A little more than a year ago, comedian John Mulaney was in a very different place. He was still the new comedy boom’s Comic Most Likely to Succeed, a title reinforced by his acclaimed 2012 Comedy Central stand-up special New in Town — which was enjoying a phenomenal second life after its release on Netflix — and his unusually publicized stint as a writer at Saturday Night Live (it helps when you co-create Stefon). He was being compared to Jerry Seinfeld, favorably; and it was fitting, then, that his career was about to culminate with the impending early October release of the eponymous multi-camera Fox sitcom he created.
Then reviews started coming out for Mulaney, and the comic was once again being compared to Jerry Seinfeld — but this time unfavorably. When the ratings ended up equally underwhelming, Fox reduced the episode order. Though the show wasn’t officially canceled until the spring, the writing was on the wall in the first few weeks. For many people, that was the last time they’ve heard from Mulaney.
But he’s been busy, doing the thing that drew so many people to him in the first place: stand-up. Still one of the sharpest joke-writers of his generation, Mulaney’s act is now richer and more universal. He didn’t lose a step while working on the sitcom; he gained a few, and that new gait is on full display in his new special, The Comeback Kid, which premieres on Netflix on Friday. Then, starting in December, he’ll be treading the boards with longtime friend and collaborator Nick Kroll, as the two stage an Off Broadway version of their two-person character routine, “Oh, Hello.”
In advance of this new culmination, Vulture sat down with the comedian in a Manhattan hotel room hours before his show in Montclair, New Jersey, to discuss the past year, which has been the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding one of his career. The talk covered the “exhilarating” week when everyone was trashing him, the advice he got from comedy legends like Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels, and how, through all of it, he’s grown as a comedian.
The material you’re currently using on tour — is it the same as what’s in the new special?
Plus a little new [material]. People haven’t seen it yet, so why would I not do it? There’s some stuff I’ve already filmed that I would say is good. There is new stuff that I hope will be good. And I hope audiences won’t notice which is which. But they will.
When I interviewed Jerry Seinfeld in the spring, he said he usually tours with three hours and just rotates them.
That’s what I felt watching him at the Pantages. I was like, “Oh, he must be backstage making a set list and being like, I want to do circus tonight. Haven’t done that in a few months.” It felt like since maybe 2001 — whenever he did Comedian— he’s generated all of this stuff that wasn’t on I’m Telling You for the Last Time and was just swapping it out. That’s a great position to be in: to have three unaired hours.
He said he has no desire to film it. A lot of that generation of doesn’t like to …
Burn the hour?
Yeah. Jay Leno is like, “Why would I ever record it?”
Both have validity.
What was it like to write the Seinfeld Q&A for SNL 40? Larry David’s involvement in particular felt like a breakout moment, which is weird because he and Jerry aren’t really associated with that show.
Well, no, they’re not, of course. However, Larry had been a writer, and I have to say, it was like, “Who’s going to do the Q&A? Who would be good at that? Tom Hanks was so good at the 25th. Seinfeld would be great at that. He’s done more stuff on SNL in the past few years.” And then, as it came together, it was like, “Wait, is Larry going to be there?” I wouldn’t say organic. It is produced show-business. But it was a very cool coming together.
Had you met Jerry before?
No, never. I had never met him. I had been afraid to meet him, or just intimidated to meet him. It was incredibly exciting. The 40th was such a swirling series of events. It was like a college reunion for everyone. It was doing the show with everyone, plus everyone you grew up with, plus people you never even met when you worked there.
It was such overstimulation, to the point that on Friday night, I was going to rehearse with Seinfeld at something like 11 p.m. I had to go to dinner with a friend downtown. So it’s eight o’clock, and I’m like, “I can make dinner and get back for Seinfeld.” I’m in the hallway, and I hear Paul McCartney warming up on the piano with “Long and Winding Road,” and I thought, I don’t have time for that. That’s how overstimulating it was: I would love to watch that, but I just can’t right now. There is too much going on.
I got a photo a couple of months after from the staff photographer. It’s the Sunday-afternoon rehearsal, and it’s me and Larry and Jerry, and the three of us are talking over the script. I got it in the mail and I was like, Oh my God. I had no idea we had ever been in the same positioning like that, or that the photo was taken. It was really cool.
There are similarities between you and Jerry. You’re both known for really caring about the wording of your jokes, whereas a lot of comedians, especially nowadays, are a bit looser. What was it like to write for him?
