John Mulaney Talks to Neal Brennan About His New Show, O.J., and More

Photo: Bryan Derballa

Neal Brennan and John Mulaney have had stand-up specials, written for popular sketch shows, and starred on TV shows; however, now, more than ten years into their friendships and stand-up careers, they find themselves in similar places: theaters. Late last year, Mulaney, along with Nick Kroll, had a residency in an Off Broadway theater, performing as their longtime characters Oh, Hello. (A show that they've now taken on the road. They will be in Chicago March 18 to 24 and Los Angeles March 30 to April 2.) Currently through April 9, Brennan can be seen at New York's Lynn Redgrave Theater, in his one-man show, 3 Mics. In the virtuosic show, Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle's Show, deconstructs stand-up into parts: one-liners, stand-up, and emotional stuff. The audience leaves with a rich picture of Brennan and his own deep understanding of comedy.

When Mulaney was in town last week, Vulture had him and Brennan come down to the New York Magazine office to take pictures and discuss how they know each other, their shows, and, of course, O.J.

When they first heard of each other:

John Mulaney: I remember when I first heard about you.
Neal Brennan: I heard about you through Jessi Klein in probably 2003 or 2004. 

That's early. 
She was right on top of it. She said I would like you. When I heard "John Mulaney," my first thought was, Mitch Mullany? Do you get that a lot? There was a comic named Mitch Mullany. 

I vaguely remember that now. 
The irony of it is when [Chris] Rock was assembling his Oscar writer staff, he called me and I was like, "I couldn't do it." And he was like, "Okay, so you'll be a guy I call a few days before? You and Mitch Mullany." He still called you Mitch Mullany until, I guess, six weeks ago. 

That's fine. I'm good with that. I heard of you my second day in New York as a human being. In 2003, I was an intern at Comedy Central, and I was getting my tour of being an intern from [comedian] Wendy Spero. And you came in that day. You were one of the first people I met in comedy. You came in to meet with [former Comedy Central executive] Lou Wallach about directing. Did you direct in the first season?
I did not. I directed the second.

You came in and Wendy was like, "That's Neal Brennan. He's meeting with Lou about directing. He seems cocky, but he's really nice."
That seems about right.

It was the perfect introduction to a dude. I knew how to read you from the second I met you — "He seems cocky, but he's a very nice guy." 
Yeah, someone described me as a wrestling heel. 


Writing and the preshow:

You seem to have a decent work-life balance. My girlfriend would like me to have something closer to your schedule. Though, you're on the road more than I am. 

Yeah, but when I'm home, I try to really be home.
I have no idea what your day is like. All I know about you is that you have a writing ritual where you have to go to your computer between ten and one, right?

I would hate to front like I do that every day. But it is a thing I read in Philip Glass's autobiography. He literally sat at the piano and he could not get up for three hours. 
I just bought a word-processor computer that does not have the internet. It cost $500, which seems like a lot.

I did the "sitting there and you just have to generate" thing a bunch this year. I had no schedule, no deadlines, so to put together the show with Kroll, when our only bosses truly were ourselves, I had to be like, "Okay, this just has to be hours a day."
And I'm assuming Kroll is super on top of it, too, right? 

Yeah, he was. And the show was written a lot like a vaudeville show, in that we just did like 50 performances of it and kept on adding the jokes we added onstage.
What would you go onstage with? 

Well, the first time we went on with a pretty presentational shape. And we knew we'd take questions, too. From there we tried a few different formats before we got to the format we have now. So, we had that, a couple writing sessions, and also a ten-year backlog of bits. We've been doing these characters nonstop, even alone with each other, for ten years. 
Are there times when Kroll will do it and you don't want to do it? He'll be like [does the voice], and you'll be like, "Not now, Nick."

No. That character never doesn't serve me. It's never not going to serve you to be a reckless, exhausted, sleepy, mean—

Yeah. Those guys can be excited about stuff and super-buzzkills, yet it's never not comfortable to play a character that's exhausted and angry.
The exhausted part is what's interesting about it. 

Oh, like I ate so much Indian food before a show in D.C. To the extent that you're like, "You're about to go onstage, bro." 

No, by recklessness. But once I was onstage I was like, Ugh. Oh God. And it works for the character. This character probably has stomach issues. 
I almost thought I got food poisoning twice during the show. Because I'm so dumb. My show starts at 9:30 and I will pick up food at 8:55. 

