John Mulaney is far from a political comedian, and much of his act feels indebted to an era before America looked to humor as a cathartic release in the midst of social chaos. Much like Jerry Seinfeld, Mulaney’s work is accessible and mines the mundane for laughs. That his self-titled, short-lived Fox sitcom was not the next Seinfeld was less a setback than the impetus to continue growing as a stand-up performer.
His new Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, features an extended analogy where an angry horse loose in a hospital stands in for Donald Trump. It’s a clever workaround for a comic who isn’t known for being preachy, allowing him to comment on the issue of the day, but also stay true to his absurdist tendencies as a comedian. This is arguably Mulaney’s best hour special yet, a showcase for his immaculate writing and captivating stagecraft. Below, the best of his jokes are reproduced for your laughing pleasure.
Dad’s Sex Talk
I was like 12 years old and my dad walked up to me and he said, “Hello. Hello, I’m Chip Mulaney, your father.” And he said the following: “You know Leonard Bernstein was one of the great composers and conductors of the 20th century, but sometimes, he would be gay. And according to a biography I read of him, when he was holding back the gay part, he did some of his best work.” Now, we don’t have time to unpack all of that. I don’t know if he was discouraging me from being gay or encouraging me to be a classical composer, but that is how he thought to phrase it to a 12-year-old boy. How would that ever work? Like, years later, I’d be in college, about to go down on some rockin’ twink and I’d be like, “Wait a second. What would Leonard Bernstein do?” I never talked to my dad about that, but I figured I’d tell all of you.
Wading into territory like this is tricky, as a joke of this nature can easily feel like it’s trading on tired gay panic tropes. But Mulaney is deft enough to make the whole thing more about his dad’s cluelessness about human sexuality (and the nature of art) than it is about “gay stuff being icky.” It also doesn’t hurt that Mulaney’s old man voice is one of the strongest parts of his whole persona.
Street Smarts With J.J. Bittenbinder
Bittenbinder came every year, with a program to teach us about the violent world just outside the school gym, and that program was called Street Smarts! It’s time for Street Smarts with Detective JJ Bittenbinder. Shut up, you’re all gonna die. Street Smarts! That was the general tone. He would give us tips to deal with crime. I will share some of the tips with you this evening. Okay, tip No. 1. Street Smarts! Let’s say a guy pulls a knife on you to mug you, because you remember the scourge of muggins when you were in second and third grade. “Man, I need cash for drugs right now. Maybe that 8-year-old with the goddamn Aladdin wallet that only has blank photo laminate pages in it will be able to help.” Let’s say a guy pulls a knife to mug you. What do you do? You go fumbling for your wallet and you go fumbling for your wallet. Well, in that split second, that’s when he’s gonna stab you. So here’s what you do. You kids get yourselves a money clip. You can get these at any haberdashery. You put a $50 dollar in the money clip. Then, when a guy flashes a blade, you go, “You want my money? Go get it!” Then you run the other direction. And our teachers were like, “Write that down.”
Creating a memorable character inside a stand-up act isn’t simple. It often requires the performer to bounce back and forth between voices, to do just enough with one’s body to communicate the differences between the narrator of the story and the weirdo he or she is trying to mimic. Detective Bittenbinder feels fully realized here, so much that it seems like Mulaney has taken you into a lost SNL sketch. Certain word choices that he uses, like “haberdashery,” make the character feel especially well-considered. (Early in the setup, he establishes that Bittenbinder wears three-piece suits and a lot of hats.) Also, his Chicago accent is so grating and ridiculous that it must be accurate.
I have friends I went to college with who say, “Aw, you should donate. Be a good alumnus.” And they wear shirts that say “School.” It’s like, look, if you’re an adult still giving money to your college, college is a $120,000 hooker and you are an idiot who fell in love with her. She’s not gonna do anything else for you. It’s done. In their letter, they were like, “Hey, it’s been awhile since you’ve given us money.” I was like, “Hey, it’s been awhile since you’ve housed and taught me.” I thought our transaction was over. I gave you $120,000 and you gave me a weird cinder-block room with a Reservoir Dogs poster on it and the first real heartbreak of my life and probably HPV and then we called it a day. Probably.
As someone who didn’t spend $120,000 to go to Georgetown like Mulaney did, I might not relate to this bit as much as the others, but while experiences are not universal, the understanding of those experiences is. I get it. College is expensive. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you appreciate Mulaney comparing a university to a sex worker, but this section of the special allows him to also dive into his own peculiar experiences at college, which are hard to imagine. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his review of Kid Gorgeous, one might find it hard to picture John Mulaney as anything but an adult — 35 going on 70.