It was so intimidating. I emailed him a first draft of it. Saturday Night Live, it’s very assumed that a first draft ain’t perfect. But I tried to get it into the shape I would send something to Jerry Seinfeld in. I just wrote, “By the way, I think very highly of you, so please do not criticize this too harshly.” And he wrote back, “Funny stuff. I think we’ll be able to make something work.” And he added, “This is going to be huge … for you.”
Had he known about your work before?
Yes. That also made it a very nice and bizarre footnote. I don’t know if you know this, but I had a show on Fox.
[Laughs.] I heard about it.
No one knows this, but the last episode of that show aired the same night as the 40th. The 40th did better. But, of all the weird timing, I was talking to Seinfeld that weekend about it all. That was a very, very nice conversation to have. I remember thinking, Well, that’s the end of a tale.Like, I met him and he had some very encouraging, very kind things to say. It was so exciting and kind of — in my own small world — poignant.
What did he say?
It was about the mechanics of running a show. It was really nice to talk to him a little about how that can be a real grind. To be able to talk to him, with both of us going, “It’s the worst,” was very cathartic. He was like, “You starred in and wrote and produced your own network show. Well, it’s me and you and only a few other people who have done that.” He was saying, be happy with that accomplishment — or that is an accomplishment. He knew it wasn’t going well.
Did you know the show was getting canceled at that point?
In February? Yes. It was canceled. It hadn’t been announced, but it was. Long before.
Was it a relief?
No. Not at first. There’s momentary relief in not having to run a network show seven days a week. Momentary. But not really. It was very frustrating and disappointing not being able to go back to work with everyone. It was like on a Friday. I had a table-read Monday with some guest roles I was so excited about, and a script another writer and I had worked on all week. The tea leaves were pointing there for sure, but the moment it happened, it was more frustration that I wasn’t going to be able to go back and do it.
Because you were focused on creating the thing.
As poorly as it was being received, we were still making the show. That engine of producing it was helping me get through some of that. Then it was suddenly like, “By the way, that’s over, too.” It was difficult.
Did you read the reviews?
I felt like I got what you were doing, but it seemed like a lot of the reviews didn’t. Was it hard not only having the show not be well-received, but also not being understood?
I felt a little bit of that when it was happening that week in October. I kept thinking, If only they knew. Can we move this episode up, and then they can see that I’m trying to do X and Y?
In retrospect, obviously, it wasn’t fun to get bad reviews, but I don’t have any feeling that it’s an injustice. I have a real respect for when the audience goes, “Nope.” I really do. There is something very democratic and cool about it. We worked so hard on it. I put my name on it. It was my first big thing, and boy, oh boy, do I wish this will work, but who cares? You put it out, and it works or it doesn’t. It’s a network-TV show. People don’t have some mandate to hear me out. They saw the entertainment. That would be like bombing at a stand-up club and then being like, “I want you all to come home with me. See what a nice guy I am. See how I take care of my dog. And then you’ll all like me more, and then we can go back to the club.”
What do you think was miscommunicated?
One thing that was helpful — and one thing I learned running a show — was figuring out what wasn’t my job. There are so many things you can take on. You could say, “I don’t love the props. I’m going to start coming in earlier and making sure all of the props are whatever.” But one thing I do have to say is it’s not my job is to critique it. I wouldn’t presume to know. I could go on for hours, but when people don’t like something, they don’t like it. Sometimes I — with comedy, it’s like someone liking you in high school. They either do or they don’t. And when they don’t, they don’t. And that’s it. There are no appeals. You show up, and you’re like, “Hi! I’m —” and you stumble and they’re like, “It’s over.” I know that’s part of it. People turned it on, and if they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it.
Do you think the multi-camera sitcom is just a format that can’t be pushed to something weirder?
No, no, no, no. When I said it’s not my job to critique the show, there are things — tonal things — that I know, if I did it again, I would adjust. They’re not huge, and they’re not all that interesting. But, no, you can totally do it, and I think The Carmichael Show is an example of, like, a really smart comic and smart writers, and setting up a show that can live that way.
It’s slower and kind of Norman Lear–y.
I saw it and thought it was really funny. I love Jerrod [Carmichael]. I recognize it’s being received well. And that’s great. One thing that was a bummer about my own show’s reception was that I did feel like, Oh I hope people keep making multi-cams.
Would you have done something different if you could do it again?
If I had to go back, I would have made the show I made because I wanted to make that show. I wanted to get it out of my system. It wasn’t like if I could go back in time I’d do a single-cam.
