Talking to John Mulaney About SNL, Standup and Growing Up a Comedy Nerd
A few months ago, John Mulaney had the distinguished honor of meeting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. As a joke writer for Seth Meyers, who delivered the annual keynote roast at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Mulaney attended the event, and like everyone else there, got to line up for a photo opportunity with the Obamas. So what did the ace joke teller come up with when the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the First Lady presented itself?
“Uh, you look lovely this evening.”
To hear Mulaney retell this story, which he did recently during a sit down interview at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, is to understand his success as an emerging stand-up comedian and writer. He tells the story with the same self-deprecating yet wry delivery that won over Montreal audiences who saw his one-hour show, “Making Fun.”
Mulaney, 29, tours nationally as a headliner when he’s not writing for Saturday Night Live, and is one of the few writing staff members there to have been given the opportunity to perform on camera. It goes without saying his star is rising.
During our interview, Mulaney talked about growing up a comedy nerd, how he landed his job writing for Saturday Night Live, and why he sacrificed a social life in the name of comedy.
Do you typically write for Seth and Weekend Update? Or do you mostly write sketches?
I write sketches and Update features when we have guests. I don’t write Update joke jokes. There are a few great writers who do that. There are four really funny joke writers at SNL who just focus on Update jokes.
You co-write the “Stefon” sketches. Is he one of the more fulfilling characters to write for?
I’m very psyched it became a popular thing with people because when we first did it we were like, “Well, this is kind of a like awake-for-two-days gay subculture character.” [Laughs.] But it took. It’s so in Bill’s (Hader) amazing performance. The first time we did Stefon, which was the Gabourey Sidibe show from two years ago, I remember calling Doug Abeles, the head writer of Update, and telling him that when this bombs at dress, we get to try it again. And that was what we thought going into it.
Did it bomb at dress?
No. It was really, really funny. I was pleasantly surprised.
Bill’s quick to give you credit for writing it.
Bill’s a wonderful guy. Working with Bill has been one of the best things about this show. Bill Hader, and Andy (Samberg) and Fred (Armisen), and many others. There’s a few people I work with a lot. I really enjoy it. It makes it so much fun. It’s a grind, obviously. It’s a very good job, but it’s a grind. It’s really fun to hang out with those guys.
Now does that happen because you guys get along and gravitate towards each other, or are you assigned to write for certain performers?
In those cases we just kind of gravitated toward each other. I met Bill through Demetri Martin before I worked at the show. You know the people you know before you’ll just try and work with right away so you have some touchstone. And I was such a fan of Bill and I was also such a fan of Fred and Andy. I think my first show, the Michael Phelps show, I had a pitch at the Monday pitch and Andy said, “I’d like to work on that with you.” It was a Mark Spitz talk show. It didn’t make it past Wednesday. It was so fun to write. I still remember writing that with Bill and Andy. Bill was Elliot Spitzer. [Laughs.] It was called “Putting on the Spitz with Marc Spitz.”
Very high concept.
Very high concept. A really good move for your first week. [Laughs.] I remember laughing so hard writing that and thinking even if it doesn’t make it anywhere, it was so instantly relaxing to be there. From then on I always connected with those guys.
Were you always into comedy? Were you a comedy nerd growing up?
Yes, to a clichéd point. I liked comedy albums from the ‘50’s when I was 13. I was really with it. [Laughs.]
That’s taking it to the next level.
I always loved stand-up albums. Growing up in the ‘90’s, I would sit on the floor with my Discman and listen to comedy albums that I bought.
Yes, Sandler, Bigger and Blacker, Bring the Pain, but also Woody Allen’s Comedian, Albert Brooks’ Comedy Minus One, lots of George Carlin albums, and then Richard Pryor albums, which when I was younger, the lingo was a disconnect. I appreciated it, but I got into it more later.
Was this stuff your dad’s influence?
My dad turned me on to Bob and Ray, and Jack Benny, and older radio stuff. Listening to comedy on cassette or CD was something my dad got me into. My dad was the first person to give me the big Bob and Ray boxed set that I listened to all the time. That was the thing I listened to every night before going to bed.
Do you think listening to that stuff served as a sort-of initial training for what you’re doing now? Kind of like Baby Einstein for comedy?
