After FOX canceled John Mulaney’s sitcom Mulaney, it would’ve been completely understandable for the comedian to take some time and regroup. Instead, he dove headfirst back into stand-up, touring the United States before ending a spring run in his hometown of Chicago, where he recorded his second major comedy special, The Comeback Kid, which debuts on Netflix this Friday.
Even with the creative freedom Netflix permits, Mulaney has never ventured into taboo waters. He doesn’t push envelopes or cross lines; rather, he goes for empathy. He’s a grand storyteller in the vein of Mike Birbiglia, with perhaps a slightly more wry tone. Mulaney relies heavily on his comedy writing background to spin yarns that keep audiences captivated and laughing. They laugh not necessarily because they’ve been through what Mulaney has (though some may), but because he’s a master narrator, one who gets the audience on his side and takes them through his life with all its absurd foibles.
Mulaney took some time from touring and prepping for his upcoming appearance in the off-Broadway play Oh, Hello (alongside fellow comedian Nick Kroll) to talk to Paste about everything from possible roles on Law and Order: SVU to Donald Trump to why stand-up offered such a creative balm after Mulaney ended.
Paste: Netflix has been providing an interesting platform for comics, one that offers greater freedom both in what you can say and how you can say it. How did you use that in your latest special?
John Mulaney: Ha. Well, in terms of the first part, it being a great platform, it was exactly where I wanted to go. My last special I made with Comedy Central, and I really enjoyed working with them, but in terms of how many times it can be viewed, there’s no beating Netflix. I know a lot of places now have an app for on-demand programming, but Netflix is the Apple or the Coca-Cola of that; there are so many people that watch Netflix as TV. I noticed a huge upsurge on the special from three years ago when it went up on Netflix one year ago. No one watches the premiere of a stand-up special, so Netflix gives you the platform where, yeah, there’s a premiere date, but you can promote it until the end of time because it’ll be up there.
In terms of creative freedom, they were great; they let me do whatever I want. They had good input, but there was no clash of “This is what we think the special should look like or be.” I’m not always the type to run into censorship.
Paste: You don’t traverse the taboo categories a lot of other comics do.
Mulaney: Nor, from my observation, would [Netflix] ever even critique that.
Paste: Based on Anthony Jeselnik’s special alone.
Mulaney: Yeah, Thoughts and Prayers pretty much proves that.
Paste: What was it like filming your new special in Chicago? Did you put greater pressure on yourself because it was in your hometown?
Mulaney: I didn’t until my mom started telling me which of her friends were coming; people that I liked, but I’ve never professionally thought I must impress. Like her friend Gina, or whatever. She kept building it up, like, “We’re going to have a dozen people there.” And there were 3,500 people at each taping, so I don’t know why I was getting hung up on a dozen, but I was like, “Oh my god, I’m doing stand-up in front of all my parents’ friends.” For some reason, a couple days before, I started to freak out. Yeah, I could’ve seen teachers or kids from grade school being like, “You ain’t shit,” the moment I walk out.
Paste: What particular comedic flavor, if any, did growing up in Chicago bring to your stand-up? Or did you find it developing more in New York once you relocated?
Mulaney: I found it developing, not to sound all Emily Dickinson, when I was alone in my room. It wasn’t necessarily a Chicago / Second City / “I want to be John Belushi” kid, even though I loved all that stuff. I did really gravitate towards old-timey comedy and Chicago, like major cities like New York, still has true eccentrics and characters with accents, people with strong voices and red-hot opinions. That’s a funny thing to grow up around as an observer.
Paste: Your last special touched on dating, and when I saw you perform at the Comedy Cellar over two years ago, you talked about being engaged. Now that you’re a husband, are there ever lines you don’t want to cross? Or is it still fair game? Like, “Well, this is what you signed up for, honey!”
Mulaney: Oh, it’s definitely not that. I’m way too much of a classic beta to ever say, “This is what you signed up for.” You know, yes and no. I mean, most things I run by her if they’re about something semi-personal we discussed. I mean, she has really good taste in comedy, so if she thinks it’s funny she’s like, “Yeah, you have to do that,” even though if I said it at a party we were at she’d be like, “What?!”
Paste: What a great partner to have as a comic.
Mulaney: She has excellent taste in comedy, but also very refreshingly does not give a shit about comedy or entertainment. I just have a whole other world to escape to. It’s very nice, especially when comedy is hard. We don’t talk about any of that stuff when I’m home. Sorry, sometimes we do. We just don’t talk about it constantly.
Paste: You often hear about relationships where couples leave work at work.
Mulaney: We sing songs to our dog, and talk about what we should be for Halloween in nine months. It’s not like, “Did you read Deadline today?”
Paste: Speaking of Halloween, I saw you were Mark Cuban for Halloween. Last year, I mean, not this very recent Halloween.
Mulaney: Yes, but I regret not going as him again, and I’m going to go as Mark Cuban every year for Halloween.
Paste: Why is that?
Mulaney: It was so comfortable. I wore really loose, light jeans, workout shoes, a big Dallas Mavs t-shirt, a Dallas Mavs hat, and then I had this trophy to carry around, but it wasn’t cumbersome. And, actually, I didn’t look like Mark Cuban. I looked like, maybe, a Bay Area white rapper, which gave me this weird confidence all night on Halloween. I was a totally different person.
