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How a Terrible Night in New Jersey Made John Mulaney the Comedian He Is Today

John Mulaney

You watch John Mulaney in his new Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, and it’s hard not to think he was made in some lab to do stand-up. I like to describe him as the LeBron James of comedy, in that he is great at everything a stand-up can be good at. But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, Mulaney was a clever young man, bombing specifically for audiences who paid to see him. Everything changed after the worst set of his life, one fateful night in New Jersey. It’s the story of how he got his joke about $100 million movies to work.

This night, and the advice he got afterward, is the subject of the premiere episode of the third season of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The joke eventually went through a pretty drastic change. How did it start?
When I started it, it was phrased much more conceptually. Like, “You know how movies cost a hundred million? What if you could see the money?” I know it seems like a small difference, but it was like, “Here’s a premise.” That worked in some rooms like, “Hey I have a premise to give you.” And people would go, “Oh that’s great.” And they’d snap instead of clapping or whatever.

Then how did that change?
I was doing it at the Stress Factory in New Jersey, which is a comedy club where people have paid cover charge and a two-drink minimum and everything, and I just ate it. Like, I just ate it the whole time. I bombed so terribly. Just silence. It was really just terrible, like back-sweating terrible. And afterwards, Ross Bennett, who was the headliner, gave me great advice that I will always be thankful for. He said, “You know,” he said, “you’re very funny. But these people have no time for your cleverness. Just get to the point.”

What does that mean in practice?
It’s a tiny change, but it was about just getting back to why I first thought of it: “Aren’t people just impressed by the feat of getting that much money together?” Which is where it came from. The way I used to deliver it was like, “What if instead of a movie you saw the money?” It’s a small difference, but I just like getting in touch with a little bit of exasperation I had of like when a big movie would get a bad review. It’s like, “Aren’t you just impressed that they did it? And they made a fake spaceship and stuff and had helmets on?”

Do you remember the first time you changed it and then the audience’s reaction?
Yes. The next night, at the Stress Factory. It was just as you heard on the album, but probably more nervous because I had just bombed horribly the night before. It’s so tiny in wording, but I think it made a big difference laying that groundwork so people know what I mean, and then I can get into like, a carnival barker and a pirate chest joke.

Yeah, the second half is still “clever,” but at least you’re like, “This is why we’re here. I have this thing.”
Yeah, “This is why we’re here” is a big thing to learn for jokes because you can have great tags to jokes, they can finish strong, they can have like little bits of texture and cleverness in them, but if people don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re just done.

How do you think the audience perceives the joke differently?
They perceive it as, “For better or worse, this gentleman is super worked up about this, so we will listen.” Like, “At this moment, in this club, this is very important to this young man, and he seems to be very exasperated about it, so I’ll listen.” Like, if someone’s screaming on the street, you just pay attention because, “What is he so worked up about?” Even if it’s that someone tied up a bike in front of his house.

Can you think of an example from a more recent bit where this very much applied?
I’d say all of them. I’d say everything I had done since then, I thought, “If you don’t care, or if you don’t seem like you care, why should they care?” You know, you’re the one with the microphone for some reason, and they’re sitting there in chairs listening to you for some reason, so you better act like you care about this. I started to pick things that I had more strong takes on, as stupid or random as they may be.

Is there something that you’re talking about now that you feel is a different area than you have before?
Is there a different area? I don’t know. I will say looking back at a lot of the stuff, playing that thing from The Top Part, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s all the same person who’s weirdly angry about certain things.” It just maybe comes out more and more or shows itself in laughing at how absurd things are or just still being white-hot mad about it.

Are you gonna see Ocean’s 8?
Yes! I will see Ocean’s 8. Are you asking because of …

Maybe, maybe.
In my special New in Town, I had a joke. I was new to dating my now wife, and it was a joke about how it’s sometimes hard to get groups of women who don’t know each other to hang out. And in the joke, I said, like, “They could never do an Ocean’s Eleven of all-women because two would keep breaking off to talk shit about the other nine.” And people have said to me, “Look, they’re proving you wrong.” And I’m like, What? No, no, no, it wasn’t like a statement. In my experience, with my girlfriend, it was something I noticed and was a joke I said onstage. It wasn’t like a speech saying that there can’t be an Ocean’s Eleven with women. Of course there can be. It’s gonna be a great movie.

If or when you host SNL again, do you have any other sketches that never made it to air that you’d like to try?
Yeah, there are some things. Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer and I used to write about three pieces a week every week for about three years. We had a lot of misses. We had a lot of no-make-its. When I hosted we did the sketch “Switcheroo,” which had not made it past the table before. And we didn’t set out like, “Okay, he said I can host, we’ve got to do ‘Switcheroo!’” That was kind of our baby that we loved the most and then we said, “Hey, we’ll call it ‘Sitcom Reboot’.” Because there are all these sitcom reboots now. In the beginning, Cecily talks about all these reboots, so it seems topical, but it’s not. It’s “Switcheroo.” After that paragraph, we’re back to “Switcheroo.” But, yeah, there are a couple of other things that we’ve talked about. One about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and an asteroid.

How John Mulaney Became the Best Joke Writer of a Generation