They have a tone that I feel like I still copy. I can’t explain it.
So when did you first start performing?
I performed in a sketch comedy group when I was 7, 8 and 9.
Yeah. It was in Chicago, but I don’t know where cause I would just get driven there. It was like being kidnapped. My memory of it was we did improv games and then from that we put together a sketch review and we did it for the parents. We didn’t learn lines. I think the sketches were so simple you didn’t need to remember them. At the end, after our big performance, the woman who was the director of it gave us a check for $2. She said every actor should get paid.
That goes a long way when you’re 7.
Yeah. And it was good money. [Laughs.] And then in high school, I did a couple one-acts for friends, but I was kind of a bum in early high school.
You weren’t a theater guy?
I actually auditioned for a musical right when I got there and I didn’t get it and that turned me off. I was just kind of a person in high school. I really didn’t do much. I don’t know what I did. I just made it through the day. I loved comedy and listened to it, and I wish in retrospect I had tried to do more with it cause it would have made me happy. But I was just like, “oh when I become an adult I’ll do comedy, but right now I’m just going to sit in a room and wait.”
But you got heavily involved when you went to Georgetown, right?
By the end of high school, I was thinking about putting together a sketch show with a friend. And I was putting on student one-acts at school and having so much fun with that. And then, I got to Georgetown, and I auditioned for the improv group within the first week of being there. And I was cast, and I did that for four years. That was all I was doing. I was OK at school, but I was mainly doing comedy. I started doing monologues at improv shows, and from that I started doing stand-up. The person who cast me in the group was Nick Kroll. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He and I started working together a lot. I would follow him up to New York and visit him. He was doing open mics, so I was just emulating him and started doing open mics. That’s when I was like, “oh, I’m 100 percent doing this.”
Did you think stand-up was where it’s at once you started doing it?
It wasn’t so much “this is where it’s at.” I still watch improv shows and feel like I’d love to jump up with a group some time and do it. But, you don’t need anyone else to get together. With stand-up you don’t need to pay for classes, not that that’s a bad thing. I think those programs are good. They help weed people out. You could go perform at a place. Most improv that I’ve encountered, you work your way through a system and you’re allowed to perform.
I’ve heard a lot of stand-up comedians say improv is really good training. How so?
Well, when I first did stand-up, I wasn’t petrified to be in front of an audience. It gives you some natural feel for when to close, when to get off. That’s one thing you don’t necessarily have an instinct for. To know when you’re peaking and move on. Actually, I’ve never thought about that before. That’s a helpful thing. With stand-up, you go, “OK, this bit is over, you’ve got what you need out of the crowd interaction, now get out quickly.” Keep moving. [Laughs.]
Did you ever perform in Chicago post-college, or did you go right to New York?
Right to New York. I’d come back and to shows like Zanies when I visited my parents.
Once you were in New York, you got involved with UCB, right?
Yeah, I was in Improv 101 and 201, and I interned to pay for classes. I worked Saturday nights, and I was setting up and cleaning up and this was during Hammerkatz, Mother, Respecto Montalban. I might be getting some of those wrong, but I think that was the Saturday night lineup. It was really fun. 201 met on Saturdays and I started going on the road and doing stand-up and I could never make it so I dropped out.
So then how did you involved with Saturday Night Live? Did someone find you there?
I was around. I had been in New York for a couple years. They had seen me do stand-up a lot. I had met Seth Meyers from doing monologues at ASSSSCAT a couple times. And then through those things they brought me in to audition for the show. So I auditioned for the show and they said, “No, you can’t be a cast member, but would you like to be a writer?” I had already written for Important Things with Demetri Martin, so they knew I had written, and I said “absolutely.” I was about to record a stand-up special and an album. I was about to go on the road a lot and I was excited about that. But Saturday Night Live was something that loomed so large in my head that I had to take the job.
Is it a goal to get more time on screen?
I have no objection to me becoming more famous. [Laughs.] However, the writing is really rewarding. It’s not like you sit in a staff room all day and pitch ideas and then you go home. You’re really creating your piece every week. Writing there is really fulfilling. If they told me you’ll never ever be on camera, I’d still write there. And the times I’ve been able to get on have been really fun. Obviously, I’d like to do more, but it’s not like I’m there trying to get another job.
