The Writer’s Room: A Conversation with SNL Writer John Mulaney

Welcome to The Writer’s Room! This is the first in a series of interviews with comedy writers currently working in film and TV where I’ll talk to them about the writing process, working in comedy and how, exactly, somebody makes a living writing funny things down.

Up first: John Mulaney, a stand up comedian and comedy writer currently heading into his third year as a writer on Saturday Night Live.

Rachael Mason: How did you get into comedy writing?

John Mulaney: I did sketch comedy and theater things from the time I was very young at local theaters in Chicago that had programs for kids. And then I did a little theater in high school and then long-form improv all through college. And in my junior year of college I started doing standup comedy, and have been working as a standup since. At the same time, beyond writing for myself, I started writing for some pilots at Comedy Central. Then I was a writer for Important Things with Demetri Martin. After the first season of that show was over, I was working on a standup special and I was writing a movie with my friend Nick Kroll, and that same summer I was hired as a writer at SNL.

RM: So you started writing sketch as a kid? Or were you just performing it?

JM: I have always tried to remember exactly what we did. There was this theater program for kids to do sketch comedy that I started when I was maybe 7. I think we would do improv games and then, when we had our sketch show, we would do the best of those games. There was a director, and I don’t remember ever having a script, but I think we rehearsed things that came out of improv games to make them into sketches.

RM: Do you remember writing your first sketch?

JM: I remember we had a sketch where I was someone’s translator and someone asks them where they got those shoes and they would have a really, really long answer in foreign gibberish and then I would translate it and just say “Penny’s” – the English translation was really short. That’s probably like a Sid Caesar type of joke or something, but I remember thinking “”Hey, why don’t we do this?” I don’t remember the context of the sketch. I think I was a translator at a restaurant.

RM: So then later you started writing standup. Do you have a process for that? Do you sit down everyday and write? How do you develop material?

JM: I wish I could say I sat down every day and wrote. I do a lot of shows. I don’t walk out on stage with nothing and improvise. I know comics who do that and get really great stuff out of it, but I’ve never really done that. And yet I will work on jokes on stage a lot. So I do a lot of shows and I will write for that show, it’s a way to…

RM: Give yourself a deadline?

JM: Yeah, I’ll say “I’m doing Whiplash tonight at UCB” and I just want to do three or four new jokes and I will work towards that. That could produce really disposable stuff that I don’t end up doing ever again, but I’ve gotten really good jokes out of it too. So I just keep scheduling shows and write towards that show. And when I’m on the road and I ‘m doing an hour I am obviously doing a lot more time, so I’m doing a lot of jokes that I’ve worked on, but I still say “What new material am I doing at the 8 o’clock show?” So, I’m not a big “I’ll write every day no matter what “ type, I wish I was. I definitely write towards live shows themselves and write on deadlines well. If I had a process, that’s the closest to it. I think of things, I write down jokes in a notebook, I then will, after a couple of weeks, have a bunch of things in the notebook, and I will type them up, and going from the notebook to typing helps me remember them and add to them and flesh them out. And then I will do them on stage and then that helps me too, that normally helps edit them, saying them live.

RM: You obviously write primarily sketch at your job at SNL. Is there a difference in the way you think of ideas for sketch or the way your write for sketch as opposed to standup?

JM: It’s much more collaborative here [at SNL]. I really like working with other people more than I do working alone. There have been only a handful of things I’ve written myself, sketch-wise. I would rather work with the people I like collaborating with. There are people who can write alone and they have a fine-tuned enough ear that it’s as if they have someone there to bounce jokes off of, they’re just very sharp. I like, for security, and because I think it makes pieces stronger, I like to write with other people.

RM: Is there any cross-pollination between your standup ideas and your sketch ideas?

JM: I’ve had loose joke ideas that I’ve turned into sketches. I’ve always had a lot of joke ideas that feel like little sketches with multiple characters in them and stuff like that. Those are not always 100 percent successful in standup, so it’s really nice to have an outlet where I can turn those things into sketches. On the flip side of it, there’s definitely been takes I’ve had on things, and I think of it and think about it, and they don’t seem to transfer to sketch or this show. The biggest difference would be a lot of stand up stuff I do is personal stories that they would really have no place, unless they were the germ of a premise based sketch, they wouldn’t have a home at SNL.

RM: Was your first professional gig the Demetri Martin show?

JM: I did a lot of things for Comedy Central.com when they started this channel Motherload, which was like their web channel. But my first “I’m a writer everyday” on something would have been in 07, I wrote on a pilot called Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand. Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter produced this pilot for Mike Black and I was a writer on it. It was after Stella and before Michael and Michael Have Issues.

RM: How did you get that job? Those guys probably knew you from the NY comedy scene. Did you have to submit to them?

JM: I did. I knew Showalter somewhat, he’d always been very nice to me, from around places like Rififi and his and Eugene’s show. I submitted a packet to them of ideas for various show topics and three examples of field pieces Mike Black could do. Like four ideas with three examples each.

RM: So they were pitches, not full sketches?

JM: Yeah, but fairly fleshed out ideas for field pieces, with jokes in them, since the whole thing was scripted. So I got hired off that.

RM: And your other jobs?

JM: Demetri knew me from standup, and doing shows together, and he gave me the job. For SNL, I auditioned for the show in August of 08. They had seen me on Conan or something, and they hired me off that audition so I did not write a packet for them.

RM: Interesting. So you were hired off the strength of your writing in the audition.

JM: Yeah. And I knew Seth Meyers a little bit from doing Asssscat. [UCB’s Sunday night show in New York].

RM: Can you walk us through a typical week at SNL from the writer’s perspective?

