At the center of Mulaney is the relationship between the titular Mulaney (comedian John Mulaney) and his boss Lou (Mr. Martin Short). It’s kind of like a mentor-mentee thing, if the mentor feels more like a spoiled teenager and the mentee acts like an old man who mysteriously found himself in a tall boy’s body. With the Fox sitcom premiering this Sunday, Vulture had the two stars interview each other. They talk about the show, Saturday Night Live, Frank Sinatra, and more.
Part 1: Greetings, and Sober Mulaney
Martin Short: Hey, John.
John Mulaney: Hey, Marty, how are you?
MS: What’s new?
JM: I’m in New York City this week. How are you?
MS: Very good, I’m in my home in Pacific Palisades, looking at my wall of trophies and reflecting on past defeats.
JM: Do you make trophies for the defeats?
MS: I do. Thank God, or I’d be trophy-less. And I like trophies.
JM: Various also-ran trophies.
MS: Yeah, I also have Tonys and Emmys, but whatever. So you’re in New York promoting the big show?
JM: Yeah, yeah, the show comes out on Sunday night.
MS: Are you excited?
JM: I’m very, very excited. It’s just wonderful to talk about yourself and say your name over and over again. It’s good for the soul, and it’s character-building.
MS: Well, I can say that if that’s an issue with you, then you didn’t need to call the show Mulaney. You could have called it Comin’ Atcha or something.
JM: Comin’ Atcha would be good. I worry that Mulaney is too subtle.
MS: [Laughs.] Well, I think it’s good. And I’m very excited about Sunday. I’ll be on a plane, unfortunately, I won’t be at the big party you’re throwing.
JM: Oh, you won’t be with us? I’m sorry to hear that.
MS: Yeah, I know.
JM: You should get them to turn it on [on] the plane. Will you be in the back row on JetBlue as usual?
MS: Yeah, so maybe I can get a connection. But, as you know about me, I love to talk to whoever I’m seated beside.
JM: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MS: I just love that because, you know, I sometimes find when I’m answering the question, “Where do my characters come from?,” I find answers I never realized. I’m actually in New York till Saturday and I come back Sunday night. So I’m just going to miss it. Nasim Pedrad’s sad because I’m the only one who would drink with her.
JM: I know, it’s a bunch of real, lamebrain sober people like me.
MS: Yeah. I mean, not that you’re not fun — great fun, by the way.
JM: I’m really fun, you know, I can still have soda and coffee. And I’m just wonderful from about 11 til 1, and then I start to taper off.
MS: But you didn’t go to a program, right? Why did you stop?
JM: I stopped drinking because I was so tired of playing detective. I’d have these blackouts where I’d wake up and had to figure out what I did. It was never anything crazy, like a dead body, but maybe I made toast or something. I was always calling people and being like, “Hey, I got home alright, without embarrassing myself too much?” And the answer was always no, and so I gave it a rest. We were wild kids. We were pretty well-behaved — we kept it out of our parents’ way, my friends and I — but I started young and finished young.
MS: Yeah. And do you ever miss it?
JM: Not so much. I miss certain things. I’ll occasionally smell people’s Scotch.
MS: You just take a sniff.
JM: I’ll just go, let me smell that drink. That should be the tagline for the show. “Mulaney: Let me smell your drink.”
MS: Well, it shows great self-awareness. And at 23, particularly. It showed then that you were going places.
Topic 2: Saturday Night Live
JM: So, when you were on SNL, where did you live in New York City?
MS: I lived on York and 72nd. In a sublet.
JM: Where’s the subway? You had to walk all the way to the 4/5/6, right?
MS: Yeah, except that I never took subways.
JM: Oh, you had an ambulance, like Orson Welles?
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would just show up and say, “Thanks, fellows!” But I remember we opened up the cupboard on the second week, and there were a thousand cockroaches because molasses had broken out of a box and poured over the top cupboards. It wasn’t spectacular because we had a house in Toronto. So whenever I was not working, I’d always fly back to Toronto. Toronto, in those days, was real life, and wherever I was working, L.A. or New York, was boarding school. People would say, “Oh, don’t feel you’re failing,” if something didn’t go well. But to me, I just didn’t pass an exam. Big deal. The fact that it wasn’t my real life.