I know Louis C.K. gave you advice beforehand. Considering he tried a similar type of show and experienced a similar result, have you talked to Louie since about it?
A couple of times, but not in-depth. It’s not like, “Please tell me the secret, Louis.” It was just that it’s hard as hell to put them on, shows, and you learn. I had a good experience with Fox, so I’m not even trying to say, like, you learn now never to take no for an answer or whatever. I have no axes to grind. But you do learn, like, Oh, I was in charge, okay, I could have done that. Oh, that thing I didn’t like, I could have avoided that. Or, This thing I really wanted to try, I could have tried that. It’s like running like a huge Rube Goldberg machine, those comical machines with levers and arms that grab things. It’s hard to realize you’re in charge. You feel like you’re at the mercy of it.
Did you get any other memorable advice while the show was on air?
Yes, Elliott Gould [who co-starred on Mulaney]. He’s a very beautiful, Zen person. I’m not comparing us at all, but I couldn’t help view it through the lens of, this was a guy who actually was the biggest star in Hollywood and decided to move away from that on his own. He stopped me in the hall the week that the reviews were terrible and the ratings were terrible, and he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You are a happy person and you cannot let them change that.” And I was like, “Thank you.”
That is particularly nice.
Yeah. I got lots of great advice from Marty [Short, who also co-starred on Mulaney], who was like, “This is 98 percent of it. This is the job. You’ll do many, many things. A lot of them won’t work, and a couple will work. And those couple that will work will be great. But this is 98 percent of it.” That was very nice to hear. Like, right, this is the job. It’s putting it up. It gets shot down. You put something else up.
It’s something I talked about with Pete Holmes sometime after his show got canceled. This generation of comedians, partly because the previous generation is around and open, has the understanding that you don’t have one shot. Careers are long.
Yeah. I also had an understanding from people I look up to that failure was a very good experience. I did not expect it, and I did not wish for it, but it was a great experience. That sounds like I am being diplomatic or I’m lying, but I’m not. It was a great experience. I would not trade that life experience of having a week of everyone trashing you. It’s a little exhilarating!
I can imagine.
It was interesting. It was like, oh this is what this is like. You can take a moment in the middle of it and be like, What a bizarre thing. I do not wish it had happened, and I did not wish it then, but both in processing it then, and then being okay after the fact, I learned a lot. It was like, Okay, this year you’re going to deal with failure, and you’re going to see what that’s like. That was incredibly, incredibly beneficial.
I’ve followed your career for a while, and for people into comedy, you were always the guy. You just kept on climbing. I think Pete Holmes called you “the golden boy” on “You Made It Weird.”
Did part of you feel like you were on a roll? Success can make a person feel like maybe they’re an exception. Did you feel like you were — not invincible, but whatever is a softer word for invincible?
The short answer is no. But, to not incriminate myself too much, some friends and I got nice jobs and nice recognition young — 25, 27, sometimes younger — and so, though I never felt destined for anything, I have high self-esteem. I’m not acting like I’m that humble. I definitely felt like I was on a trajectory of some kind.
That’s all the more reason why getting knocked down was a beneficial experience. Things kept happening. They just kept happening. Okay, I’m leaving Saturday Night Live. I’m going to pitch a show to a network. It would be interesting to me to pitch a multi-cam. Oh, it got bought? Wow. We’re going to make a pilot? Wow. Oh, it got canned by NBC. Well, that’s disappointing. Another network bought it? It was just kind of clicking in this weird way. But had I gotten used to things just working out — I don’t know if it would have been so good, for me as a human being on Earth, to think that way.
Can you tell me a little bit about the “Oh, Hello” Off Broadway show?
Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland have written a play. They love theater, and Nick [Kroll] and I are proud to produce it. They’re difficult to deal with, but we’re proud to produce it. They’ve written a lot of plays, and this is a play for anyone that really likes small plays in black boxes with a lot of yelling.
They’re starring in the play.
They star in the play.
Are there other actors in the play?
But only two actors.
Got it. What was the development process on that?
When my show got canceled, people would say, “What’s next?” I would say, “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” as a joke, but then as soon as I said it as a joke, I was like, “Hmm.” Nick and I had wanted to do an album — a party album, like a dirty record for adults only. “Adult humor of Gil and George.” And then we very quickly talked about a stage show, and we’re just both psyched to do it. We were like, “Yep, let’s find a time.” We are very busy, and I was on the road, so we knew it would be this fall.
What do you get out of “Oh, Hello” that you don’t get out of your other comedy?