Hilarious. I have crazy rituals about stand-up. If I fly, it has to be early in the morning and I have to go back to bed in the city I'm in. Like, I can't land at four, get something garbage to eat, and then do the show. I truly cannot. But with Oh, Hello, I'll just speed up to the theater five minutes before it starts, eating Indian food. 
Maybe it's because my wrestling-heel character is exhausted, somewhat. 

That's true. Maybe you're super pissed about something. Are you bored of the show yet?
No. Because I don't do Sunday and Monday shows.

Oh, you get out of the groove?
Yeah. Like, we're talking on a Wednesday. Last night I did the show and was panicked like I'd never done it before. 

We had that in San Francisco. We hadn't done it in a week or so and we were backstage, and we both looked at each other and were like, "I don't know what this show is, Nick."
How was it?

We knew it. It was muscle. 
I think, I have no idea. And then I say to myself, Well, you've never totally forgotten it yet.

Yeah. And you know somewhere in your heart that it would be interesting to not remember what's next.
I don't think that would be true on my show.

You could do it at the confessional mic. "Look, I ate dinner 20 minutes ago. I'm in a huge hurry. I have no idea what's going on." Do you like the Redgrave? 
Yeah. Have you worked there?

Nope. I saw Birbiglia there. 
His show is at 7:30, mine's at 9:30, so I'm basically roommates with Mike Birbiglia. 

You cross over in the dressing room?
We don't share the same dressing room, but it's like the hull of a ship. He'll come in after his show, and then I'll be like, "Okay, man." He knows. Doing a show, it's hard when someone has to stop bothering you. "You can't talk to me anymore."

Yeah, it really hits a minute. Like, your show's at 7:30, you can be charismatic and nice from seven to 7:15, and then they'll say, "So, how was Seattle?" And you go, "No. No. No. No no no no. No more. No. No." 
And also we all want to be like, "I'm such a good performer; I can be in a dead sleep and someone wakes me up and I just go and shine." Whereas I need to fucking concentrate.

I need to concentrate. This is a full performance. If I went out there with the way I really am, people would be screaming, demanding their money back. 
Even stand-up? 

This is a heightened person that needs to get there. And I won't get there. 
But your offstage-John is not that much different than your onstage. 

Nor is yours, but it's more contemplative [laughs].
Yours is more ambivalent. Offstage you're more thoughtful.

I'm not like a little machine gun. 
The thing you come out with is usually meaner than it is onstage [laughs]. Offstage you take time to say meaner things.

[Laughs.] "You take time to really think through a takedown."
Yeah, that's what I like about you offstage.

You are as advertised. Birbiglia used that expression about a comedian and I liked it. There's nothing since I first saw you that's like, "Oh, that's not you." Or, "That's the punch line, but I know Neal doesn't really feel that way."
Well, that's the thing, if you establish yourself as someone, you go, "No, this is what I'm like. I'm grandfathering myself into controversial opinions."

Photo: Bryan Derballa

Giving and getting notes, and people coming to shows:

I haven't seen your show. I keep missing it, but I get the idea.

Yeah, you'll enjoy it, but you won't be like, "Ohhh. That's what it is."
You were very helpful with my show. Though, when I told you the premise, you thought I'd be jumping around more. 

I don't know if I was helpful. I was like, "Don't do anything major to this." 
But that's a nice note to get. 

I hope it is. I hope it's helpful. I feel like some people feel on the hook to be like, Okay. I better think of like ten ideas.
Which school are you from: Your friends need encouragement or your friends need to know every thought you have? 

I put myself in the position of, if this was my show and someone could go, "This is really good – relax," I'd rather hear that than "Here are ten notes." Because even if I reject their notes, I will subconsciously start to take them, or at least they will bother me. 
Yeah, it's hard to forget a note, especially if you respect the person. Who was the person who came to see Oh, Hello that got you most in your head while you were doing it?

I'm not in my head about Oh, Hello. Not Oh, Hello. Who was it for your show?
At the opening, Chappelle and Rock were sitting next to each other. Dave had seen the show a couple of times, so I wasn't worried about him. But I've never argued more with someone in my head than Rock during that show. During the show. In the show, generally, I'd talk for ten minutes and there's a blackout, and every blackout I would think, Well, fuck you, Rock. In Bring the Pain you did a thing that I ... Very defensive, even though it was uncalled for. 

Jim Downey from Saturday Night Live saw me do stand-up once and I was like, This is a guy with great comedy principles. That can be scary once you're in the stand-up trenches. You're like, Hey, man, I gotta survive out there. I gotta get a couple of applause breaks here. I may say some things ... And he was great after. How was it after with Rock and Chappelle?
Dave was great, and Chris was decent. 

