, apart from the one that matters most.

“I was in St. Louis this tour,” he recalls. “It was midshow. And I was like, ‘Huh. This is all I’ve ever wanted. I don’t think I ever wanted anything more than this.’ Doesn’t sound ambitious, but …”

I tell him that selling out Radio City for a week straight sounds pretty ambitious to me.

“It’s plenty,” he acknowledges. “It is, isn’t it?”

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