Mulaney Is a Stand-Up Letdown

Photo: FOX

John Mulaney is a very funny stand-up comedian whose material I have delighted in for many years. I hope the shortcomings of Mulaney don't ruin his chances of having a better, funnier show in the future, because as things stand now, Mulaney is not a show I can root for. Maybe next time.

The pilot has a weird, sour attitude about women, including an opening stand-up bit adapted from a story on Mulaney's 2009 album about the comedian accidentally chasing a woman in the subway. Except the original is incisive and confessional and self-aware, while the sitcom version makes it seem like "Mulaney" doesn't care about how terrifying it is to be chased. SNL's Nasim Pedrad plays one of Mulaney's roommates, and she decries sexist double-standards while also being a cookie-cutter "crazy ex-girlfriend" (and a straight-up, should-have-a-restraining-order-against-her stalker). Seaton Smith plays Motif, Mulaney's other roommate and a fellow stand-up comedian who develops the catchphrase "problem bitch." This isn't a pilot fluke: Subsequent episodes keep up with the weird, off-putting gender politics, particularly the kind that focus on how nuts and confusing women are. Did you know that ladies be crazy? It's the kind of reductive, limited comedy you can see at any seedy open-mike night, but Mulaney's one of the bright, rising stars of the stand-up world.

The show invites comparisons to Seinfeld and Friends, though having a whole episode about a character watching Friends, in which someone compares Mulaney himself to Seinfeld, perhaps it's less "invites" and more "demands." Well, you asked for it, Mulaney: The show is not as good as Seinfeld or Friends. It's not actually possible for any show to come out of the gate and be Seinfeld or Friends (or Cheers, Frasier, or The Cosby Show or whatever) — comedies all need time to grow into themselves, to develop running gags, to explore and hone character chemistry. I am not surprised that Mulaney has not become Friends in the first four episodes.

But I am surprised that the show doesn't know whether it likes its characters. You don't have to like your characters to be a good show — see: Seinfeld — but you have to decide. On Friends, the whole point of the series is that everyone likes each other, and the show considers this mutual admiration to be valorous and correct. On Seinfeld, the main characters have a deep bond that seems unrelated to actual liking, and the series allows for the audience to treat its characters with a little bit of distance and maybe even a shred of disdain, not unlike how they treat one another. That's why so many secondary characters on Seinfeld often recoil at or dismiss whatever our Main Four People are thinking about or doing. Elaine Benes isn't really a worse person than Rachel Green, but we can love Elaine while still finding some of her behavior horrible; with Rachel, you're supposed to just love everything about her. One of these isn't inherently better or worse than the other, but Mulaney is neither: Do these these people genuinely like each other, or are they just in each others' karass? Is everyone Kramer? Is the Mulaney character the sane one in an insane world? Or is he just as crazy as everyone else? If we're supposed to see the world through his eyes, it would help if we knew what his vision was like.

Part of the reason the friend characters feel so half-baked is that Mulaney splits its time between home and work, where Mulaney is a writer/assistant/whipping boy for a famous comedian and game-show host, played by Martin Short. Short is the only cast member really playing to the multi-camera setup, which seems almost ostentatious — everyone else is delivering muffled, vague performances, while Martin Short's over there writhing around on the floor pretending to put on pants. Again, "you're not as funny as Martin Short" is an unfair barometer, but it's a barometer the show built in for itself. Elliott Gould also appears, and while he's more or less fine (and creates a weird worlds-collide dissonance since he's Monica and Ross's father on Friends), it's not clear what the character is meant to add to the show other than meet the "wacky neighbor" quotient.

Translating stand-up to a multi-camera sitcom usually requires a super strong supporting cast. Roseanne isn't just a reenactment of stand-up segments, it's a whole, fully inhabited world populated by superb comic actors. Everybody Loves Raymond always stressed me out, but even I can acknowledge that the Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts were really selling it. Jerry's not the one doing the pratfalls on Seinfeld, nor does the show work without Jason Alexander's finely tuned anxiety. But Mulaney's ensemble just isn't powerful enough, and rather than jazz up so-so material, they somehow drain the energy from possibly funny moments. There's a scene in the third episode, in which Mulaney dates a doula, that maps the beats of childbirth onto the removal of an air-conditioner. This should be a big, loud, physical-comedy bonanza. Instead, it has all the pizzazz of a seventh-grade presentation on the vectors of malaria transmission.

What makes John Mulaney the Actual Person's stand-up funny is his specificity and vulnerability, neither of which make it into the first four episodes of the series. I guess that could change, and that could help the show right itself. (Or write itself. Heyo!) For now, though, you're better off sticking to the shows Mulaney aspires to be.