JM: Yeah, Saturday Night Live had that feeling because you leave for almost a month at Christmas. The show would shut down for a while until after New Year’s. It always felt like that Christmas show was finals, and then you’d go home, or go on a vacation, and you’d sit there thinking, I think I’m doing okay.
MS: The thing about the show was no matter how successful you’d been on that Saturday, that Sunday night, you’d be like, “I have no ideas, I don’t know what to say.” Then you go in the meeting and you meet the host and you fake your way through it. Then by Monday night, if you don’t have an idea, you feel like the biggest failure despite the fact that 48 hours before, you felt you were worth your salt. It was always slightly schizophrenic, like final exams every week, to me.
JM: My first year on the show, at that pitch meeting, I would sit on the floor, well surrounded by a lot of different people, pretty close to the host, not too far from Lorne’s desk, but felt very trapped, and felt like it was going to land on me and I had to have an idea. By my fourth — my last full season — I would stand in the doorway with Seth [Meyers, head writer at the time], so there was a feeling of, “Oh I just popped in here and I might have a sort of small idea.” One foot out, that way I didn’t have to own anything I said.
MS: Because I had a one-year contract, I made it trickier for myself. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, I want to be here for seven years, so I’m not going to panic that I have no ideas this week.” I felt like it was 22 specials. Did you get stuff on right away?
JM: I did get something on my first show, and had a long run my first season. I think I got a lot of stuff on. The weirder adjustment was coming back on my second season, when I thought I knew everything, and had like sophomore cockiness, and then I remember getting my ass kicked the first three weeks of my second year.
MS: What was the first skit you got on?
JM: The first skit I got on was Michael Phelps, the swimmer, the underwater person, was the host, and it was a parody of these T-Mobile ads that were out at the time where you would pick your fave five. And in the commercial that was in existence, it was this family. The daughter said she picked her five best friends, and then the son says he also picked her five best friends — that’s the joke of the commercial. And in the commercial, the daughter gets mad and the dad says, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have such attractive friends.” And the sketch was just that dinner after the father said that, and the mom being like, “I’m sorry, what did you just say? Did you just say that her friends were attractive?” And it was that conversation playing out.
MS: Well, at least you had such a comedic clown to be your messenger. Michael: When you get him on a roll, he’s a pretty good.
JM: Michael Phelps had so many gold medals. I wrote a thing that week that didn’t get picked but that was actually the most fun. We wrote a talk show that was called “Putting on the Spitz With Mark Spitz,” and Andy Samberg and Bill Hader and I wrote it, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. I remember just being up with those guys at like 1 in the morning. I’d barely met Bill and Andy before we did this. I pitched it and then Andy pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I’d like to work on that with you.” And then we wrote this thing where Mark Spitz’s bandleader was Elliot Spitzer, played by Bill Hader. It was like really, really fun. I don’t know what Phelphs’s decision was, but they didn’t want to do the Mark Spitz thing. And maybe rightfully so. But that’s my first big writing-night memory.
MS: Steve Martin once told me this hilarious scene that was cut after dress. Even if you describe it, it sounds funny, but he mainly tells the story because, he says, Amy Poehler was so hilarious in it. They’re two drunks, trying to get a bank loan, and she’s saying, [drunk voice] “Hey, do you want to touch these? Because if you give me the loan, you can have these” — referring to her breasts. And it was just hilarious, according to Steve. And I told Amy Poehler this, and she said, “Well, if he liked it so much, why didn’t he fight for it?” When I told him what she had said, he said, “What are you talking about? I didn’t have any control. I would have killed to have had that sketch in the show.” So, it’s interesting how these things never end up to see the light of day, and everyone assumes that even Steve Martin, the host, would have the power to pick and choose, but it isn’t his choice, really.
JM: That is interesting. Yeah, I mean most of my favorite things did not make it past dress.
MS: Well, when I did the show, I did it with Larry David, and he was a writer that year. I don’t think he got anything on. He’s talked about it a lot. And you think about what Larry David went on to do.