Paste: But not a Cuban confidence…
Mulaney: It wasn’t Cuban confidence. It was the alter ego I became.
Paste: Speaking of big celebrity egos, one of my favorite jokes from your more recent material is about how Donald Trump is what a hobo imagines a rich man to be. What’s your take on his presidential campaign so far? Not that he’s running for president, but how he’s running for president.
Mulaney: One thing that’s funny is that joke is from 2007; it was only when he was doing The Apprentice. For him to up the game so much and make the joke even more relevant, it’s very fun for me because I get to do it again. I was a typical aloof, comedic a-political dipshit who was just laughing about Trump being in the election and was really enjoying it. I’m bored of it now, and Trump is also bored of it. If you watch him on Colbert, he’s tired in a way I’ve never seen before. That dude must hate the actual mechanics of running for president. I think the actual flying to Iowa, giving a speech in a hotel ballroom thing, and then meeting the local… When he was on Colbert, he was so tired, and I was like, “Oh, he’s never had to deal with an itinerary other than, ‘Let’s go to Trump Tower.’” I feel he might quit out of boredom. I think he’ll be like, “This whole primary is totally inept and screwed and I want no part of it.” He’ll blame the system and walk away. I mean he kinda got what he wanted.
Paste: He got attention.
Mulaney: Yep, he got attention. He’s always wanted it.
Paste: If that joke is from 2007, have you expanded it given the relevancy?
Mulaney: Yeah, I have a whole new bit. I note that I’ve said it before, but a lot of people never heard that joke because it was just on a CD I did. It’s fun to do again, and then I have a whole bit comparing Donald Trump to Family Feud.
Paste: Coming up soon, you’re taking your “Oh, Hello” sketch from Nick Kroll’s Kroll Show to Broadway. What prompted expanding those two characters, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, to theatre of all places?
Mulaney: Well, everything about them is New York theatre, from the tweed jackets to the dandruff to the complexities and repressed memories. They are American theatre. We feel they belong there, but also I just started saying last year, when people asked “What are you going to do next?” I would say, “Oh, Hello on Broadway.” Then I was like, “Oh, I like that idea.” We had a meeting about it, and someone explained to us, “Guys, Oh, Hello on Broadway will definitely lose money.” It was very blunt. So we were like, “Ok, let’s do off-Broadway, but we’ll still call it On Broadway.”
Paste: I can just imagine their egos formulating this plan: “Ok, we’ll do off-Broadway but we’ll call it On Broadway.”
Mulaney: Well, they have very strong egos. [Cherry Lane Theatre on] Commerce St. is right near 7th Ave South, which is basically near Broadway.
Paste: Following the end of your sitcom, you dove back into stand-up. What was both creative soothing and challenging about that format?
Mulaney: Creatively soothing is a good word. It was immediately creatively soothing. It was this big network Corvette car that was really expensive and I was in charge of driving. That was how I was trying to make comedy. And then I crashed that machine. So, it was like, “Ok, I crashed the Corvette; I’ll go deliver comedy the way I know how.” It was immediately, “Oh this is what I love the most and I’m so happy to I get to do it.” And challenging? I wouldn’t say that the stand-up itself was challenging. It was kind of immediately a nice boost and a nice vibe to go into. I was living in L.A., sleeping in my office, doing one show, the show comes out, it doesn’t do well, it’s canceled, and then I was like, “Am I capable of doing this at all?” So when I was able to go out and do a theatre full of people, that was a very, very nice feeling.
Paste: It’s got to be so refreshing. You do have this really strong voice; you’re one of my favorite writers and stand-ups for that reason, because of the writing, so it was nice to know that you were willing to dive right back in. That was nice to see.
Mulaney: A lot of aspects of that sitcom were from missing stand-up: From the live audience, the staginess of it. I was like, “Oh, you just wanted to be doing stand-up.” There was no question, I knew as soon as I started doing the show, that I was either going to miss stand-up if the show continued or go right back to it.
Paste: Welcome back. Lastly, I’ve gotta ask: Have you been approached to write an episode of Law and Order: SVU and, if not, would you?
Mulaney: Yes, I’m interested in it, I have many ideas. Two, I have never been approached. Three, I’ve never been asked to audition for Law and Order and I lived in New York for ten years. And I’m not saying I’m a good actor, I’m just saying I believe there’s a law in New York that every person gets to be on Law and Order at one point.
Paste: There are so many parts you could play.
Mulaney: I was thinking I could play the grown up altar boy who’s so traumatized he’s protecting the church hierarchy, and I’m very Republicany-looking, and I’m like, “What happened in the past is in the past.” I could see doing that well. Yeah, I have a bunch of role ideas.
Paste: Well, I think this needs to happen, because it seems like in every one of your specials Law and Order comes up at some point.
Mulaney: Not in this new one, but it’s there in spirit. Let me say here and now in Paste that I want to be on Law and Order: SVU. And I would like a personal invitation from Dick Wolf. It can be a non-speaking role thing.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.