John Mulaney: SNL, Stefon & Self-Punchlines

Comedy Features John Mulaney
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Twenty-nine-year-old John Mulaney is an old soul. Despite his place as a Saturday Night Live writer/producer and an up-and-coming comic, his comedic sensibility is rooted in the old-dude humor of guys like Woody Allen, Jack Benny and Bob Newhart, whose albums he listened to avidly as a youngster. There was another positive male role model in those days as well.

“I think when you’re a kid, you impersonate people that you see on TV or in movies or in your real life,” Mulaney says. “And I think, in a lot of ways, the way I present myself is as someone from a bygone era. In part, my dad’s an extremely smart guy, and I’m much dumber than he is, but I copied the way he speaks to some degree—just having a calm, straightforward delivery. Hopefully, along the way, I’ll sound as smart as him sometimes.”

Mulaney realized fairly early in life that he was destined to entertain. Watching I Love Lucy, he found himself longing for Ricky Ricardo’s life working in a nightclub with days off. He took drum lessons, figuring he’d lead a band someday. Eventually, he’d realize “the mambo nightlife scene doesn’t really exist anymore,” and turned to another of his loves, comedy, dreaming of one day performing in a sketch-comedy group a la some other guys he watched on TV, Monty Python.

“I was really into comedy history and being a comedy nerd,” Mulaney remembers. “I watched a ton of TV. At first it was anything, but when I was eight or nine, I remember watching and thinking, ‘Oh, that show’s not good.’ But I grew up at a time when “Wayne’s World” was on SNL and The Simpsons was on and Conan came out, and it was like this merging of SNL and The Simpsons. It was huge for me.”

As a kid, he was picked on a good bit as well, but Mulaney discovered that through humor, he could control the conversation. He also started drinking at 13, a habit that would become increasingly heavy until he gave it up at 23. Unlike many people who drink excessively, he managed to get that vice out of his system early, though it certainly affected his coming of age.

“What was nice was, around the time I stopped drinking and slowed down a little, I enjoyed the dork I was and was continuing to become,” he says. “As I got more comfortable with that, it was like, ‘I don’t need to shut my brain off.’”

While he cops to occasionally “eating like a monster,” he’s narrowed his vices down to one.

“I still smoke cigarettes, which is ridiculous at this point,” Mulaney says. “It’s the dumbest thing I do and one of the dumbest things anyone could do, but I just ignore it. I’ve been able to go a couple months. When I’m at work, I feel like I drift back into it. It’s like if cows knew a fence was electrified and they kept going back and getting electrocuted every day.”

Mulaney found his way to SNL in 2008, and has since worked his way up to producer and writer credits on the late-night sketch staple. It takes a lot of work to get a writing job like this, but even more to keep it. When Mulaney talks to Paste on a random Wednesday, he’s been up all night. On Tuesdays, he shows up and starts writing around 1 p.m. He doesn’t stop until 6 or 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, when he takes a one or two-hour nap. Upon waking, he’s back at it until everything is handed in for the week’s show at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. He couldn’t be happier, though.

“It was like the Yankees calling you and saying, ‘Hey, would you like to play with us for a little while?’“ Mulaney says of starting work at a place he idolized growing up. But time and a fancier title haven’t changed much for him. “I still feel very small compared to the history of the show and a lot of the people that still work here at the show. I don’t feel like I’m in any position of importance, even if I do get some nice responsibilities. I don’t feel like I’ve got this place down.”

Which brings us, of course, to Stefon Zolesky, the anxious, flamboyantly gay, Ed Hardy-wearing club-goer, who is fond of portmanteaus and Seth Meyers. Zolesky’s Wikipedia entry is about five times as long as the one for Mulaney, who co-created the character with Bill Hader, the cast member who plays him during his Weekend Update appearances. Stefon is a cultural force, spawning eyebrow-raising fan fiction and hordes of social-media users beginning their tweets and Facebook posts with “That thing….” Mulaney keeps it interesting by switching up Hader’s cue cards before each appearance, often making him break character for added hilarity.

“I was really psyched that it was something that a wide array of people liked,” Mulaney says. “It was really cool the first time Bill and I tried it, to see that smaller observations by that type of New York club kid, people found it funny everywhere. That was a fun and cool surprise. It’s all very silly. We like that he’s someone that little kids can also like, listing weird things at his clubs.”

Essentially, Mulaney lives two work lives. He writes and produces at SNL, and during the off-season, he has the luxury of hitting the road or working on material as a stand-up. He doesn’t think too far ahead, but it’s not unrealistic to see either of his two paths successfully existing as his main gig. On New in Town, his second comedy album released on Comedy Central in January, he turns the focus on himself to satisfying results. As opposed to the material on his debut, The Top Part, New in Town is less “here are some things a young person has written that are funny and unconnected,” and more of a cohesive collection. It’s the sign of a maturing comedian—even if he’s not yet 30—who’s realized that he’s his own best material.

“Starting out, when I was first doing stand-up, I had a lot of jokes that were random premises,” Mulaney says. “After a while, if you want to do a lot of stand-up, you have to cull from your real life. At the same time, I started thinking it was funny the awkward way I was becoming an adult. In terms of being made fun of, I’ve always been very lucky all around. I’ve had a very easy life, so it seems like people should be able to come up to me and say, ‘Fuck you.’”