Topic 3: SNL vs. SCTV
MS: I had come from SCTV, and [some]thing you could write for SCTV would just not make it on SNL because it was too laid-back, it didn’t have that live-performance energy. It might work in a film piece, but not in a live piece. A live piece was a separate, unique animal.
JM: You guys had the luxury of shooting it where you could obviously do much more production. We had pre-tapes on Saturday Night Live, but you guys were able to do like “Polynesiantown,” and things that were full-look parodies.
MS: Yes, absolutely. I remember Andrea Martin had written this satire of this film called Rich and Famous, with Candice Bergen. And they did Rich and Jealous, and she played Streisand, and Valri Bromfield, another funny actress, played Ruth Gordon. And they had a lifelong jealousy. And Valri did a perfect Ruth Gordon, and Andrea was a really funny Streisand. And it didn’t work in its five-minute length. But it made a hilarious 90-second promo, so we also had that luxury. Whereas Saturday Night Live you’d just put it on and say, “Gee, I guess.” I remember when I was on I wrote a piece with my friends Dick Blassuci and Paul Flaherty, who were guest-writing from SCTV, called “Look Who’s Married Harry.” And the premise was that I was Lucille Ball, and Lucy was coming back for yet one more sitcom, and playing Bess Truman. She’s married to Harry, so in the episode, Eleanor Roosevelt and I are wallpapering the Oval Office [gravelly voice] before the boys get back, and I’m doing my voice like that, and I have a big, red wig, and it bombed on a level. I remember saying afterwards to Chris Guest, “How come no one even hit the applause sign?” He said, “No, they did.” [Mulaney laughs.] I know on SCTV that piece, shot properly, would have been fantastic.
JM: Well, look, you still know Lorne [Michaels]. I’d say we get some cameras together and we make it.
MS: I don’t know, do you think Lucille Ball satires are still valid?
JM: I’m the wrong person to ask that. Bill Hader and I had a similar shooting thing with this sketch with Steve Buscemi—
MS: Wow, I’d love to see that one just based on the cast.
JM: Hey, hey, the guy is a star, he’s on Boardwalk Empire. And he, in this sketch that was cut, was Detective Kanish, and Hader was Judd Hirsch as Sergeant Polish. It was a look back at this ’70s cop show called Kanish, where they never got the freeze-frame right at the end. It always froze mid-line or mid-word. And we did it live, thinking the live freeze-frames would be really funny, but it didn’t look like a ’70s cop show. It was just live sets that looked kind of dingy. And it didn’t get picked, and I told Bill, “Hey, man we’ve got to get that up online.” Sometimes now you can put sketches that were cut at dress online. And I really wanted “Kanish” to see the light of day, so I emailed Lorne, and later Bill went up to Lorne and said, “Hey, Mulaney—” And Lorne cut him off and said, “I know what Mulaney wants. He’s already asked a dozen people to put it online.” Later we got to do the sketch when Zach Galifianakis hosted, and we shot it like a real ’70s cop show, and it still got cut, but that time, they put it online.
MS: So we could see it right now.
JM: It’s available on websites all around the world.
MS: Well, I’m going to cancel the rest of my day and do some searching.
JM: Yeah, just get online and look at clips of things I wrote that people didn’t watch.
Topic 4: Performing As Kids And Frank Sinatra
JM: Hey, can I ask you a real interview question, I’m always curious about this?
JM: So your parents would see you do things. I’m always curious about this with comedians. Was there material you were nervous for them to see, due to content — sex jokes, whatever it was?
MS: No, I was 14, and I had my own television show in my attic. I had an imaginary contract with myself that I was on NBC every other Tuesday, not even every Tuesday. [Mulaney laughs.] I was that special. It allowed me time for my imaginary film career. And I had an applause record that I had recorded from Sinatra at the Sands — at the end had this long applause — and I had a reel-to-reel, so I made a loop of applause. The Martin Short Show was on Tuesday at 9 p.m.—
JM: Every other Tuesday.
MS: Yeah, every other, and I would have guests, and then I also made an album that year: Martin Short Sings of Songs and Loves Ago. And I played that for my parents. But my television show, I didn’t play for people. I did type up things for TV Guide — highlights, you know, “Marty sings a medley of songs that weren’t nominated with Tony Bennett,” stuff like that — that I kept to myself. I would share this, but it was all PG, because I was playing to a mid-60s audience.