Has your family seen 3 Mics?
My brother snuck in the other night.

Kevin [Brennan, who is also a stand-up]?

He snuck in? Like didn't ask for a ticket. 
Didn't tell me he was coming. 

Do you want to talk about that?
I mean, that's all I know.

Did he come backstage?

[Laughs.] Oh, okay.
I have a complicated family life, John. The rest of the family has not seen it.

So, you didn't see your brother. You can see the first three rows, though. Who's come that's been the weirdest to see in the audience?
Robert Pattinson from Twilight

Not from The Rover
Jerrod Carmichael brought him, and he was cool. But I like when someone who doesn't go to a lot of comedy goes to a comedy show, because they don't know how to talk about it. 

What did he say?
They're almost insulting you, but it's like watching a baby talk. You're going to insult me, but you don't even know the parameters for insult.

But a baby insulting me would throw me, too. When little kids are like, "You love doody." I'm like, "Goddammit, no I don't."
So, he came and—

Wait, I really want a play-by-play. Knock knock knock on the dressing-room door.
Jerrod told me he was bringing him. Which I had no context for. I haven't seen Twilight.

Right. It's like if he said, "I'm bringing a bunch of really nice glitter."
Yeah, and I know people like glitter, but I've aged out of glitter. So, we ate afterward and he was like, "It was a weird vibe. There were proper old people and then big dudes with bald heads and their girlfriends." And I said to him, "Yeah, it's hard to control who your fans are."

And I said, "It must've been weird to see that I had fans who didn't automatically want to have sex with me within 15 seconds." But he was nice about the show. 

Everyone was of age, and no one wanted to have sex. Or rather, no one wanted you to hug them and kiss them and say that you were their boyfriend. I love that he showed up at the Redgrave Theater and was like, "What are proper old people doing here?" At an Off Broadway show.
I think he expected a monolithic audience of just one type of person.

But also, he doesn't flinch at the Off Broadway ticket price. To him, it's just like this happening. 
But he was actually a funny dude. He said some funny things at dinner. But I had the thought about when a beautiful woman hosts SNL and all of the guys on the show would be like, "She is funny." And [Amy] Poehler would be like, "Yeah, it's because she didn't bite your dick off, you think she's funny." 

Photo: Bryan Derballa

Career goals:

I'm realizing now that at the beginning of this you said that Rock said he was going to reach out to Mitch Mullany about writing for the Oscars, but also he didn't. Not only did he call me "Mitch," he never called anyway.
I guess he felt he was all right.

He did do great. So, he was all right. I wouldn't have had anything.
Yeah, did you have anything?

Oh yeah, I had a whole bunch of Oscar jokes written, waiting by the phone. You ever have someone go like, "Yeah, we'd love to bring you in," and then they don't. You're like, "Do I reach out to them?" [Laughs.] And you know the answer to that.
Yeah, not a lot of reaching out to people. Showbiz is like dating in that way, where if someone says, "We should get together," you can't be like, "So ... " 

Yeah, I need to think of something in the moment to go like, "Don't say that unless you mean it. I'm happy to stay home with my dog. Don't dangle no carrots." 
What is a carrot at this point?

Attention and validation is a carrot at this point. House poor at 33, hmm, what still entices me to get out there?
No, but what could someone offer you work-wise that you'd find hard to turn down?

That's a good question. What about you? I talked to you when I was thinking of leaving Saturday Night Live, and you were opposed to doing another TV show at the time. You were getting a lot of showrunner offers at the time. And for the readers: He was getting really good showrunner offers. I was really impressed that you were going to not do it.
Yeah. It's too hard. Running shows, you have all the stress of the president but you're not the president.

But that choice is less easy when you realize that there's only a couple of tracks. That was my thing at the time. I was like, "You could be in the 'my face on TV' game, or you could be in the 'more secure in the writing' game."
But I'm straddling.

So am I. It's really nice.
What is your "face on TV" plan?

Not do a show until I could do a show that's interesting. You know, Kroll and I sat down with Mel Brooks. And he said, "I always felt like a comedy writer. I always loved writing for Gene Wilder, and then we stopped working together and I was in the movies. I like doing a small part. I just feel like I'm a comedy writer." And that's how I feel, too. I like to be out there occasionally, but yeah. 
You like the team aspect of it. 

Oh, a billion percent. 
You know whose career I always liked?

Sydney Pollack.

He directs movies. He writes some of them. He's in Eyes Wide Shut

And he's great in it.
Yeah, he's in Tootsie, which he directed. 

