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John Mulaney is becoming one of the most reliably funny people in show business. As a writer on Saturday Night Live, he co-created the wildly popular Stefon character alongside Bill Hader, who plays him. As a stand-up comic, Mulaney tours relentlessly when the show isn’t taping, and he recently filmed a new hourlong special for Comedy Central. He’s a workhorse: After starting on Best Week Ever With Paul F. Tompkins, Mulaney went on to write for Important Things With Demetri Martin while honing his act for his 2009 debut album, The Top Part. The set demonstrated Mulaney’s knack for storytelling: He described inadvertently scaring a woman on the subway, and the time he and his friend played “What’s New Pussycat?” seven times in a row on a diner jukebox. His latest hour is just as self-deprecating and goofy, and even though it won’t debut on Comedy Central until January, Mulaney tours whenever he has a free moment from Saturday Night Live, which returns for its 37th season this Saturday. After the Comedy Central taping and before SNL returned, The A.V. Club sat down with Mulaney to discuss cutting his teeth in New York, his drinking-heavy past, and how to win over audiences.
The A.V. Club: You moved to New York after college. What was the comedy scene like?
John Mulaney: It was really good. It was easy to get started. I hear stories about people who came in the early ’90s and mid-’90s, and it was just rough. You could do, like, Hamburger Harry’s—it’s a restaurant in Midtown. In the back of it, it’s just an open mic. I only mention it because [Zach] Galifianakis, [Jim] Gaffigan, they used to do it all the time. And I did it a few times, but it wasn’t the only show going. Most open-mic experiences I had were okay. It wasn’t like one schizophrenic person and two comedians and a tumbleweed. There were people there, and you felt like you were doing a show.
AVC: People talk all the time about how it’s easier to tackle New York if you perform somewhere else first, like Chicago, Denver, or Portland. Were you intimidated?
JM: I didn’t know that some people think coming to New York is a debut of sorts. I didn’t think of it that way at all. I thought, “I’m going to do open mics!” I thought of it as, “That’s the place where my friends are doing stand-up,” so that’s the model I had. Nick Kroll and Mike Birbiglia were living here, doing stand-up shows, doing comedy as a career. So I thought, “That’s where I need to go.” I also always wanted to live in New York; I’m from Chicago in the city, and it would’ve worked to do it there, but I didn’t want to do it at home. But I didn’t think of it as, “You gotta get really good, then come to New York.” In retrospect, I can see how that makes sense, but I didn’t think of it as if I was gonna get up in front of some audience, and somebody from MTV was going to be there, and I was going to fall flat on my face, and I could be done for. I don’t think.
AVC: That isn’t really the case anymore. Now, it feels like the pool of talent has grown so much, so if you come in, and you want to make a big splash, you better be good.
JM: Those splashes are cool. People come in and they’re like, “He’s from Boston, he’s supposed to be good.” And you see him, and he’s good. But that pretty quickly fades; then you’re just a comic in New York. But I see the logic behind that. Have people talk about you, then you show up. But you know, it was fun to come up here, because there were also really good comedians on those shows I was doing. Nick Kroll, A.D. Miles, Chelsea Peretti, those were the people I was always doing open mics with.
AVC: You were in a comedy group at Georgetown with Kroll and Birbiglia. Were you interested in comedy before you joined that group?
JM: Yeah. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but oddly enough, I remember my first week of college, trying to make conversation with my roommate, and he asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “I want to be like Conan O’Brien. I want to write for TV shows, then I want to have my own shows.” Before that, I don’t even know if I wanted to write for TV, but just in the moment, I was like, “I don’t know, I’ll tell ya this.” I thought I might want to do more sketch comedy than stand-up when I was in high school, but I don’t know.
AVC: Do you remember something from when you were younger that really stuck with you, that was like, “This is what I want to do”? Was it Conan?
JM: Conan was a huge deal. I don’t know what your experience was, but with me, it was like, “I already love Saturday Night Live, and I already love The Simpsons, and there’s this guy who’s from both SNL and The Simpsons.” And then the show came on, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s like what my friends and I are doing. That’s our sense of humor.” I was probably turning 12 when it premièred. So it was like, puberty plus a lot of other comedy influences, and then here came this show that hit all of those parties.
AVC: You were following the behind-the-scenes of Conan O’Brien’s career at age 12?