I’m pretty self-critical about everything I’ve ever done: stand-up, SNL. Even things I think have been successful, I can watch and be like, “I wish that had been like this, and …” But I truly enjoy “Oh, Hello,” almost like a fan. I know that’s gross, but that’s just the way it is. When I rewatch it, I enjoy it so much. I don’t know what it is. Someone described it as, “It’s you two getting to be your essences. It’s you two getting to be the sides no one sees.” Which is that Nick is a baby and John’s an asshole.
You get to be very mean.
We get to be very mean, but they genuinely believe they are making a lot of people very happy.
That was the greatest night of my life.
Can you eat tuna salad anymore?
Nah, I never eat tuna. It’s a real diss to send someone tuna.
You’ve talked before about the idea of grand envy when you were on [Pete Holmes’s podcast] “You Made It Weird” a couple years ago.
Grand jealousy. Or was it grand envy?
I believe it came from Teddy Roosevelt. You said that you found yourself being jealous of your peers, but in a natural, healthy way. Do you remember having that any time in the last year, especially?
No. There are people’s talents that I’m like, I’m truly in awe of that. I wish I had that. Again, that sounds like a lie, but it’s just the way it is. I just didn’t look at anyone and go, “I want that.” I also had a very good year in a lot of ways. I got married this year. The tour I ended up getting to do because the show was canceled was amazing. It was hard at first. It was very hard. I felt like such a failure, but I had so much fun, and I also got to spend more time with my wife than I would have. We had just gotten married, and running a show after that was difficult. I also got to see my friends more, and I will say one thing: If you think you’re on the move and you get knocked down, it really is — as Hallmark-y as this sounds —amazing because you are reminded who your friends are. They come out of the woodwork, et cetera.
I wanted to talk to you about SNL.
Sure, but I will not explain the origins of Stefon, and I will not tell you how the workweek works.
[Laughs.] Let me get a quick Stefon one out of the way then: Movie?
Dude, totally not up to me, and I’m saying that genuinely. There are no current voice mails, emails, or discussions about a movie, but this hotel don’t pay for itself. So I might be be calling Bill [Hader] tomorrow, going, “Please. Please. Just put on the wig for five minutes. We’ll do webisodes.”
I interviewed Bill a few years ago, and he said sometimes over the summer you would just text him one-word things that would be in a club. Do you still do that?
I don’t text him. I compiled them, though. When he hosted last year, I was working on the sitcom stuff. And I had to write one over email with him, so I went to the coffers and was like, “Oh shit, we only have a couple.” We did, like, 17 of them. I depleted all lists. The rule was it was something you saw once. So that way it’s not fake, it’s real enough that most people go, “I know somehow that that’s a thing.”
What’s your relationship with Lorne Michaels like right now?
Very nice. I talked to him a couple weeks ago. I always have had a very good relationship with him.
What did you talk about?
I talk to Lorne a lot. He gave me the best job in the world when I was 25. He helped me get my own show when I was 30. I owe him a lot. We talk about anything. A lot of our conversations are me asking if he met various people, which is probably annoying for him, but he obliges. We once had a meeting and he started to talk and I said, “Real quick, sorry, did you know Peter Sellers?” And he told me a great Peter Sellers story.
What did he say when the show was canceled?
Lorne and I talked a lot when my show was canceled. I mean, it was his show, too. I won’t share all of his advice, but basically, he said, “You got knocked down, now you get back up.” He has seen many people go through many things. In terms of doing the same level of work over a long period of time, it’s down to Lorne and Alfred Hitchcock.
Do you still watch the show?
Yeah. I’ve missed some here and there, but of course. I would venture to guess everyone does. It was a little stranger when I knew more people. I kind of watch it for writers that started while I was there. I love seeing what Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider write.
Do you have a favorite sketch since you left?
The first show after I left, they did that puppet class where Hader was the Grenada veteran. That was like, “My hat’s off to you.” That was Rob Klein and John Solomon. And many others.
Your sister [Claire Mulaney] wrote there last year. What was it like to hear about someone else’s experience on the show?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It was a different and similar experience. Talking to her about it wasn’t like, “They’re doing what?” It was like, “Oh, yeah. They did that?” That’s what’s cool about talking to Maya Rudolph, Dana Carvey, anyone. Names and places change. They’ll be like, “You never knew Joe Disco, but he was the stage manager.” It’s all the same weird things that in retrospect are funny, but at the time you took so seriously.
Do you have a favorite sketch you wrote that people don’t know you wrote?