I remember I was on tour last year when Mike Nichols passed away.
Did you know Mike Nichols at all?

No, I never met him. Did you?
Yeah, I did actually. I feel like you should've met him. [Both laugh.] That was a mistake on your part.

Yeah, looking at the Mike Nichols thing — all his movies are different, but he has his stamp on all of them. But also he worked with great writers, different casts. I'm waiting for the Harlem Nights trend to cool off — the trend of like starring the comedian, written by the comedian, produced by the comedian, music by the comedian. That's going to cool off soon, and we're going to get back to all working together.
Yeah, you think so? Because I feel like the fiefdom thing is strong.

I'm two years ahead of it. [Laughs.] I'm not really. 
No, but like Aziz did his thing.

Yeah, they're very good.
For me, you do stand-up, you get good at stand-up, and then you start working on TV shows and movies and you go, "Oh, this is all easier than stand-up." The hard part's the writing. So if you get the writing right, you're like, "Oh, I can direct it." There's that thing, "I'm not a director; I'm a protector." 

Oh, really?
Yeah. That's an old saying. Still, it's hard not to get jealous of things you're not doing at that point. They all have pitfalls. You're never not working for somebody. If you're the showrunner, you're working for the star basically. And you go, Well, I got to become the star. Then you become the star and go, Wait, the audience is staring at me the way the star used to.

Yeah, but if you make peace with that boss, it's fine. If you just respect when the audience fires you, it's actually quite liberating, when they go, "Nope!" And you go, "Okay. Bye." 
Yeah, there are no appeals with an audience.

Yeah, it's like girls in high school. When they're done with you, they're done with you. You walk in and you go, "What about me?" and they go, "Ew!" and you better leave right then. 


Oh, can we talk about O.J.?

You and I have had some great talks about O.J. ...
There's a thing you said about the O.J. trial that I've told a few people. You know when Steve Harvey screwed up who won the beauty contest? You said there was something like that at the O.J. trial every single day.

Every day, but also it was murder. 
You watch the FX show and go, "Oh, we still underestimated how great it was." 

Yeah, we knew 40 percent of the information, and it was the most entertaining thing ever. And now we're getting like 90 percent of the information. 
It is like Shakespeare in that they could remake this FX show every year. 

Yeah, from different perspectives. 
Or they could just do this script.

With different actors?

Oh, it becomes like Our Town? [Laughs.] That really should be done. 
Different director, different actors. It's the perfect test. 

Photo: Bryan Derballa

Yeah, it's one of the best stories ever told. And remember how sick we were of it? We were like, "This isn't funny anymore." And now when I hear people about Trump, I'm like, "You're going to miss this so much." And don't tense up, readers. Like in 20 years, we're going to make a nine-part Trump movie, because do not underestimate organic entertainment. It doesn't come around that often. Everyone's saying, "I thought it was funny at first. But this is serious. And this is disgusting." And that's the way we were right before the verdict. And then five years went by and we were like, "Why isn't there five hours of great real TV every day?" We had to invent all this bullshit. 
Yeah. And there's a six-hour documentary coming out about it. 

Great. I'm going to watch it. 
My first writing job was for MTV's Singled Out. And a guy got fired because he kept sneaking away to a janitor's closet to watch the O.J. trial. And I should've been with him looking back. He did the right thing. Watching the trial was almost like your civic duty. Like, that should've counted for jury duty.

You couldn't miss it. Cochran would put on the hat. 
I like when O.J. would put the glove on, he'd do the thing with his tongue. 

A pure Nordberg [O.J.'s character in the Naked Gun movies].
[Laughs.] Yes. 

He probably called the director of 33 1/3 and was like, "What should I do?" And he was like, "Oh, Nordberg it!"
Another O.J. story that I'd like to get on the record for posterity is that the other day I texted you and said, "You're making Dan Levy's kids refer to you as Uncle Juice, correct?" And you said, "Are you kidding? I emailed Levy this morning requesting that his kids refer to me as Uncle Juice." 

Dan Levy is a great comedian friend of both of ours. We're each other's Robert Kardashian. And each other's A.C. — more an A.C. because we rarely have a plan when we go out.
And you're prone to yell at cops for not knowing who you are. 

Yeah, and we both would be offended if someone didn't know who we were. 
The guy who got fired for going to the janitor's closet wrote a joke back then: "Knock knock. Who's there? A.C.? A.C., who? You know who I am, goddammit."

That became a street joke. 
I loved it. I may have been there for the birth of that joke. Rarely are you there for the birth of a street joke. 

Write down "birth of a street joke." That should be your memoir title. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.