the great bits

The Musical Brilliance of John Mulaney’s Stand-up

John Mulaney Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Georgetown University

John Mulaney thinks about music a lot. His dead-on parodies of Les Misérables, Stephen Sondheim, and Steely Dan could only have come from a longtime fan. He has spent years with these songs and understands why they work, and that comes through in his stand-up. He composes his words with careful attention to the rhythms they create, and performs them with the precision of the best musicians. He hits every beat just right. Nowhere is this on better display than in “The Salt and Pepper Diner,” from his 2009 album, The Top Part. Listen to it now. It’s magnificent.

Someone asked Mel Brooks the difference between tragedy and comedy. He reportedly said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Mulaney knows his memory of diner misery has the potential to satisfy the comedy fan’s appetite for voyeuristic sadism. Whether it is a light snack or a hearty meal will depend on his execution.

The importance of rhythm to Mulaney is evident from the start of this bit. When he first mentions the diner’s name, a woman in the audience interrupts. He repeats the setup before proceeding, with the same number of syllables so his punch line still lands on the intended beat. For Mulaney, cadence is as important as content.

I hate to remind anyone of grade-school music class. I can’t imagine even Yo-Yo Ma has fond memories of sitting in a plastic chair playing a saliva-drenched recorder, learning about quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes. Even so, understanding meter — how musicians divide time into beats — is key to appreciating Mulaney’s performance. From that first joke, he is mindful of how long he takes to say each word and the amount of space he allows between them. “It’s a wonderful family restaurant in Chicago,” he begins, at a relaxed pace. He hits the punch line faster. “Which means that it caters mainly to teenagers and homeless schizophrenics.” The tempo change gives him a bigger laugh, just like the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has more impact because Nirvana speeds up after the verse.

Mulaney enters the diner with his friend, who is also named John. He addresses the coincidence with a one-liner and moves on to the meat of the story. John and John program the same Tom Jones song — “What’s New Pussycat?” — into the jukebox 21 times. They order their food and wait for their mischief to bear fruit. Mulaney breaks down the situation for the audience: “Here’s the thing about when ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ plays over and over and over and over and over again …” Simply saying “over and over” would convey the same meaning with less syllables, but the three extra overs give the audience a real-time taste of the relentless repetition the diner customers are about to experience.

The audience knows there are 21 plays of “What’s New Pussycat?” in the jukebox, but the people in the diner have no idea. Mulaney describes the reactions the patrons have the first few times the song repeats. He begins each reaction with an exclamation like “Hey!” or “Whoa!” Conventional comedy wisdom says these are needless extra words. No one leaves a comedy club thinking, I wish the setups were longer. For Mulaney, they are anything but superfluous. They act like a drummer’s cymbal crash. Questlove bashing his cymbal focuses attention on the music that follows, and Mulaney’s “Whoa!” tells the audience, Listen up, this next part is important.

Mulaney tells the crowd that the fifth play of the song is when the diner patrons begin to realize the nightmare they are trapped in. He pauses the story right before it happens. He builds the tension, painstakingly describing one of the customers, adding detail after detail without giving the audience time to laugh. “He’s sitting in his booth, and his, like, hand is shaking while his stupid kids jump around, and he’s been on to us from the beginning, and he’s staring at his coffee cup like this, and he has this look on his face like Aww …” Another cymbal-crash exclamation makes sure the crowd is dialed in. “… Like he just got his 30-day chip from anger management.” This man is now a stand-in for the reaction of the entire restaurant. Mulaney prolongs the moment as long as he can before giving the audience their release. “The fourth play fades out,” he says. “It’s dead quiet.” He pauses for four seconds. Almost cruelly, he slows down even further. “And then — I don’t know if you know this — but the song begins very subtly.” From absolute silence, Mulaney blurts “Bwaaaa-bwamp! What’s new pussycat?” Then, without a breath, “And the guy goes, ‘Goddamnit! and pounds on the table, and silverware flies everywhere, and it was faaaantastic!” The crowd erupts.

Mulaney gives the audience a mere three seconds to applaud and picks right back up again. “But a word about my friend John, and what a genius he was.” So far, Mulaney has paused his story, slowed it down, and zoomed in for detail. Now, he reveals a crucial scene he had left out, like Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown. We are back with the boys choosing the songs at the jukebox. “I punched in about seven,” Mulaney says, “and then John says to me, ‘Hey hey hey, wait.’” With three “heys” the audience knows this next part is big: There is one “It’s Not Unusual” sandwiched between plays of “What’s New Pussycat?”

“And that is when the afternoon went from good to great. After seven! What’s New Pussycats!” in a row!” Mulaney barks, relishing each word like a prosecutor reminding the jury of the defendant’s heinous crimes. “It’s Not Unusual” comes on. Mulaney describes “the sigh of relief that swept through the diner,” giving each word equal duration and punch. The audience bursts into joyous applause. This time, he lets them finish their laugh, breathe, and relax. What’s coming next deserves its own beat. In low, ominous tones, Mulaney interjects, “And on the other hand, when we went back …” He is on the verge of revealing what happened when “What’s New Pussycat?” played once more, but he never finishes the sentence.

There is a cliché that the genius of jazz musicians is not in the notes they play but in the notes they don’t play. It doesn’t make much sense. In musical notation, a note you don’t play is still a note. It’s called a rest, and you write it right there on the page. There are whole rests, half rests, and quarter rests, each ready for use when the sound you require is the sound of silence. Mulaney rests for three seconds before exclaiming, “Holy shit!” He gets a big laugh and the audience’s undivided attention. Six more seconds go by. At a snail’s pace, he continues, “‘It’s Not Unusual’ fades out …” For ten more seconds, he says nothing at all.

Every instinct in a comedian’s body screams that silence is dangerous. The crowd might lose interest, get bored, or heckle. Mulaney holds his ground. He knows this is right. The audience giggles in nervous anticipation. “It’s dead quiet,” he says. He waits until the room is as soundless as the diner in the story before belting out “Bwaaaa-bwamp! What’s new pussycat?” and then, with equal, machine-tool-precise emphasis on each syllable, he says, “People went fucking insane.” The audience does, too.

“And that was the best meal I’ve ever had!” Mulaney concludes his story with the same words he began it with, like the Beatles’ reprise of “Sgt. Pepper” on Side Two. The audience is clapping by the word that. They know they witnessed something special. After 25 seconds, they are still applauding as the track fades out.

“The Salt and Pepper Diner” is a story about the power of music to shape people’s emotions. It can “make grown men and women weep tears of joy,” and it can make them feel like they are losing their minds. Mulaney demonstrates the power he describes. He uses his own instrument — his voice — to control his audience’s feelings as completely as the songs in that jukebox controlled the mood in the diner.

When a story falls flat, people say, “I guess you had to be there,” A great comedian can take you there. They can make you feel every moment like it’s happening to you, with only their voice. Simply talking won’t cut it. It takes careful planning, intense concentration, and attention to each millisecond of their delivery to wring out everything their instrument is capable of. When this is done at the highest level, you get “The Salt and Pepper Diner.”

The Musical Brilliance of John Mulaney’s Stand-up