Lots of little ones. I wrote a lot of stuff with Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer that would play later in the episode and were more like writers’ sketches and maybe people don’t know them. We had this thing called “What’s That Name?” which was a game show where it was like, “Who’s this?” And it’s, like, Nelson Mandela. Now, who’s this? Bonnie Raitt. “And now, an in-person question,” and their doorman would come out. One of my favorite sketches was a sketch Marika and I wrote called “Who’s on Top?” which was a game show with fictitious pairings of celebrities. Since there is a top and a bottom in every, well, I don’t need to explain. So, that was a lot of fun.
It was announced recently that Colin Jost isn’t a head writer anymore —
He’s still a writer, but he wants to focus on “Weekend Update.”
In the post we did on it, the comments were like, “This is a chance for John Mulaney to get back in the game.” I feel like people have always said that you were meant for that job.
[Laughs.] It’s funny, you asked before about “destined” things. I like when people have opinions on what should happen. I’ve been that person, too, like, “You know who should take over that? This person.” It’s very rarely who we all predict. There aren’t heirs apparent, and it’s just such a timing thing.
Would you go back if you were on camera?
That’s a weird question because I don’t have any plans to, but life is long and I love that place. What I’m trying to communicate is I don’t sense that will happen; however, I don’t say never to on-camera opportunities.
Do you have a person you miss writing for the most?
Well, I’m working on this show Documentary Now. It would have been Bill and Fred [Armisen], but now I get to write for Bill and Fred. So, [Andy] Samberg. And Seth.
What did you learn from working with Seth [who was head writer when Mulaney was at SNL]?
I learned an incredible amount from Seth. He was an excellent boss and big brother. The two things I admire most about him is he never practiced “trickle-down stress.” He was head writer. He had an enormous amount of the show to carry. Some days, his life was made very difficult by this. He never made your life difficult as a result. He was extremely kind and supportive to everyone.
The other thing he did was he started fresh every Monday. We would come back from the previous show on Monday, some of us still carrying a grievance from Saturday night: “I can’t believe they cut my thing, and blah, blah, blah,” and that attitude would make it hard to start back up for the new show that week. Seth would show up, no matter how hard the previous week had been, and be totally upbeat with strong ideas for the show. And he did this for many years in a row. It’s extremely impressive to me.
How has it been working on Documentary Now? It’s the first time in a while that you’re just a writer on something.
It’s really fun. I really like writing for people. Writing for Bill and Fred with Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Buono] directing was great. At SNL we would make a lot of film pieces, especially with Bill and Fred, specifically. They were so filmic about it, in nailing the look of these things. It was very cool to write things knowing that they were going to come across looking awesome. We got the original lenses [from] Thin Blue Line.
Do you think about the idea of working on a show that you created, but just as a writer?
Not that much. I think about three months into the future.
You’ve said in the past that Conan [O’Brien] was always someone you looked up to. Of course, if someone said, “Here’s a late-night show,” you’d be open to it, but is a late-night show a goal, is it something you’d think you would like to do at this point?
Again, I don’t like to plan that far in the future. I would want to do a show like that if I thought there was a reason to. Right now, there’s no reason to. But since you mentioned Conan, I will take this opportunity to say that Conan O’Brien is the funniest person in the world, and no one ever made me laugh harder than he did on his show. For my older brother and me, it was life-changing. Everything people have been writing about Letterman in the ’80s recently, that’s what Conan was and is to us.
What did you think of the ending of Mad Men?
Oh, I was really knocked out. I have had this with a few shows, where I’m really knocked out by the second- or third-to-last episode. Like when Hank is killed on Breaking Bad. Walt’s trying to keep his family from this thing, and then a family member of his is killed because he caused it. I was like, “That’s the end of the show. It doesn’t matter.” I’m not critiquing what the finales were. I’m saying the second-to-last episode with Betty getting diagnosed was so sad and hard, and you think about when we first all saw Betty Draper in the first season. That, emotionally, was so big. I loved the finale, too.
Early on, you had a chunk on Donald Trump. It was on yourPresents?
Yeah, on my first CD.
And I’ve heard you talk about using that bit for your SNLaudition, right? Because it was your way of doing a character.
What do you make of him as a candidate?
I understand that he is pretty out of line, but you have to appreciate organic entertainment when it is around. This will be over soon, and we will miss aspects of it. Maybe some people won’t. When people get upset about it, to me, it’s like getting upset about Magneto. He’s not a real person, and I don’t have the proof yet. But, he’s not an actual human being. He’s like an insult comic made by the Jim Henson studios. So, don’t worry about it. This will get sorted out.