JM: Sure, I will gloss over Monday and Tuesday because I feel like that’s fairly well documented. Monday and Tuesday, everything leading up to the Wednesday table read, is writing for that table read which is normally about four o’clock on Wednesday, where the host, Lorne, cast, and writers, assembled crew are all together for the reading of these things. I think everyone knows there is a big all-nighter Tuesday. The bulk of the writing is done Tuesday night leading into Wednesday morning. I write Monday nights along with two writers, named Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer. We write a lot together. We normally write Monday nights and Tuesday nights. I think it’s good to get a head start on it. That all leads up to Wednesday.

After that, Wednesday night the order of the dress rehearsal is picked. Dress rehearsal will be Saturday night at 8pm. The crew goes to work, the amazing set design crew, and props, and costumes, and hair, go to work based on what’s been picked Wednesday night. But one reason it’s good to pace yourself a little bit on Tuesday, is that a lot of things are changed and rewritten and improved during rewrites on Thursday and a lot of things are also created between Thursday and Saturday. Not a lot, but some, and those things can be pretty influential. Be it an update piece, be it a cold open, be it a monologue, either that is written from scratch on Thursday or after, or something that is rewritten to such an extent that it requires a lot of work.

RM: Is that primarily because things come up that are topical or just because someone has a brilliant idea for something new?

JM: Both. Good ideas come. News stories pop up. It’s being written–and this is comedy in any medium–is being written until the end.

RM: And at SNL it’s well known that you have to rewrite sometimes in the middle of the live show, right? You have to be ready to make cuts while the show is on the air?

JM: I had to make a big cut to a sketch early in my first season. They said, “You need to cut a minute out of this sketch.” And I did the rookie mistake of trying to cross out individual words and lines as opposed to cutting full beats – you should really just take a pen and cross out two pages and go “We’ll lift all of this out.” As opposed to cutting a line here and there.

RM: And that must be hard as a writer, because you craft something to build beat by beat, so taking out a beat must be hard.

JM: Yeah, but as you spend more time here, you realize “This is all in flux”. Every joke will list out because we’ll hear how it does Wednesday and we’ll hear how it does on Saturday and then we’ll see what has to be cut and should be cut.

RM: And obviously that’s a really different way of writing than most places.

JM: Yes, across the board, in every department, it is on the fly.

RM: Have you had sketches cut for time?

JM: Oh, sure.

RM: So do you re-pitch those sketches? Do you have to table read them again?

JM: Any and all can happen. People can know a piece well enough they don’t want to hear it at the table. But a lot of times – there ‘s always someone new every week, because there is a new host. So there is always someone who hasn’t heard it, and that’s normally one of the most important people in the room, is the host. Because you want them to have confidence in it.

RM: After shows, do you guys ever postmortem the show?

JM: Well, obviously, we’re together all the time, so people discuss things. But the over-arching attitude is “We have a show to do next week.” So that’s what we’re focusing on. I’m not trying to sound grizzled, the schedule just makes that necessary. But people of course talk about what worked and didn’t.

RM: Do you have a specific process for coming up with sketches?

JM: I like to talk things out a lot with other people. I think of ideas. Some ideas start very vague. I like talking things out with people and going from there. And some ideas come to you fully formed from start to finish. I wish that happened more and sometimes you just get an idea and you have it from end to end. Which is awesome and, for me, rare. And that happens with standup too. Jokes will sometimes come fully formed.

RM: Do you think comedy writing or being a comedian is something that can be learned?

JM: Aspects of joke writing and comedy writing can be honed. So I don’t want to say [in old vaudevillian voice] “You have to be born a comic” and I also don’t want to say “You should go take a standup comedy class” either. You learn by being around people who are good at it. You learn more, you get better by being around people who are good at it. But obviously, yes, I think you have to be funny to do it.

RM: Is there any piece of advice you wish someone had told you before you started writing professionally, or doing comedy professionally?

JM: Simon Rich and I put a goat in a sketch once that had to be moved across the entire floor of Studio 8H in order to get to the third beat of a sketch. And you hear all your life that goats are stubborn, but you think, “Nah, it’s going to be okay.” But then you deal with one and they are. They hold their legs down and won’t be walked. So in this case two stagehands had to pick up the goat and run him across the stage to get him to the other place.

RM: So you wish someone had told you to never put a goat in your sketch?

JM: No, I’m glad we had the goat in the sketch. I wish someone had told me that “Yes, the rules of goats apply to you too. You’re not immune to goat stubbornness.”

RM: That’s an excellent comedy rule. Do you have any media you recommend comedy lovers or students of comedy listen to/read/etc.?

JM: Marc Maron’s podcast is a great thing for both comedians and non-comedians to listen to. It’s great. There are also these interviews with Woody Allen, and Seinfeld, and Johnny Carson that are available, like one-hour interviews. I think it’s a series called “On Comedy.” I think you can get them on iTunes. Those are great.

RM: What would your advice be to someone who is looking to write comedy for a living?

JM: Well with comedy in general, start doing it non-professionally for an audience. If I had known before I was twenty that you could just go to open mics or start your own comedy show at a bar, I would have done it earlier. Start a sketch show, write things. You have to do it to do it. And you can’t do it in a bubble. You have to do it for some audience, be it the editor of a magazine you send a piece to, or the audience at a tiny theater where you organize some sketch show. (pause) Or the much better idea of doing it online. I don’t know why I’m talking like it’s 1981 and people can’t do that. Point being, people see it and reach out to you from it. And you go from there.

Rachael Mason is an actress and writer living in Brooklyn. She teaches sketch writing at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also performs regularly with her improv group, Rockhammer and writes for the house UCB sketch team, Gramps.

The Writer’s Room: A Conversation with SNL Writer John […]