JM: Yeah. I remember reading a TV Guide profile or something about him, and I said to my mom that I wanted to go to Harvard so I could write for the Harvard Lampoon. I did not end up doing that, because high school interfered with my drinking. I remember this teacher in fifth grade gave me profile on a guy named Henry Beard, who founded National Lampoon with everyone else, whose names I’m blanking on. And the article was called something like “The Original Smart-Ass White Guy.” My teacher was like, “You’d like this.” So she Xeroxed the whole thing for me. She was really cool. My mom really liked that she gave it to me. I think she liked that other people acknowledged that I was a smartass.
AVC: Do you think you were a smartass kid?
JM: Yeah. I wasn’t just sarcastic, though. I think I was a very silly kid, too. As I got into high school and after puberty, I was a little more inward. I was a real extrovert when I was little, but I don’t know, I just got quieter… With my friends, I was still an extrovert. They were all funny, though. They were silly, reckless people. Not dangerous, but just stupid, reckless comedy. With them, I was a little more absurdist.
AVC: Were you writing then?
JM: Not really, no. I loved when I had the opportunity in class to do something like a book report or a skit—I’d be like, “Awesome, we’re doing this skit.” So I loved all those chances. But I didn’t really have a very entrepreneurial spirit about me when it came to comedy, to do that as an adult. In retrospect, I wish I had, because I would’ve enjoyed high school more.
AVC: You mentioned drinking in high school.
JM: Yeah. That was kind of a half-joke. I was more lazy in high school, vs. drinking a lot.
AVC: You’ve mentioned drinking a few times during your stand-up, that you have a history with blacking out, and that you don’t drink anymore as a result. Does talking about that part of your life bring you any catharsis, a feeling of distance from it?
JM: That’s a good question.
AVC: There’s this whole thing about comedy as therapy now. People go up and talk about what’s on their mind.
JM: Yeah, I guess. I stopped drinking when I was 23. I kind of started when I was 13, so it was a 10-year run. But I just became a bad, annoying drunk child, so when I stopped, I’d done a lot of things I wasn’t proud of. But I was also 23, so it wasn’t like a life-changing burden to carry around. It was like, “Oh boy, I did a lot of things wrong.”
AVC: At the same time, to identify at that young an age that you have a drinking problem, that’s a big deal.
JM: And everyone says that. I did a live WTF with Marc [Maron] and Janeane [Garofalo], and they’re like, “You’re not an alcoholic, we’re alcoholics.” I was like, “You’d be the worst sponsors anyone could ever have.” And they’re like, “You drank a lot when you were young!” It’s funny, and it’s a little true.
I feel like I’m not giving you a focused answer, here. Yes. Totally. I was embarrassed by the way I had behaved, and I was embarrassed by the person I was when I drank a lot and was tearin’ it up. It was fun to get it out there and own the fact that I was trying this. But yes, it was fun to talk about blacking out a lot. I still go back to it. I haven’t got over the phenomenon that there are days that I don’t know what I did. It’s a little scary, but very funny. I talked about that a lot. That really did throw me. It did feel good to address it.
AVC: When you talked about drinking during the Comedy Central taping, you joked about how it’s hard to believe, since you don’t look like someone who’s done anything. How aware are you of the image you’re projecting to the audience?
JM: [Laughs.] A little bit. I’ve certainly tried other jokes about myself that don’t get laughs, and I think, “Oh yeah, people don’t know that.” Not deeply personal to be like, “I’m just this type of person.” But there are things that I immediately give off.
AVC: How do you gauge that?
JM: Just try ’em. Some things are obvious, and the audience is like, “Ahhh, we know that!” And then some don’t ring true, and the audience is like, “We watched you for 20 minutes, and you don’t seem like that.”
AVC: Are you comfortable with joking about yourself?
JM: Yeah, I’m a stupid idiot. I like making fun of myself a lot. I like being made fun of, too. I’ve always enjoyed it. There’s just something really, really funny about someone tearing into me.
AVC: Do you know why?
JM: I don’t know why. [Laughs.] I’m fine. I’m a very lucky person. I’m an idiot, and I’ve shoveled through life rather nicely so far, so I don’t feel like I deserve good treatment, you know what I mean? I just feel like I’m someone you should be able to walk up to and say, “Hey, fuck you, you idiot.” And I’d be like, “Okay.”
AVC: A lot of your jokes have an old-timey sensibility, like when you talk about what a crime scene would be like in 1935. Is there something that draws you to that particular time period?