There’s no easy way to bring this up, but I wanted to talk to you about Bill Cosby, as you had a joke about him in your last special and he obviously was a big deal to you.
I don’t have a very profound answer, or one that will be all that interesting. What I might have felt in terms of, “Oh, that’s a shame. That tarnishes some sort of thing I liked.” That has been replaced by sheer disgust. Even though, to the public, all of these revelations are a year old, I don’t even remember the feeling anymore of, “What? America’s dad?” It’s terrible and despicable. Who gives a shit that I ever liked his comedy? That’s not even what’s important.
I want to talk about the special, which is great.
Thanks for watching it. It was very beautiful-looking.
The title, The Comeback Kid. Your last special was called New in Town, which was a reference to a joke, but it also felt like a reference to what it was. Like, “I’m new. This is my thing.”
Uh-huh. What are you getting at?
[Laughs.] So, what could be the meaning of The Comeback Kid?
It’s a nod to Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan from ’92 because I tell a long story about Bill Clinton.
Did you feel like it was a reintroduction? “I’m back!”
Not “I’m back.” I understand the double meaning because I named it. It was funny to me to even call yourself that. It was funny that Bill Clinton called himself that. He was 46. It’s a funny thing to, one, call yourself a kid — it’s kind of gross in a funny way. I suggested it, and my wife started laughing a lot. She was like, “To go from New in Town to The Comeback Kid means, what happened in between?” It was also that I like the slogan a lot. It always stuck in my head from the ’92 campaign. This silver-haired, 46-year-old guy going, “I will be the comeback kid.”
As you say in the special, your interest in Clinton started early partly because your parents went to college with him. But why are you so fascinated by him?
My childhood was completely dominated by Bill Clinton and the OJ trial. I don’t think we had a family dinner where one didn’t come up. I still think about the OJ trial several times a week. Bill Clinton fascinates me because at the time, it seemed like his shenanigans and the people after him were the biggest political stories you could ever imagine. I remember when the Starr Report was published in the newspaper, all of us were reading it in the high-school cafeteria, and a dean started taking the newspapers away from us. There was crazy stuff in it. It was like explicit and hilarious. Everything about that time felt huge. It was like, “Wow, I’ll never see divisiveness like this again.” And then you look back after what has happened, and it all seems so quaint. I think between OJ and the various Clinton scandals, we were never so entertained. We’ve had to create a thousand reality shows and TV channels just to replace that void.
I saw you working on the material for this special at UCB two years ago. But a lot of it felt more appropriate to do now because you got married and you bought a house. How much is this special about coming to terms with being a grown-up?
I’m a little bit on the other side of it. Just on the other side of it enough. I didn’t think of it in those terms. The material comes together, and in the last month, running it and running it, I go, Oh, this is kind of that. But then I also retread to stuff growing up with my parents, and then kind of the final showdown with my parents involving Governor Bill Clinton. So, it’s both. I’m not one where every stand-up hour has some big arc to it. I will say there is a sense of excitement, but not the same type of excitement. It’s more excited about what real life is like, whereas three or four years ago I was more like, “Anything’s possible!”
I think there is the idea of a young-guy comedian who has no problems in the world, and all of his material is about video games or inconsequential shit. That’s not exactly what you did, but it seems like you’re now officially in the grown-up-comedian category.
I still have a pretty silly life sometimes. There were some milestones this year that felt very adult. I got married and we bought a place. I have a mortgage. I don’t have a joke about it yet, but I have, like, sciatica. There are little things like that where it’s like, yes. Perhaps when I was younger, I had seen so much material about being married, or so much material about the same areas. And when I first started, I had jokes about, like the Liberty Bell. Things that I had never heard a joke about. Yeah, ooh, I know my sweet spot. I’ll write jokes about things no one has jokes about. But there’s a reason: It’s not that interesting. And then you see brilliant comedians talk about the things that many comics have touched on, but they do it really well. That I see more of. I was onstage the other night, and I’m like, You’re doing jokes about the fact that your wife is Jewish. Do you realize you could have done that in 1930, and you’re doing it now because you like it and you have something funny to say about it.
With that, has there been a shift for you from Law & Order and true-crime TV to HGTV?
Yeesh, a little bit. Owning a home does two things: You get very interested in home-improvement shows set in California, and you also get a lot less interested in reading about the Manson murders. Those become a lot scarier.
You talk about HGTV shows in the new special. Do you know the secret behind how House Hunters works?
Do I want to know?
