John Mulaney on His New Fox Show, ‘SNL,’ and the Scars of Catholic Schooling
It’s been nearly two years since news first broke that standup and former SNL writer John Mulaney landed his very own television show. Since then, Mulaney has evolved from a proposed NBC series to a highly anticipated Fox sitcom with the backing of executive producer Lorne Michaels and an all-star cast including Nasim Pedrad, Martin Short, and Elliott Gould. Ahead of Mulaney’s series premiere this Sunday, I recently got the chance to talk with the man who co-created Stefon about how the pilot evolved from NBC to Fox, why he prefers the multi-cam sitcom format, and some of the misleading advice he took during his Catholic school days.
First of all, congratulations on landing the show at Fox. It must feel like it’s been a long road to get there.
Yeah. It’s funny — that’s why the fact that it’s going to be on TV feels so weird and jarring right now. This has been a thing for almost two years that I’ve gone into an office and worked on, so it’s never been a thing on television. And I was used to standup, which has the fastest turnaround in comedy ever — it’s immediate — and then Saturday Night Live’s probably the second fastest because we would write the stuff Tuesday night and then it’d be on TV Saturday night. I just started to think about this like a day job, not in the day job sense of I was slacking off and dreaming about other things, but I just was like Oh, I have this job, I go into this office, and I started to forget that this will be a TV show in the end.
Now that you have a little hindsight, do you look back on developing the show as a long, grueling process, or did it fly by?
Well it hasn’t gone fast, but that’s probably more because we moved cities a couple times, then I got engaged to my girlfriend and then I married her, and now she’s my wife…
…thank you. And then we got a dog, and then we were developing the show, and then there was a period of time where there was no show. So it’s had many phases, and some personal life stuff happened as well, so it has seemed like a long time.
What exactly happened between NBC passing on the show and Fox picking it up?
A lot of sitting in my apartment wondering what I was gonna do. [laughs] I started to hear it might not be picked up by NBC the week it wasn’t picked up, and I knew that I was also planning to propose to my girlfriend. And I was like Wouldn’t that be funny if that all happened on the same day? So then I proposed, and then we got a call that the show was passed on. [laughs] But it was an amazing day. I mean, it was kind of perfectly planned, because I still think of it as one of the best days of my life.
NBC Studios/Universal was so wonderful and wanted to stay with the show, and they’ve been with it the whole time, and Lorne Michaels and the cast and everybody. It was immediately very heartening that they wanted to keep going with it. I didn’t know what was gonna happen, but they all knuckled down and did some Los Angeles stuff that I don’t know about and they got it a home. I was back in New York City and my wife was working on her book, and I was just unemployed… [laughs] …and I was just sitting around and going to the Comedy Cellar at night. It was a lot of explaining to people that it didn’t happen; they’d go “Do you have a TV show?” and I’d be like “…nah, they said no.”
How different is the Fox version from the original version NBC passed on?
The NBC version had a little more of a premise to the pilot that was a catalyst to the whole story. When you meet my character it’s the day he stops drinking and doing drugs — which I have jokes about in my standup because I stopped drinking in one day many years ago — and it was just meant to be a funny, very careless and thrown away sobriety story as opposed to making it dramatic at all. And it had a lot of really funny stuff in it and we kept a lot of jokes; kind of the setup and a lot of the shape to it remained. A guy named Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly [from Fox] became very interested in the show and I heard that they liked it and had some tweaks to it, and I met with Kevin about it first. The people at Fox were great, because they wanted to just blow the show open and make it a lot looser. I think they said “I just want a show about this standup and these people in his life and just a funny show about that — just let the show be itself.” And Peter Rice was great because he said he just wanted what he saw of me as a standup — he said those are the stories for the show. And I was very like Oh thank God — that’s what I always wanted to do.
So it was a relief?
Well, it was kind of like hey, why don’t you lean into your natural instincts, which is to tell these stories from your life as comedy? You’ve done it in standup — do it for the show. It wasn’t like every episode had to be about the same premise or formula, which, by the way, no one was forcing on me. That was just something I thought TV shows had to be, so it was very nice to hear that I didn’t have to do that.
Who are the other writers on Mulaney?
Marika Sawyer has been with this from the beginning — even from the beginning before we had a staff and she was just helping me and being my friend. She and I wrote a lot of Saturday Night Lives; she and I and a guy named Simon Rich wrote a lot of sketches together, we were a little trio of child monsters. Marika worked with it from when I was first writing the script, came out here for the first pilot, and is now a writer and producer on the show. There are many others: Robert Carlock, Jon Pollack, Dan Levy — also a good friend of mine who has been with it since the beginning. I remember talking with [Dan] about my idea of wanting to do a multi-cam in front of an audience, and I had all these character ideas but I just didn’t know what I would be. And he was like “You should be a standup” and I was like “Well, I don’t know if we can do that, because of you-know-what.” And he said “It’s fine,” and I wanted someone to tell me it was fine. Boy, Dan’s gonna read this and think I’m blaming him. [laughs] No, I’m not blaming Dan Levy, I was really excited when he said that. And Lorne Michaels said that as well. Two legends: Dan Levy and Lorne Michaels.
You’ve described the show’s format as “throwback sitcom.” What made you choose to go with that format — specifically multi-cam with a live audience and standup sets between scenes?