JM: I had a fake radio show in my friend Jake’s room that we made on cassette tapes. You’d get these catalogues when I was a kid, that my dad would get from PBS or whoever, and you’d get like a lot of Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny, so I listened to a lot of those shows and I made a fake old radio show with my friend Jake, and our theme song was “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)” — that song by Frank Sinatra. And this was 1991.
MS: John, you are an unusual 32-year-old guy. One time when we were doing the show — I’m speaking to the public now, not you, because you were there — and in the script was a Trip to Bountiful reference [Mulaney laughs]. A 32-year-old goes, “Oh, we’re going to nail The Trip to Bountiful with this joke. “
JM: Well, it was a bunch of old people on a bus, it needs to be nailed. Even though it was, you know, 29 years ago.
MS: I have to say, it’s not typical.
JM: I saw Sinatra at the Aurora Hotel and Casino in Aurora, Illinois, as my 11-year-old birthday present. My dad took me to this. And he came out and Frank Jr. was conducting the orchestra. And Frank was getting very old by then, and in between songs, he said, “How about my son, Frank Jr.?” Applause. He goes: “I gave him a job as my bandleader so he wouldn’t sit around the house smokin’ dope.” He said it like that. My dad was next to me and he just went, [disgusted] “Ughh.”
MS: Well, Frank probably was an interesting dad. Don’t you think?
JM: The environment was great. It was a great environment to grow up in, I bet.
MS: That would have been like ’93. Yeah, I saw him that same year. Chevy Chase and I went and saw him at the Greek Theater. It was Shirley MacLaine act one, Frank act two, and there were PrompTers on the stage, obviously, because he was doing it all by reading. And at one point, he’s just singing, [deep singing] “Once I saw youuu, standing there,” and then he just stopped singing. [Hums the background music.] He’s just standing there. You see Frank Jr. turn around to see, conducting, but he doesn’t quite know what’s going on. And I remember Chevy leaning over to me and going, “What do we do now, just call 911? Is that what happens?” But then he got back on. I think something had jammed.
Topic 5: Mulaney’s Future
MS: John, let’s face it. You and I have had fun in the last few months, wouldn’t you say?
JM: We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve made 12 goddamn episodes already.
MS: And I think they’re really funny.
JM: I think they’re really funny. I’m very excited for people to see them.
MS: And how long would you like to do your show?
JM: You know, show business is tough, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen—
MS: No, no, but I’m saying the word is like, not what will happen.
JM: I’d like to do to 14 seasons and win close to 80 Emmys. If I were to be humble.
MS: Now, I’m not going to be morbid here, I’m not going to be morbid at all. In 14 years, I’ll be 78 years of age, and there’s a good chance I’ll have died. Would you do a special — open up at Lou’s wake, would you do just a best of, or would you just do a typical episode — keep me light in it, obviously, because I’m dead — and then at the end run an in-memoriam? Have you thought about it?
JM: I have, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed on set when we’ve started to shoot those little things that we never explain to you, where it’s you backlit in a white suit, and you go, “I have to go, but I’ll always be with you?” That’s in the event of that.
MS: Oh my God, now it makes sense.
JM: And I’m glad we have those in the can.
MS: Listen, I feel I’m at this stage — two films short of even making the In Memoriam package at the Oscars — so, you know, I have some work to do, without question.
JM: What clip would you least like for you to be used in an In Memoriam package?
MS: I think the opening scene from Captain Ron.
JM: What if they put it in like, sepia, no?
MS: Well, that’s fine. Did I ever tell you what Chris Guest said about Captain Ron? When I was making it, he said, “Hi, Martin,” — he calls me Martin — “Um, what are you doing now?” I said, “Well, I’m making a film called Captain Ron.” “I see, what is it about?” I said, “I play a man with two children who inherits a boat.” And he said, “I didn’t say spoil it for me.” [Laughs.]
JM: [Laughs.] He is funny. Funny, funny fellow. I must go do a pre-interview.
MS: Great. Bye, John.
JM: Bye, Marty, see you soon. Love you, buddy.
MS: Love you, bye.