Catching Up with John Mulaney
Between the cancellation of his Fox sitcom Mulaney, touring standup, and upcoming off-Broadway Oh, Hello show with Nick Kroll, 2015 is turning into a very interesting year for John Mulaney. His latest standup special John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid premieres on Netflix today, and not only is it incredibly funny, but thanks to the direction of SNL and Documentary Now’s Rhys Thomas, it’s also beautiful to watch. Ahead of the special’s premiere, I spoke with Mulaney about his first year of marriage, filming his special at the Chicago Theatre, what he’s learned from his Fox sitcom, and why success and happiness lead to great jokes just as well as complaining about Rio 2 does.
I’ve read a lot of new interviews with you this week! How many more do you have today?
Well that’s the funny thing about Netflix versus other things — some today because the thing comes out tomorrow, but some are next week, some the week after that. [The special]’s up for a long time, so you can kind of continually spread the word.
Who knows — you could do an interview promoting this two years from now.
Yeah, I can just be like “Hey, go on Netflix and watch this!” So that’s a real relief.
The last time we spoke was about a year ago just a few months after you got married. So I thought I’d ask: How was year 1 of marriage?
It was the best thing that I ever did and the smartest thing I ever did, and it’s been great. The person I like hanging out with the most and my favorite person decided to marry me, so I’m very happy about that.
Not to get too sappy about it, but was there a moment where you realized you wanted to marry her? When you mention her in the special and in interviews, it comes through how happy you are — I was just wondering when you knew she was the one.
Was there a moment in my life when I knew I wanted her to be my wife? [laughs] Yes.
Well, I mean, was there a specific moment where it dawned on you, or was it just a natural next step? It is a big step.
Well, without getting too personal, I think like some guys, there were moments where I could be a little clueless about big steps that, you know, that it’s time for. Not clueless, but yeah… [laughs] I think guys might be a little different with how things dawn on them. You go “Oh, I love this person, I want them around all the time,” and it’s like Oh, you need to say that and make those things official.
I don’t know your dad, but after watching your special I feel like I really get the kind of guy he is based on your stories about him. Now that you’re older and have a life of your own, do you think you relate to him in new ways?
I do see that I’m similar to my dad in a lot of ways in that I can seem kind of dry, humor-wise, where I like saying things in sort of a flat tone, and when I was a kid that came off as intimidating or something. I look back now and realize my dad was very, very funny, and I really appreciated that he wasn’t, like, rolling around on the floor talking like a little kid with us. He would be like “How are you? How’s fifth grade?”
I love seeing parents talk to their young kids like they’re adults — anti-babytalk parents.
Yes. I remember my dad picked up a toy of mine — it was this little squeaky toy I had when I was little — and he said “Is this your toy?” [laughs] And it was really dirty…he said “Is this your toy?” and I said “Yeah” and he goes “This is grotesque.”
[laughs] How old were you?
I was really young. I remember feeling bad, looking back. And now it makes me laugh so hard. It was like this dirty toy I’d probably dropped in the gutter and was playing with, you know.
So Rhys Thomas directed your Netflix special — is this his first standup special?
Well he worked on Saturday Night Live and Documentary Now! and live events and had shot this concert footage for the “Blue Jean Committee” episode of Documentary Now! I had worked with him for a long time, and he’s an amazing director who has such great ideas but also works so hard and works very fast. I think that was part of Saturday Night Live and all that training, but he also has a clear idea right away and moves really fast and executes it perfectly. And I, in the making of “Blue Jean Committee,” really loved that filmic look to concert films. And some look a little bit more like TV and a little more digital now, and I wanted him to do the special not just because of how good he is at shooting anything, but also because we both understood that we wanted this feel of something closer to The Last Waltz — something not just filmic on a grand scale, but also something that felt like you’re in the crowd, and something that captured the actual energy of the show as much as possible.
And Jon Brion did the music? That’s pretty cool.
Yes he did! I was so lucky to get him to do that.
How’d that come together?
I talked to Flanagan, the owner of Largo, where Jon Brion performs very often, and I just said “Is there any chance you could put me in touch with him?” And Jon Brion is an amazing composer and musician and a very busy one, and a very sought-after one, and he was extremely generous in doing this for me. I told him it’s one of the things that makes me happiest about this whole special — that there’s that piece of music written specifically for it by him.
The music and that whole intro were a great touch. It feels exciting, but also a little nerve-racking. And maybe I’m reading into it too much, but there’s a Catholic-ish vibe to it too.
Oh that’s funny. That’s very interesting! Huh. Well, the first theaters were cathedrals and they had organs, and the Chicago Theatre does have one of the original Wurlitzer organs. That’s why there’s kind of a dirge when you’re pushing backstage to Jon’s score. And none of this was discussed by us, but yes, it sounds a bit like an organ swell, which would’ve been appropriate for the Chicago Theatre. It is funny how you talk about it, because it’s a lovely score with a little tension, and that’s how it felt arriving at the Chicago Theatre that night.
Before a big sold-out show like that, are you nervous? Does a calm come over you?