I left Saturday Night Live and I was on an airplane and I was trying to think about what I wanted to do, and I thought I just wanted to have my own self-titled show of some sort, but I just couldn’t picture it; I kept thinking about a single-cam. There was Louie and Girls and Maron, Kroll Show had just come out, and boy, a lot of other great shows were on; I was just seeing what a lot of my other friends were doing and I was like I can’t do that as good as that. And I also thought that there’s something about me that doesn’t lend itself to that kind of storytelling as much as other people. And I was such a fan of all these single-cams, and I thought like What is bugging me about doing a half-hour show? What is missing? And I realized that the audience was missing and that I’d been doing standup for ten years in front of audiences, I’d been doing Saturday Night Live for four and a half years — which is a four-camera show in front of an audience — and I thought Oh right, that’s what I like, I like to be a comedian on a stage in front of people. I’m not subtle… [laughs] …so I don’t know if a subtler art form would suit me, so I started to think about that and I just immediately was like Oh that’d be funny — imagine doing one of those shows. And I started to really think about it; I was like huh, that could be fun to try and do one of those things that I grew up on but just make it weird.
There definitely seems to be a higher amount of pressure than usual for your show to succeed since you have tons of fans from SNL and standup who are waiting to watch it. The multi-cam aspect of it also seems to be a divisive factor among fans.
Well, there’s so many many many millions of people who have no idea who I am or even that Mulaney is a person, so I keep that in mind always. I thought long and hard about what I thought was successful about me as a standup and how that’d be a TV show, and that’s how I got here. So I hope that if people like my standup they’ll give it a shot. If people hate live audience shows, I can’t do much for them.
You wrote Nasim Pedrad’s part with her in mind, right?
Yeah, there’s a lot of Marika Sawyer in that part, and a lot of Nasim in that part too. So we worked with her a lot thinking about it, and especially when we made the jump to the other network, it was like, well, let’s make this as funny as possible — let’s have everybody throw their fastball, let’s write for aspects of who everybody is.
Was it the same for Elliott Gould’s character?
Well, Elliott’s character evolved so much once he agreed to do it. But amazingly, I had this sort of Zen, New York, former ’70s radical, very proudly gay man who had come out of the closet many years ago when — it’s still an incredibly courageous thing to do — but then even more so, but he also had a very meditative and yet fiercely New York personality. That was all in mind based off this woman I lived near on 12th Street who was stoned a lot and would make chicken nuggets and offer me chicken nuggets and tell me stories about the neighborhood. So I had all of that in mind and the idea was Well in a dream world we could get Elliott Gould; I wonder who we could get? Then we actually got him, and I can’t say enough about him. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of someone. I went to see him at BAM years ago before I was doing this back when they had that Elliott Gould retrospective there, and he’s such a kind, gentle, centered, constantly evolving Buddhist kind of guy, and that started to influence the character. And he’s also from Brooklyn and grew up in show business, and there’s so many aspects that overlapped that it became enhanced as we went on.
Ice-T has a small but amazing part too. How’d that come about?
Dan Levy. We were in Las Vegas at my bachelor party having dinner and he said “You should get Ice-T to say ‘Mulaney is filmed in front of a live studio audience.'” I remember all the talking at the table stopped, and I was like “That is exactly what we will do.” I wrote an email like ten minutes later — it was the most direct I’ve ever been during this whole process. I just said that we need to get Ice-T to do this, we need to get this to happen now. He was contacted, and he had already asked me to do his podcast Final Level so we were in touch before then, and he did it over the phone from New York in a studio and I’m very grateful that he did.
Judging off my viewing of the first few episodes, I can tell you were definitely Catholic schooled in real life.
Well then, from one former Catholic schooler to another, I have to ask: How did Catholic school scar you as a kid?
Well I went to Catholic school in the ’80s and ’90s, so it wasn’t like Doubt — it wasn’t them hitting us with rulers and stuff. Most of my teachers were “laypeople,” which is a term none of your readers give a shit about. [laughs] We had a few nuns, but not until high school did we have more priests and nuns as teachers. You know, it was interesting — we did have sex ed from an early point in school even though it was a Catholic school — like seventh grade — and I did faint three different times over the years during the Miracle of Life video, which was very very embarrassing to me. One of my best friends’ moms after I had fainted was like “It’s okay, maybe you’re just afraid of vaginas because you’re gay” [laughs] and she was trying to comfort me, and it was very weird and so embarrassing at puberty to be fainting in front of all those people three different times.
So we did have sex ed early, which I think was impressive. It was misguided sex ed — I did think you could get a woman pregnant by looking at her from a very early age. I was terrified of getting someone pregnant. We were told that condoms were porous and they sweat which meant they leak, and that all condoms leak a little so those don’t work and you can only use abstinence. That I wish I had not been told.
I remember for our sex ed the priest told us masturbation was a sin, but if we were sleeping and woke up and were masturbating, that was okay and it was not a sin to finish.
See it’s funny, because I tell people these stories where priests or nuns are talking to us about sex, and they assume there’s some overtone because of the current scandal. But there was nothing predatory ever — it was just a funny older misguided person teaching you about sex. I remember a priest telling me — God, this must have set up my whole life — he said “In order to have a life of any substance, you need to be a little uptight about sex.” And I took his advice.
[laughs] Wow. Yeah, that’s very Catholic.
Yeah, and it was perfectly phrased too, where it’s like “Ball’s in your court, but…” [laughs]
Mulaney premieres on Fox this Sunday at 9:30pm.