Late Friday afternoon, NBC announced that it has declined to pick up John Mulaney’s sitcom, Mulaney. It was a surprising move, given that the highly anticipated and already buzzy show had Lorne Michaels as a producer and an incredible cast. Having seen a version of the script, and based on Brad’s on-the-scene reporting, I can say that it was a good pilot and that the series had enormous potential. It’s a shame that it won’t be on NBC’s schedule this fall. But in the long run, what NBC will really regret is not just picking up the show Mulaney, but adding John Mulaney to its primetime ranks.
There are no surefire bets in comedy or television, but I stand by this as a truism: Lorne Michaels picks winners. Regardless of the near-constant din about the quality of Saturday Night Live’s writing that has lingered for decades, it’s impossible to dispute his eye for talent. The list of major stars who got their first exposure from Michaels is thoroughly impressive, with everyone from Bill Murray to Kristen Wiig owing huge debts of success to their SNL breaks. The most amazing rags-to-riches (or awkward-to-megastar) story will always be Conan O’Brien — not many people saw what Michaels did in the early of years of Late Night with Conan O’Brien (as the ratings proved). Now it’s impossible to imagine the modern day comedy scene without Conan’s influence. And remember the reaction when Jimmy Fallon was announced as his late night successor? That guy? Who wants to watch him giggle for an hour every night? And yet, it was the now-68-year-old Michaels who saw Fallon’s potential to build a light-hearted late night show that appeals to the young audience rapidly deserting the format.
And it isn’t just the success stories that prove Michaels’ gift as a talent scout. Sarah Silverman wasn’t used well at SNL? She was still brought in at only 22 by someone who saw her potential. Bob Odenkirk hated writing for the show? His presence in the writers room proves that someone knew talent when he saw it. Success stories from Portlandia to The Lonely Island continue to emerge, and bringing in young talent like Chelsea Peretti and Michael Che to guest write at SNL shows he hasn’t lost his touch.
With all that history, it’s somewhat baffling that NBC would pass on the Michaels-produced Mulaney. Because, with or without that show, Mulaney is going to be a huge success. He’s been on the brink of stardom for years now, and this show felt like a natural way for him to break. He will anyways.
Take Tina Fey. In 2006, she was a well-liked and relatively-known entity from SNL and Mean Girls, but not a superstar by any means. The 30 Rock pilot was…not very good, honestly. It lacked the imagination and innovation that would characterize the series in later years, and at the time, NBC had a really good reason to not pick it up — how could it possible compete with that other behind-the-scenes-at-SNL show that was bound to be a hit? But the network picked it up anyways, and thank God they did. Not for Fey, but for NBC. From our 2013 perspective, it’s so obvious that Fey would go on to brilliant things. She’d still be writing witty memoirs, being an awesome awards show host, and uncannily mimicking a certain former governor. Were it not for 30 Rock, Fey would have brought her immense talents elsewhere, and NBC would have missed out on one of the most iconic TV series of a generation. NBC didn’t make Fey brilliant; it simply hitched it’s wagon to her clearly-rising star.
And that is what they could, and should, have done with Mulaney. Now that Seth Meyers has been officially announced as the new Late Night host, some see Mulaney as his natural Weekend Update replacement. He’s certainly qualified — he spent years writing for the show, he’s done desk pieces before, and he’s the co-creator of WU’s most beloved character. If he does take over, it might seem like an everybody-wins situation for NBC, promoting Mulaney without entrusting him with a primetime spot. (Though, it never hurts to remember the last time NBC thought they could have their cake and eat it too.) But it wouldn’t be a surprise if it doesn’t work out. He was absent from SNL’s writing staff for most of this past season, and he’s clearly interested in working on his standup and pursuing other opportunities. For years, Weekend Update has been a springboard — one that Mulaney doesn’t need. It’s hard to imagine him staying at WU for more than a couple years, and surely he’s already being wooed by other outlets. His time at the Weekend Update desk would feel like treading water, before someone wisens up and puts Mulaney front and center.
NBC had the chance to do just that. Despite his young age, Mulaney would have sat comfortably alongside Amy Poehler and Joel McHale on the network’s primetime roster. In the years to come, people will still be talking and writing about Mulaney, and the network will regret it if he’s no longer “NBC’s John Mulaney.”
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider and a freelance journalist in New York City.
Photo courtesy of Mindy Tucker.