In his new special John Mulaney reveals he was an English major, and that’s the least surprising news of the week. His mastery of language is his defining trait as a comic—his words are always carefully selected for the maximum impact, and his lines delivered with a precision and emphasis that burns them into the viewer’s mind. His stories and diction are as crisp as his tailored suit and tightly cropped hair. If you gave him a pipe and a hat he’d look and sound like he stepped right out of the ‘50s.
John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City is of a piece with his last two specials. As before he doesn’t tell jokes, per se; he weaves long, elaborate stories out of his daily life, both now and as a child, focusing on how absurd the mundane can be. That might make him sound like some kind of Seinfeldian observational comic, but he avoids the clichés of that genre. It’s not the observation that makes Mulaney funny, or the recognition we might have for whatever he’s talking about. It’s the level of detail that he goes into, like when he talks about elementary school assemblies. He doesn’t just bring up that familiar setting and tell a few broad jokes about kids, teachers and school. He goes deep into one specific assembly he had to attend every year, describing in detail the Chicago police officer who specialized in child homicide and would give annual presentations on how to avoid or escape “stranger danger.” Mulaney creates a whole tableau out of this assembly, from the outlandish appearance of Officer J.J. Bittenbinder, to the cop’s increasingly ridiculous scenarios, with the comedy growing with every new detail. There’s no conventional setup or punchline, and little reliance on the universality of his topic; it’s just a story ostensibly pulled from Mulaney’s life and told in a fantastic fashion.
Kid Gorgeous strings together a handful of similar set pieces, with Mulaney effortlessly moving from one into another. There are no awkward segues, only a couple of (very well-timed) callbacks, and no sense that Mulaney is constructing bits or riffing on ideas, or anything like that. He simply talks for an hour, touching on childhood, the unknowability of his dad, religion, and married life. Despite its precision and the obviously exacting nature of Mulaney’s writing, it doesn’t feel like a lecture or a one-man play—it feels like a conversation, although one we just have to sit quietly during. He even addresses politics during one passage, and as a counterpoint to Paste’s oft-stated belief that political comedy has been almost fatally undermined by the irrevocably bizarre nature of politics today, Mulaney’s rare step into politics is as hilarious as anything else in this special. He does that by dealing in abstractions, equating Trump’s presidency with a horse that’s loose in the hospital (in an explicit nod to Dr. Octagon), exploring that idea at length without ever exhausting its comedic potential.
With this new special Mulaney proves that he’s not just one of the best comedians working today but one of the most consistent. He’s released three specials in a row that are all great in similar ways, following an unusually assured debut album in 2009. He hasn’t really grown in that time because he didn’t really need to—his comic persona was essentially fully formed from the start of his national career. On Kid Gorgeous he’s as great as he’s ever been.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.