John Mulaney on Hosting SNL, Broadway Musicals, and Becoming a Meme

John Mulaney. Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC

We may never know whether or not John Mulaney wrote for Saturday Night Live, but one thing’s for sure: He’s one of the nicest and funniest comedians working today. Thankfully, 2019 has given us a whole lot of Mulaney so far, from his standout Sondheim-inspired episode of Documentary Now! co-written with Seth Meyers to his appearance at the Academy Awards alongside Awkwafina to his return as SNL host earlier this month, which featured a bodega-themed sequel to last year’s instant-hit “Diner Lobster” sketch.

Mulaney recently spoke with Vulture about these and many more topics, including his desire to write a Broadway musical, some thoughts on feuding New York law firm Cellino & Barnes, and what it’s like to see himself turned into memes on Twitter. He also opened up about his decision to part ways with manager Dave Becky in late 2017 after the New York Times reported on Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct, in which Becky, C.K.’s former manager, was accused of working to keep the women’s stories under wraps. “I’m happy to have it on the record that I am not working with Dave and made that decision, and again, I think the less oxygen I take up in this conversation, the better,” Mulaney said, noting that the C.K. story is a signal for men in comedy to step back and listen to women. While his departure from Becky was a quiet one, Mulaney says he’s been waiting and ready to confirm the news to any journalist who asked — it just took a year-and-a-half for it to happen.

First off, I should probably address the elephant in the room and just say thank you so much for supporting and contributing to my investigation about whether or not you wrote for SNL. It was appreciated.
I want to thank you for digging deep, and honestly, it was very hilarious to watch. And as I looked through, I was like, “Well, what can I add to this?” and I did see there are inconsistencies worth exploring. I was going to send you the fact that I had a special and an album come out in 2009 when I was supposedly working on the show, and I did record the Comedy Central Presents I did in 2008 on a commercial writing night in August. So I apologize for not giving you that lead, but I was very excited to find photos that were literally green screens.

You gave me plenty to work with.
When did you begin peeling this onion of how I didn’t write at SNL?

Well, what happened was, you did the SNL promo where you were auditioning for the show going back years, so I wrote a post about it.

It was a funny promo. But the headline I used for the post was “Hey SNL, Please Hire This John Mulaney Kid.” And on Facebook, there were comments from a couple guys saying, “Um, he wrote for SNL,” or, “You don’t even know that?” — “Megh, come on, you should know this.” So I just kind of …
Oh, that’s great. People just opened with condescension?

Exactly. So that was the genesis. And I decided instead of just taking their word for it, I would try to find the truth on my own. I’m sorry that you got dragged into it. You just happened to be the point of contention for the whole saga.
No, I couldn’t have found it more enjoyable to watch roll out. And the amount of people who didn’t get it and clapped back at you was insane.

Related to this, I have a question. You know the “John Mulaney as …” meme where people post screenshots from your specials related to a certain theme? Or just the general idea of being turned into a reaction GIF? What is it like to experience that happening to you? Is it weird to see yourself meme-ified?
It sounds like mummified, which is … I’ve never heard it used that way. It is, yeah. It is very funny when my wife or a friend, after I text something stupid, will send me a GIF of myself as a way to put me down.

Your wife does that to you?
Occasionally, yes. [Laughs.] I’m trying to remember one from recently. I know that I was on a text chain with my friend Pete [Davidson] and my wife, and they were both sending GIFs at me and as a way to put me down in a very fun way.

That’s great.
In terms of the using quotes thing, I saw one of them that was Shakespeare plays, and I was embarrassed because I didn’t know enough about the plays to get how the quotes of mine matched up. So I sort of appreciated it, but I kind of felt very uneducated.

Well, that’s kind of great in a way, you know? That your material could be turned into something where even you don’t understand it.
If I don’t understand how my own material relates to Othello or King Lear, I can still nod and pretend I do.

You and Awkwafina were a really good pair at the Oscars last month, and you mentioned that it was your first time there. What was that whole experience like? Did anything interesting or funny or crazy happen that we didn’t get to see?
It was very fun to present with Awkwafina, and we were both genuinely that nervous and excited to do it. Right before we went out, in the rehearsal on Saturday, they had said, “It’s a piece of tape, and then you guys come out.” And we were like, “Okay, great.” And then on Sunday during the live telecast, we were waiting backstage in the wing, and we just heard the announcement say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.” We were backstage and they were doing Wayne’s World. And we were like, “Wait a second. I thought you said we had to follow a piece of tape.” And they’re like, “They introduce this clip.” And we were like, “So we have to follow Wayne’s World?” We genuinely thought we would be following, like, the head of the Academy introducing a video of how they tally votes or something. And then we were following one of the most famous comedy duos ever. So then we got double nervous.

The beginning of the night was also very interesting, and … a strange sight of several billionaires singing along to “We Are the Champions.” It’s a strange thing to see. Especially if they’re, like, head-banging. You know, it’s a wonderful song, but something about the lyrics and the makeup of the audience … it was definitely a unique thing.

