Warning: Spoiler Alert
First things first. I may just be the biggest (not stalker) John Mulaney fan on the planet that is not related to him. I first discovered John Mulaney by way of the SNL Weekend Update. Seth Meyers introduced him as “one of our writers”. Mulaney came out and in a style and inflection that belongs to him and him alone, he knocked it out of the park on a Girl Scout cookies bit. The following is a paraphrased version of that bit.
Mulaney: It’s like if you could only buy Coca-Cola in July, and it was only sold by the Knights of Columbus. How come I have to know a child in a beret in order to get them? And do the people that make Thin Mints realize that they have a best seller on their hands? How long is this exclusive sales contract going to last? Where they only sell the cookies through a weird child army in tablecloth dresses. According to the Girls Scouts of America website, you cannot buy them online? Do you know what you can buy online? Everything. You can buy everything online. Girls Scouts, I don’t mean to get on your case, but you should take it as a bad sign that in your entire 93 year history, no one has copied your business model.
I’ve seen John Mulaney live (as well as Seaton Smith who plays Motif). I have both of his major comedy CD’s. And listen to them ad nauseam. I can even sense his inflection in his jokes. If I’ve heard them before (and you should just assume that I have) I will be able to tell when he delivers them differently. John Mulaney, in my estimation is either directly responsible for the truly funny parts of SNL over that last few years (or had some part in it). The character Stefon is the product of two stories/characters converging from the real lives of John Mulaney and Bill Hader. With a lovely practical joke played on Hader just before every Stefon moment adding something (the part where Hader covers his mouth to try to not laugh on camera). He also won an Emmy for co-writing one of Justin Timberlake’s famous comedic songs on SNL. It’s fair to say I am biased and absolutely a fan.
The basic premise of “Mulaney” is that John Mulaney’s life is a joke. It’s a simple logline that has layers upon further reflection. Mulaney is a comic, he tells jokes. He writes jokes. He works for a man who made his career telling jokes. His life is difficult, frustrating, and at times humiliating. His life is a joke. Both in practicality and in relative self-esteem. This is the story of a stand up comedian working for a standup comedian and the shenanigans that are the result of his roommates, the annoying neighborhood pot dealer, the eccentric neighbor down the hall, and his famous boss sacrificing some level of integrity for the benefit of money. Let’s get started.
Mulaney starts out as one would expect it to. A detail I hope they keep as a cornerstone of the show. John Mulaney doing standup in front of the set that is his apartment on the show. This allows me (personally) to see re-imagined standup bits that I am already familiar with. This is how the show started. This time its the “Chase Through The Subway” bit from his comedy album The Top Part. This is a brilliant device that not only disarms a viewers hesitance with a new character, but also takes away the stress of trying to figure out a way to open the show. You don’t need back story, because you feel familiar after that first set. You get a sense of his voice and tone immediately.
As the person I have described myself to be with my familiarity to John Mulaney’s stand up catalog, this is where the wheels almost fall off. I say almost so bear with me. The following is the chronological order in which they strung together almost verbatim John Mulaney standup bits. Now Mulaney is a great storyteller and understands how to build. So naturally, these aren’t knock-knock jokes. These are long form developed bits. For the first 7 minutes of a 22 minute show, 80% of what is said or heard is Mulaney standup material, to the letter. The concern was, that while I have no doubt John Mulaney could create a very solid show just by using his own previous material, it’s not exactly what I had in mind. It was beginning to become mildly concerning.
1. Chase Through the Subway
2. The Xanax Story (and we didn’t even get to see Batman)
3. Wheelchair Knocked Over
By the time John gets to his interview to be a writer for Lou Cannon (Martin Short), he is firing into the Wheelchair bit. We don’t have a show if Mulaney doesn’t get the job. However, the job quickly turns away from writing for Cannon (as that character has no desire to use someone else’s jokes) and becomes more about being a sounding board or an errand boy.
Insert Nasim Pedrad and the Jane and her ex boyfriend closure issue. This, combined with Seaton Smith as Motif and the “Problem Bitch” joke. A joke without an ending that quickly becomes the ‘star’ joke of the episode. And hopefully this is not the last time a Seaton Smith contribution carries the episode. If you have an opportunity to see Seaton Smith live, you need to take advantage. We also are introduced pretty quickly to Andre. The pot selling, annoying guy who always shows up unannounced.