With your stand-up, a lot of the material is personal stories. Is that something that evolves over time? It seems like the personal stuff is common among the more established comics. As a comic, is that where you eventually want to get to?
Yeah. When I started off, I was very premise-based and I would say an outright lie about my life just to get to a joke. I would do that kind of stuff at open mics. A couple things happened. One was I realized I’m not a great pure joke writer like a Dan Mintz or Anthony Jeselnik, let alone like Emo Philips or someone. So I was like “well, I can’t sustain this.” And more, I have things that I think are funny and it’s more of my take on them that appeal to me. I knew I wasn’t going to write an hour of very tight, impersonal jokes. The second thing was I was opening for Mike Birbiglia a lot. He took me on the road in 2005 and I opened for him on and off for like two years. Opening for him was huge for me cause I was going across the country every week. He and I did 30 days on the road together straight on a bus. I had to do stand-up every night, sometimes two shows a night. I was doing 30 minutes in places like Columbia, MO and I wasn’t ready to do a half-hour. Those things were big for me. Watching him and how he was able to dissolve mining real life for comedy, I just liked it. And then watching Paul F. Tompkins at Bumbershoot in 2006, I remember seeing him tell just three stories from his half-hour set and how many jokes he pulled out of those stories. Just the amount of jokes from the set-up to the whole story, it was packed. That really appealed to me. So I just started doing that. And then it becomes just more comfortable on stage because you believe what you’re saying and if doesn’t feel as detached. I still talk about TV shows and bullshit, though.
When did you quit drinking?
When I was 23.
So at one point you were performing while you were still drinking?
Yeah, when I was out college for that first year I was performing.
Beyond the obvious surface level stuff like not having to deal with hangovers anymore, did you notice a difference both performing and preparing sober?
I didn’t perform drunk. But with joke writing, there was a huge difference. It changes everything. You’re more focused. When you drink a lot there are hours in the day, like from 9 pm until I go to bed, when nothing’s happening. I’m not going to email anyone, I’m not doing anything. And then from 9 am when I wake up until 1 pm, I’m going to be working it off. I’m not going to be lucid there either. When I quit, immediately it was like, “OK, I’m going to be emailing club owners all day.” It made a huge difference. It corresponded with life. Going out on the road and just drinking the whole time, I never would have gotten any better. For me, it would just delay me dealing with any problems.
But I had no social life. I cut off everything and I didn’t go out at all. My roommate would be going out and asked if I wanted to join him and I was shell-shocked and would say no. Not having a social life helped a lot. I now know I was wrong. I would advocate to other people not to have a social life at all. People would be talking about their girlfriends and I was like “Stop it.” I was like Elijah Muhammad. “Stop seeing this devil woman. Focus. Why are you worrying about a girl? It’s so hard to get started in stand-up.” In retrospect, it’s a very small life to have. [Laughs.] At the time, just shutting everything out was helpful. I’m not saying it makes you a great person. [Laughs.]
Do you and Kroll still write together?
We haven’t been in the same city for a couple years, but we work together when we can.
Any plans to do anything with the characters you did together, like “Oh, Hello” or anything?
Yeah, I think we’re going to do an album. We’re putting it together. I think it’s going to be like a party record. Like when adults used to put on dirty records at parties. It’s very tentative plans, though.
What about your movie scripts like Freshman Roomates?
Those are indefinitely shelved or whatever. Those are fun to work on, but it’s such a long process that I don’t even think about it ever getting made. That sounds pessimistic, and I don’t think they won’t get made cause they are bad ideas, but it’s such a long process.
Do you like writing scripts?
Yeah, I like writing films a lot. I’d love to write a good movie. It’s a good challenge. They are very fun to work on, but it’s a different kind of storytelling.
Do you have to compartmentalize when you’re writing stand-up vs. scripts or sketches?
I compartmentalize a lot. I still do stand-up sometimes when I’m working at SNL but not as much anymore cause I’m not a great tonal multi-tasker. The first season I was doing a lot of things at once. It was a lot of running to shows, though. I like to keep it a little more sane.
John Mulaney is taping a stand-up special for Comedy Central on Aug. 25 at NYU’s Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. For free tickets, click here.
Phil Davidson is a writer whose work has appeared in um, well, Splitsider.