I don’t know. It would be better for the copy for me to spoil how the show works.
They buy the house beforehand.
I heard tell of that.
They show them looking at three houses just for TV. Which is why they sometimes seem so confused. They are normal people acting for the first time in their life.
But don’t you think they’re pretty good? I say this as someone who tried acting. These people are remarkably comfortable on camera. We’re taking still photos of me right now, and I’m wildly uncomfortable. Yet these people are on camera being like, “We don’t like the duplex downtown, but the townhouse, without an en suite in the master bedroom, that’s a pass.”
You’re like, “Whoa, when did you get so good at talking into the lens, you man from, like, Cincinnati?” Everyone is good on camera. Ever see a game show in the ’50s, when they cut to audience, people are like, “No!” They are freaking out to even have a camera pointed at them. Now people are like, “Can we do a walk-and-talk? Why don’t I walk backwards and the camera follows me?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that would be helpful.”
Do you still talk to Ice-T? Do you text?
No, but we’ve been in touch about doing his podcast, “Final Level.” I have not been in New York City. The timing hasn’t been right. But I’m a big fan of his podcast.
In your last special, you joked about how you are becoming more like your mom. But this special has a lot more about your dad. Do you feel like you’re becoming more like your dad? Wrestling with your dadness, or being a patriarch?
Well, I am only a patriarch to a small dog. I will say one undercurrent to it, and one thing I really like in the special, is when I talk about my dad shushing that kid at The Lion King and I say he’s my hero. When I was a kid, I didn’t realize how dry he was. Things that I look back on and I’m like, he was very funny. It was looking back on what my dad was, and realizing how funny he was and is. And seeing things I do that are bits for myself. Like the coffee thing. Like, I feel like I understand now, You know what would be super fucked-up is if I did this, and just stared forward and didn’t say a thing about it.
You call out a guy for using his cell phone.
He’s checking his phone.
You didn’t yell at him, but it was confrontational — very alpha of you.
[Laughs loudly.] Did you say alpha?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I did.
It’s partly because in the special you talk about how your dog trainer was like, “You gotta be the alpha.” I’ve read you say that if someone heckles you, you’re like, “Um, please stop.”
Right. Well, I just think it’s like, you sleep less as you get older. When you sleep less, you have less patience for things. And so when you asked me about turning into a parent, I don’t have kids, so I’d hate to say, like, I know what it feels like to be a parent. I know what it feels like to sleep five hours every night. When you’re young, you’re like, “What’s with people? Why are people mean?” And then you only sleep five hours and you’re like, “Oh, okay.” So, yeah, some crankiness might have slipped into my brain.
Though I can’t imagine you’re getting too many hecklers now that you’re playing theaters.
No, no, I get participators. Most comedians get participators versus hecklers. The thing of, like, “You suck!” happens, but it’s rarer. It’ll happen midnights at the Comedy Cellar or something. But more than anything, you get participators. It’ll be like, “My dad took us to McDonald’s,” and someone will be like, “Oh, Burger King!” And you’re like, “No, not Burger King, McDonald’s.” So it’s more just weird. Like, people offer tags to jokes, like, “You should have said, ‘I’m outta here!’” And you’re like, “No, thank you. The bit is written and structured.”
What made you decide to go with Netflix this time?
They do great specials. But also I got my last Comedy Central special on Netflix, and it had a whole second life. I like how they recommend other stand-up specials when you get that bar below. But also, that now is TV to kids. Eleven-year-olds I talk to, I’ll say, “How did you see my special?” And they say, “I just watch whatever I see on Netflix.” [Laughs.] Okay … That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, I had heard it really exploded on Netflix.
Same with Pandora and Sirius satellite radio. I did one special, and it’s had three nice lives.
What is your feeling about using pop-culture references in stand-up? Even in my writing, I always felt like they are a bit of a double-edged sword. They can bring an audience in who gets the joke, but they can also exclude those who don’t.
Right. This will sound pretentious, but I like using references when, hopefully, the fact that I’m using it is what’s funny, not the reference itself.
Like, I’ve never seen The Fugitive, but I understand the joke you make in the special where you are telling the Bill Clinton story, but you keep on breaking out of it to summarize the plot of The Fugitive.
Right. It’s that someone would go into that amount of detail about The Fugitive, to me, is the joke, versus just being like, “Slap bracelets!”
I don’t know, that’s a pretty good joke.
Should I open with it tonight?
Did you have a time when you did a reference and it was a complete whiff?