Where the Andre character goes may be the telling factor of this shows longevity. John Mulaney is maybe the best standup comedian (all factors considered) alive. He is at worst, in the top 5. Seaton Smith is painfully funny when he is not handcuffed by the parameters of a politically correct national tv network. Nasim Pedrad is remarkably good and it doesn’t hurt that the Jane character was written with her in mind. Martin Short is Martin Short. I personally prefer Inner Space Martin Short, but this character will have his moments. And there’s Oscar played by Elliot Gould, who I imagine will steal just about every scene he’s in. So Andre may prove to be the glue. The glue no one is expecting.
John is asked to open for Lou Cannon at an outdoor breast cancer rally. Just before going on stage, John is handed a message to read. He begins to get the crowd up and it works. He’s beginning to build steam and then reads the message. Lou is not coming, there will be no show. To say this irks Mulaney would be a vast understatement.
Motif sells out of “Problem Bitch” shirts while filling in for Mulaney on a cruise ship gig. Mulaney is annoyed that he is not actually writing anything for Lou Cannon. And Jane is ecstatic to read an email between her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend which she accessed by appealing to Andre. She has no problem being called ‘psycho’ because psycho is a temporary term while being a ‘problem bitch’ lasts forever. And with that the Jane getting closure angle is resolved while the search for an ending to the problem bitch joke is also resolved.
Cut to another shot of John Mulaney doing standup in front of his apartment set doing “Old Gay Man” from the New In Town CD. I do appreciate the standup scene breaking up the flow of the show. One request, can we please get one of these scenes where John does “The Salt and Pepper Diner”?
John in the height of his dilemma with Lou Cannon goes down the hall and has tea with Oscar. As predicted, Elliot Gould steals the only scene he’s in. Incredible. Some great writing and back and forth between Gould and Mulaney set up nicely into a story about a tea-tray. Symbolizing getting something valuable from something that seems otherwise unbearable.
Later John is called to meet Lou Cannon on set of “You Guessed It”. Where Cannon wants John to be a stand in. Nothing more. That’s not a joke. Mulaney doesn’t take it well and begins to walk out. Lou begins to speak to him more like a real human and directs John’s attention to the cue cards laying down face up. The cards have John’s jokes written on them. Lou Cannon always had the intention of using John’s material. All ends well for now, with Motif (identified by Lou as the ‘problem bitch’ guy) doing the stand in that is beneath Mulaney.
While “Mulaney” doesn’t quite yet have the immediate punch of say, Undatable, it does have promise. You can count on one hand the number of sitcoms worth my attention. Most of them are bad. Growing up with The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and a number of other all time great sitcoms, I can tell you with no hesitation that most current sitcoms are bad. I’m sorry if that offends you, but from the beginning, we here at NJATVS have a commitment to quality over quantity. Mulaney is one of those few. And not to stretch the point too far, but Mulaney and Undatable may bring on a sitcom revolution. A throwback to the structure and punch of those sitcoms of the 1980s and early 1990s. Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are fun shows from time to time. But what Mulaney is doing is taking the funny back to place and time when the structure and delivery were essential vehicles for the content.
If you haven’t seen Mulaney yet, definitely give it a chance. The one thing I want to warn you about is the Seinfeld comparisons. Without a doubt, even as I type this I’m sure there is no end to the ridiculous comparisons by critics to shrug Mulaney off as some sort of Seinfeld wannabe. Give me a break and take a moment away from your cynical view to 1) realize the Seinfeld standup to start the show is a device and in no way corners Mulaney into being compared to anything specific and 2) and accept that (in my opinion) Mulaney could potentially offer much more substance to a show than that of Seinfeld. Seriously, Seinfeld was great had a phenomenal run. But how many different ways can make an episode off of “…and what’s the deal with airplane food?” Mulaney is not Seinfeld. And unless John, Seaton, Nasim, Martin or Elliot personally tell me otherwise, I refuse to believe that was even a consideration.
If I had to say anything negative, and believe me I don’t want to, it’s delivery. John Mulaney’s delivery playing a character loosely based on the tone of his actual life, comes off like you’re listening to a comedy writer/standup comic. I personally don’t see it as a problem. But I’m sure there are more than a few people who are going to see that as a problem and hammer it. As critics tend to do, inflating something that matters very little and depreciating factors that actually matter a lot. No matter how you look at it, give Mulaney a legit look. Believe me, if anyone is going to be fair to all parties involved, it’s going to be me.