Your suit choice, by the way, was fantastic. Your stylist was on their game.
Yeah. Michael Fisher picked that out for me and leased it to me. I didn’t spill anything on it and returned it the next day. A true Cinderella story.

It was very nice. It was just grabby enough without being too grabby.
I like the term grabby, and I’m gonna use it.

It’s yours. So, after your episode of SNL aired last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that there were two toilet-related sketches.

What is it about toilets that you’re so drawn to?
Well, [former SNL writers] Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer and I always felt that … Well, I won’t speak for them, but I felt there was an inherent tone in our comedy that going to the bathroom is far more interesting than sex in many cases, and there’s too much humor about sex and not enough about going to the bathroom, and that occasionally, even sexual humor will be referred to as toilet humor. But there really isn’t enough exploration of the very serious situation that is going to the bathroom as an adult. So we had written “Toilet Death Ejector” I think in 2009 at the beginning of my second season there. And twice we tried to get it on, and we didn’t. It was kind of our most beloved orphan.

At the same time, independently, I was talking with Colin [Jost] the week leading up to the show about some ideas for a musical number I guess that would be cousin to the “Diner Lobster” sketch. And I just thought that trying to use a bathroom in a bodega is a difficult, sometimes taboo New York rite of passage. I only noticed there were two toilet sketches on Wednesday when they were both in the read-through. I mean, you know, they’ve shown us multiple sketches about Trump every week, and toilets make people far happier than Donald Trump ever did.

That’s true.
But yeah. So it was discussed, and I can’t say that it was a surprise.

So when you’re a former SNL writer resurrecting a sketch that you never got to get on the air —
Thank you, by the way.

You just tipped your hand that you have bought into the lie.

Oh, no, actually I’m just playing into the bit that you used to write for SNL, but I see what you’re saying.
Yeah, I know. You’re buying into the prolonged Andy Kaufman bit.

So when you’re hosting and get an old sketch on, do you have to fight for it? Or is it just like, “Well, John’s hosting, he wants this sketch on, put the sketch on!” How does it work?
Oh, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. The former, I guess. I wouldn’t say I have to fight for it, but they always have to prove themselves at the table.

On Saturday, I wrote a sketch with Simon and Marika that was cut from dress that just didn’t quite fly that we were very excited about as well. But while I have loved that I’m able to resurrect some things that I wrote with friends or write things with Colin that we were able to put on, no — I definitely think they were operating on a how-they-played basis.

Is there a difference between hosting the first time and the second time? I imagine there might be lessons you can only learn by actually hosting SNL.
The first time, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun on air, but I was really terrified all week. It was something close to dread. I had never experienced the other side of the show, let alone hosting. I’d only done pieces at the “Weekend Update” desk where you’re looking into one camera. For as many times as I’d written and produced sketches on the show, I had never had to be in a sketch that I’d written or a sketch that I didn’t write. And I remember asking I think Mary Ellen Matthews, the photographer, after we blocked a sketch, “Do you know when I get to go upstairs and rewrite this?” She laughed and said, “You’re never gonna rewrite it.” And it was true — the week is jam-packed with activity, and you don’t get to have the monastic writerlike moments to work on stuff. I had a lot of great friends there who were writing, and therefore it was a thing I shouldn’t have worried about. But I was very rattled going from being like a busboy to the maître d’. Even though as a busboy-slash-writer I thought I knew everything about the restaurant — if I may stretch this metaphor — that is Saturday Night Live.

I had a great time on air, but I was very shook all week. This year, I genuinely had a wonderful time Monday to Saturday night, and we had an embarrassment of riches in material. I mean, Cecily [Strong] had a Dianne Feinstein piece that was cut for time, which was brilliant. It was one of the funniest things from the table read. So we had a great stock of stuff to do on the show, and it was just really fun to be back and kind of know that I should surrender to the schedule and flow of it. It was probably one of the best weeks I’ve ever had there.

Are there writers at SNL — especially newer ones you hadn’t worked with before — whose work and sensibility excite you?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s such a great staff and cast, and it was very fun to have a lot of collaborations with people. I hesitate to single people out, because I think it is overall such a strong staff. I really enjoy Julio Torres’s work and Bowen Yang’s work, and Sam Jay and Brian Tucker wrote the “Cha Cha Slide” sketch that I was really, really lucky to be in. I think Brian had the idea and was working on it all week with Sam, and Gary Richardson also was wildly instrumental in my and Colin’s “Bodega Bathroom” piece. So they were some of the ones I worked with the most. But I have to say, on Tuesday night at read-through, I was really excited by how many great pieces there were by newer writers and writers that had been there for a little bit.