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with references, but doing colleges, it’s slightly weird. I remember once saying, like, “Zack Morris” to a college, just as a throwaway. And they were like, “What?” That made me feel so elderly that I was like, “I’m not going to do that.” I’m not going to try to hit something that’s relevant.
In a couple instances, you are an exception to some trends in comedy. Particularly, that your material is fairly written and tight. How important is the writerliness of your stand-up to you? Like, you end New in Town with, “He wore glasses to show that time has passed.” Which is an odd line to close with.
Yeah, it’s not the biggest line. There is a bigger laugh right before it. Someone asked me, someone who had seen me at UCB right before I taped the special, “Did you get rid of ‘Glasses to show time had passed’?” I was like, “Yeah, it never played that big.” And they were like, “That’s the best line in the whole …” So I said, “All right, I’ll close with it.”
Why did you do it?
If there are well-crafted lines, it starts to make other comedians laugh. Being ultraspecific.
Do you go up with something scripted out, especially when you’re starting something?
Medium. I have sloppy shows that are, “I have an idea, and should the inspiration strike …” I have write-on-stage shows. I do this show called The John Mulaney Files at [L.A. venue] Largo, which is a bunch of premises and ideas that I have always wanted to do as jokes, but they’re not written out fully yet, and maybe the excitement of a fun crowd will do that. I think I am good at improvising and writing onstage, but I just totally can’t count on it. Also, like, last night, I landed in Roanoke, drove to Virginia Tech, and did a show, and I remember thinking, This is going to be really fun, but I’m glad I have a lot of written material because my brain’s a little dead. The show was actually pretty improvised and fun …
But it’s nice to have it.
I’ve talked to Pete Holmes about that. To have the audience laughing at a premise, and laughing at a premise, and you know what you have in your back pocket, it’s like you’re asking them to lean their chins further and further in, and then you knock them out like that.
At the end of the special, you thank Mike Birbiglia. You say he taught you how to be a comedian. I know you opened for him when you were younger, but that’s much more specific of a compliment. What did he teach you?
I was a comedian trying to get on [the weekly comedy show] Invite Them Up With Eugene Mirman. New York had certain really cool alternative venues, but if you were just waiting for those venues, you weren’t getting up onstage. Birbiglia had his mother’s car and was driving to the Stress Factory in New Jersey, to clubs in Massachusetts, Ohio, wherever. He was getting booked as an emcee — emceeing at Crackers in Indianapolis. He was just like, “You have to go out and do this everywhere.” And he took me on the road for his Comedy Central college tour, but also for like two years. And that was insanely generous of him. I was a comedian with like five minutes of material, but we were friends. It was, “You have to go out, and you can’t be precious. You just graduated from college, so you probably think you’re intelligent, but you need to do shows.” He helped me get over the hump of, “I want to be a comedian, but I’m afraid to do shows.” As in, “I want to have been a comedian.” And after doing shows with him, I couldn’t wait to do the next show. Also, he was starting to do longer and longer stories onstage, and that influenced me a lot. His album Two-Drink Mike is like one of the best albums of jokes ever, and then he followed it up with two amazing one-person shows. I learned from him about crafting stories, and how it’s a story, but it’s also about 600 jokes as well.
Are there parts of your comedy that you wish were more in Mulaney?
Sure. There are other aspects, but no show is as good as a vehicle for your stand-up unless it’s a show where you get to do a ton of stand-up. Stand-up is so free. You can be super nice and considerate. You can be an asshole. It’s always within the same joke. You can be super dark, but super enthusiastic about it. It’s a very weird thing you get to do.
A while back, we had Sarah Silverman interview Whitney Cummings for us. There’s a part that other comedians I’ve spoken to have liked a lot, where Whitney is talking about how after her show Whitney ended, people would say, “What are you going to do next?” And she’s like, “I’m playing to 2,000 people a night. Why is that not enough?” You are an ambitious guy, but now, where you are currently, is TV or something outside of stand-up necessary for what you feel like is a successful career?
To me, touring as a stand-up comedian is the greatest life you could ask for. And feeding that through other things that maybe help people learn who you are is great. I like making television as well. But it would all be to drive standing onstage in theaters doing stand-up. That’s the constant. I don’t think I realized how much certain types of television shows take you away from that. We went on sale yesterday for the “Oh, Hello” show. It’s been selling huge. The Netflix special is coming out. This quality of life is excellent. Doing stand-up to a theater of people is an excellent way to make a living.
Styling By: Lydia F Sellers for Exclusive Artists Management using Laura Mercier and Kevin Murphy