On Getting Older
I am now gross. I am damp all the time. I am damp now and I will be damp later. Like the back of a dolphin, my back. The butt part of my pants is damp a lot. I don’t think it’s anything serious, but isn’t it, though? I’ll be in a restaurant and I’ll get up and be like, “What did I sit in?” And it was me.
Speaking of getting old, the middle section of Kid Gorgeous heavily mines this idea that Mulaney is an elderly man trapped inside a 35-year-old’s lean, fully upright body. Being in your 30s isn’t nearly as disgusting as he makes it sound, but there is something to be said for this period of your life being the first time you realize that your body is beginning to rebel against you and might not have your best interests in mind as it slowly deteriorates. Depressing, but funny!
On Listening to New Music
I can’t listen to any new songs. Because every new song is about how tonight is the night and we only have tonight. That is such 19-year-old horseshit. I want to write songs for people in their 30s called “Tonight’s No Good. How About Wednesday? Oh, You’re in Dallas Wednesday? Let’s Not See Each Other for Eight Months and It Doesn’t Matter at All.”
I include this bit here primarily because it reminds me of the LCD Soundsystem song “tonite,” which is also about how every contemporary pop song is about seizing the moment and the importance of “tonight” in the lives of young people. James Murphy is 13 years older than John Mulaney, but both of them made their names acting like the sourpuss in the corner of the party making fun of everyone’s happiness. It’s fitting that their senses of humor would meet on this particular topic.
The Robot Test
The world is run by computers. The world is run by robots and we spend most of our day telling them we’re not a robot just so we can log on and look at our own stuff. All day long. “May I see my stuff please?” “Ahhh, I smell a robot! Prove, prove, prove! Prove to me you’re not a robot! Look at these curvy letters. Much curvier than most letters, wouldn’t you say? No robot could ever read these. You look mortal, if ye be. You look and you type what you think you see! Is it an E or is it a 3? That’s up to ye. The passwords that passed, you correctly guessed, but now it’s time for the robot test! I’ve devised a question no robot could ever answer. Which of these pictures does not have a stop sign in it?” Fuckin’ what?!
Again, Mulaney creates an intriguing character, this time a trickster robot, inspired by the fantasy trope of the mischievous troll that guards a highly coveted object. But the thesis of the bit is more interesting than the character: All of those online security tests are robots tasked with proving if you are or are not a robot. That’s sort of the plot of Blade Runner, but I suppose it’s also the plot of 2018, too.
The Horse in the Hospital
Last November, the strangest thing happened. Now, I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but I’ve been keeping my ears open and it seems like everyone everywhere is super mad about everything all the time. I try to stay optimistic, even though I must admit, things are getting pretty sticky. Here’s how I try to look at it and it’s just me. This guy being the president, it’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. It’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. I think eventually everything’s gonna be okay, but I have no idea what’s gonna happen next. And neither do you. And neither do your parents, because there’s a horse loose in the hospital. It’s never happened before. No one knows what the horse is gonna do next, least of all the horse. He’s never been in a hospital before. He’s just as confused as you are. There’s no experts. They try to find experts on the news. “We’re joined by a man who just saw a bird in the airport.” It’s like, get out of here with that shit. We’ve all seen a bird in the airport. This is a horse … loose in a hospital.
And here’s the Trump bit. Like the new Roseanne, Mulaney goes out of his way to not name the president. I suppose it’s because people assume we’re sick of hearing about him, but it could also be a rhetorical exercise for Mulaney. How can long can you go without naming him? How can you communicate your idea while being mildly coy about it all? How can you joke about Trump without giving him the satisfaction of having someone explicitly talking about him on TV? This is the standout moment from the entire hour.
And now there’s Nazis again! When I was kid, Nazis was just an analogy you’d used to decimate your child during an argument at the dinner table. There’s new Nazis. I don’t care for these new Nazis and you can quote me on that. “Oh, Jews are the worst and Jews ruin everything and Jews try to take over your life.” It’s like, “You know what, motherfucker? My wife is Jewish. I know all that. How do you know all that?” I’m allowed to make fun of my wife. I asked her and she said yes.
Kid Gorgeous ends with some material about Mulaney’s wife, whom he uses as a comedic foil in the grand tradition of moldy “take my wife, please” jokes. But here, he transitions from Trump to marriage through Nazis. Rarely has anti-Semitism been such an effective bridge from political humor to relationship material — unless some comedian out there is telling a joke about their Nazi wife, of course.