So between “Diner Lobster,” “Bodega Bathroom,” and “Co-Op” on Documentary Now! you clearly love musicals. Is actually writing a Broadway musical something your fans could sincerely hope for? Is that something you would enjoy checking off the list?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I would love to write the book and maybe even lyrics for a Broadway musical. I realize that so far my musical repertoire is very, very limited to small issues in Manhattan, from Co-op to “Lobster” to “Bodega,” so I cannot promise that I can expand my palate. I simply cannot promise that.

I mean, the specific is universal, though, isn’t it?
I think so. And I also grew up in Chicago, which, while a city, is not New York. And I always liked when Saturday Night Live talked about New York or had jokes about Dinkins or the subway. I just liked pretending to know what that meant or feeling like I was in on a joke.

I wonder about that when SNL references stuff like Cellino & Barnes. Documentary Now! is a similar case — even if you’re not really familiar with the original reference, if it’s funny, it’s funny, you know?
Well, I do agree with that — that if something just seems funny, that’s all we want it to be. We did have a slight discussion — it was either very late on Friday night or between dress and air — if Cellino & Barnes were national. I think it was the first time it was discussed. I only remember because I started laughing. It was the first time we wondered if they were New York only, tristate, or perhaps the way Empire Carpet was in several states. Cellino & Barnes: What is their reach? That was discussed very late into the week.

Didn’t one of them sue the other one? I thought they broke up.
You know, I keep hearing that.

I remember seeing a story about how they split up, one of them used a ripoff of their jingle, and then the other one sued or something.
[Laughs.] The lawsuit was jingle-based?

I’m not sure if the lawsuit was jingle-based, but there was some kind of legal battle between them. I’d have to look it up. But it’s a whole thing.
I was driving on the West Side Highway last night, and I saw a big billboard for Cellino & Barnes with “800-888-8888,” and it looked new. And I just assume if you’re that litigious — if both of you are that litigious — you would take down the billboard if things were getting that acrimonious. But then again, I’m no lawyer.

I’m Googling it now and seeing articles from December 2017 about it, so I don’t know what the heck’s going on these days. But there was a breakup of some kind. And yet the commercials are still on, so I have no idea.
It’s possible it’s just a brand and there are a team of young associates not associated with the falling-out, but I don’t know.

I don’t know either!
It’s a real Guns N’ Roses situation where the name might be living on.

Back to musicals for a second, I just wanted to bring something to your attention. I’m not sure if you know Natalie Walker, but she’s a very funny comedian who tweeted recently that she wants you and Rachel Bloom to host the Tonys together. I imagine Rachel would be fine with that, but I wanted to run the idea by you.
I try not to accept jobs that I haven’t been offered, but yes, I would love to do that. Rachel Bloom was fantastic at the Tonys the year Nick [Kroll] and I presented. You know, look, I don’t know if anyone’s offering it to us, but … We’ll take it, and we only have a small rider.

Since the New York Times reported on Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct in late 2017, there’s been criticism and concern about C.K.’s former manager Dave Becky, who represents a lot of comedians. He allegedly played a part in keeping C.K.’s accusers silent, which discouraged some of them from pursuing careers in comedy, since he’s such a powerful figure in the industry. It’s been somewhat known among comedians that you decided to leave Becky after the Times report, but I don’t think it was ever officially confirmed. So is it true?
Yes, it is true. I stopped working with Dave Becky in November of 2017.

Why haven’t you said anything about it?
When it happened — when I made the decision — in terms of why I didn’t make a press release, honestly, I didn’t feel I had anything that noble to add, and issuing a simple statement of one sentence that I fired Dave seemed evasive and honestly an unhelpful use of everyone’s time and taking up oxygen. I did tell anyone who asked — comedian, representative, or otherwise. And I have been quite ready to tell any journalist who asked, and I believe you are the first. So if I am mistaken and someone did, I apologize, but I think you are the first to ask.

You’ve done a good deal of interviews since then — I wonder why no one asked. Maybe in an otherwise lighthearted interview, an interviewer might get worried it would make you mad? I don’t know.
I would hate to think anyone would be concerned about me being mad. I won’t pretend that I did not wonder if someone would ask over the past year-and-a-half, but I’m happy to clear it up.

I do find the whole thing really frustrating. Becky represents and works with so many people in comedy, and most of them haven’t left him or are even willing to engage with the issue. Why do you think that is?
I truly would not want to speculate or speak for other people. I would assume everyone had their own particular relationship to these events, and it would be inappropriate for me to speculate. I can only say I made the decision that I thought was right at that time.

This has opened up a big discussion among comedians about how to make the industry safer. Whether it’s about comedy clubs or the bigger structural issues that Becky represents, do you have any general thoughts on all this?
To be quite honest, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on many things. I don’t think my thoughts and opinions matter in any way compared to the women who have been directly affected by these actions. I say this not at all to be evasive, but just to not talk anymore as a male in comedy who has not had to experience this. Other people should. Women’s opinions matter, and mine does not.

John Mulaney on SNL, Broadway Musicals, and Becoming a Meme