There’s an excitement, and yeah — I don’t know if it’s nervous, but it’s like a pit in my stomach, but so excited. If you told me the show was canceled I’d be devastated, but I’m terrified of it, you know? It’s such a funny mix, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s true, at least for me, that your body just starts to feel different — it just starts to feel like you get this stage tension that is actually your body gearing up to have enough energy to do a show for a few thousand people, and it just feels weird. Your body’s like “Okay, let’s release all that adrenaline,” but when you’re sitting in a green room it doesn’t feel good. [laughs]
I still get really nervous before I interview people. I thought I’d get used to it by now, but nope — I still get super anxious and jittery beforehand, but after it’s over there’s always some sense of “oh, this is a muscle I should be flexing.”
Yeah. It’s amazing how scary things are before they happen, no matter what it is. I haven’t figured it out or read enough about how the frontal lobe makes everything that’s about to happen seem either incredibly annoying or scary.
You’ve been fielding a lot of questions about your whole experience with Mulaney getting canceled, and in your A.V. Club interview you mentioned how you were hoping you’d get a “little grace period” when the show started. That reminded me of when I interviewed Mike Schur back when Parks and Rec was ending, NBC’s Thursday night comedy block was disappearing, and shows were getting canceled left and right, and he pointed out how classic sitcoms like Cheers and Seinfeld were completely different shows in the first handful of episodes than the shows they evolved into over time. Given your experience with Mulaney, is there hope out there for shows that need time to grow before finding their way anymore — at least on major networks?
…and sorry that’s a really long question. [laughs]
No, I like that it was a long question! It’s a very interesting question. There are so many factors to these things. Obviously, networks — the two networks that I developed my show at, NBC and Fox — obviously they’ve had shows in the past few years that they haven’t canceled, that they’ve helped and put in a good position and put in good time slots, and those shows have also been getting good reviews and seem to be generating DVR ratings so they know that might translate into bigger ratings, and there are seeds that grow and they foster them. So it still happens, for sure. It doesn’t happen as much, obviously — everybody knows that. It’s nowhere near what it was and I absolutely cannot say I would know how to program a network if I were in their position, and I can’t say I would know what to do with a show like mine if my job was to program television for ad sales — I would not know. I mean, if that was my job and I didn’t know, maybe creatively, what could happen, they have to make…they just make these decisions. It’s a business decision. It stings, but it’s a business decision.
Now, I’m not sure if you asked this, but yes, we got shot out of the sky pretty quickly. Everything I’ve done in comedy I feel I’ve gotten better at. I wasn’t very good at standup when I started, I think I’m pretty good at it now. I got better, in my opinion, at writing for TV, so I think I would have figured things out. But I don’t feel entitled to a grace period, I just would’ve liked one. And they’re expensive. They’re so goddamn expensive, these shows. I was the executive producer — I saw the budget. They’re so goddamn expensive, and with movies and television, I don’t know enough about show business accounting to solve this, but like…bring the costs down and we’ll all be working a lot more. And that’s why my overhead for standup is like a stool, two Dasani bottles of water, a microphone, I like to have a digital clock somewhere on the stage so I can see how long I’ve been doing, and then we get some snacks for the green room. And that’s about it.
I wanted to ask you about how you approach standup when you’re happy and content with life versus the times you’ve been not so happy and content. You’re not a particularly emotional or confessional type of comic — for me anyway, your act is more about storytelling and perfecting the writing and delivery of each story…
I think it’s safe to say I’m not emotional, no. [laughs]
[laughs] But still, you’re a human being, you have ups and downs. I guess what I’m getting at is the old cliche that some people do their best creative work when they’re in a dark period of their lives. But I’d argue the happier, new, exciting things you cover in your special — getting married, buying a house, and all that — the positive stuff can also create great work, you know?
Yes. Euphoria, happiness, success, and confidence all lead to creativity as well. As you said, I’m a human being, and I get depressed and have all those things that people have and luckily haven’t had them in horrible knockout doses, but you know, I’m susceptible to it like anyone else. But I’ve found that I can write a lot of jokes that are cranky, and I can pump them out. I’ve had times where I’m tired — maybe I’ve been on the road or was writing for a TV show like Saturday Night Live and I was just burnt out and tired of that — and I wrote a lot of jokes complaining about things. I had a whole chunk of material making fun of how there’s three Madagascars and two Rios and five Ice Ages, and I was doing it for a while and, you know, I’d see a billboard for Rio 2 and be like “What the hell is Rio 2 and what was Rio and why do these kids need so many sequels?” And I thought it was funny, but it’s not a thing I wear well for long, and when it wears off for me I’m sort of like “Why was I so mad about Rio 2?!” I’ll look through old notebooks and go “Oh, you were cranky then,” you know? Even when I was very young I could be grumpy in the stuff I would write. And I’ll try it, and sometimes I’ll do it for months and then it’s just not something, ultimately, I wear well. But in terms of performing standup, yes — whatever’s going on in your life’s in the back of your mind, but that’s, for the most part, the fun of performing: I’m not faking fun or happiness, because it’s actually happening.
Mulaney’s new special John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid is out today on Netflix.