JM: Well, both in stand-up and Saturday Night Live, I’ve liked characters like that. And people like characters like that because they’re bigger and easy and more fun to act out. A lot of comedy goes back to gangsters and showgirls and deep-South caricatures. Personas are a lot subtler these days. Like, if you look at Cary Grant, he talks like a crazy person! People who are in movies now are just like, [ordinary, mookish voice] “Hey, how are you doing? Hey, how are you?” And he was like, [emphatic, high-pitched voice] “DUN! Dun dun DUN!” Like a weird, British alien. A lot of people’s impressions are older actors. It’s so interesting when someone does a current actor, because there’s still ways to weigh in on people. This is a long answer to your question. Those people—there’s just more to bite off there because there’s more arch, so it’s more fun.
AVC: Do you have trouble writing for SNL when people want to do something about a person who isn’t a huge personality, but is in the news? Do ever feel obligated to write something about a newsworthy event?
JM: I don’t write anything we feel we have to write. Good work doesn’t come out of that.
AVC: Do you have conversations about that on the show?
JM: Sure. If it doesn’t happen to get written, it probably means we don’t have a take on it, and there’s not much there. I’m sure a better writer than I could think of a take on The Voice, but we never did one. I didn’t care that their chairs spun around. I didn’t care that Christina Aguilera was weird. She wasn’t weird in an interesting way to me. Things like that come along, but we don’t do things out of obligation.
AVC: People look to SNL for its take on the news—especially in 2008 during the Sarah Palin thing, which was your first year on the show.
JM: Yeah, it was. The one thing we get to do that other shows don’t get to do is that we get to dress up like the people and pretend we’re them. Do scenes and have sets and stuff. There are millions of ways—funny ways—to comment on it. We get to do it in a way that’s bigger, and we can show rather than tell. So when those people come along, the show does well. It was an election, but it’s also that we get to dress up and pretend to be them. Impressions just get people in a way that’s interesting. There’s something that’s a little—I won’t say primal, but there’s something in our wiring that likes impressions. Because I feel like I have a high bar for comedy, but if someone does a good impression, even if it has no take, I’m just like, “Bahahaha!” It just hits me right away, like it’s a magic trick. I love magic tricks also. I jump up and down and clap.
AVC: When you started at the show, they were also doing that Thursday-night Weekend Update show. Did you write for both of them?
JM: That was a much bigger commitment. We did 10 shows in eight weeks. But I had no frame of reference, because I had never been there before. I knew it was extraordinary, but to me, it wasn’t that I couldn’t adjust because of the old model. It was great. It was so fun.
AVC: You must have worked so hard.
JM: Yeah. Everyone got sick. I had a stye in my eye. It was good, though, because coming into a new workplace is hard, especially the most intimidating show that’s loomed over my entire life. So working that closely and that intensely for the first eight weeks was huge in terms of being able to later collaborate with other people and letting them get to know you. That’s huge. It was so fun, too. I like when things are crazy. Something good comes out of exhaustion.
AVC: What is your official capacity there, besides writer? Are you in any leadership-type role?
JM: I’m a producer now, I guess. That’s just changed this year. It’s one of those weird things that—I don’t know.
AVC: What does producing entail?
JM: It entails a lot of stuff that one does there as a writer already. You’re kind of responsible for every aspect of your piece, and you have to weigh in on other pieces for the show as a whole. You try and keep more of an eye on the show as a whole. It’s a very nice, new responsibility that I’m excited about. At the same time, though, all of the writers are producers there in their own way.
AVC: You’ve been on-camera twice during “Weekend Update.” The second one felt like the launching pad for a recurring series—“I Love It With John Mulaney.” But there were no others in the series.
JM: I’m the only asshole to do a catchphrase once. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was the intention to make it a recurring thing?
JM: I wanted to do something modular with that kind of energy. Just talking about positive things that I like. And I was a big fan of Jon Lovitz, he was a huge deal to me. So in my head, I’m doing a quiet homage to “Get To Know Me.” I like the rhythm of that. It’s a little old-timey.
AVC: So what happened to the segment?
JM: [Laughs.] Nothing scandalous, by the way. There’s just a full cast. There’s so much show to get into that 90 minutes. The territory is limited. And I do a lot of things there so, you know, a year goes by and you’re like, “Oh, I haven’t done more on-camera.” But it’s not an unhappy thing. It’s really fun to work there. It’s very fulfilling. I mean, I love being on TV, but it wasn’t like I was sitting there frustrated that I couldn’t do another “I Love It.” It was just like I was sitting there, and then it was already May. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you comfortable in the role of the writer? Or does on-camera stuff interest you?
JM: It totally interests me. But if you work there, in any place in show business, with expectations, you’d quickly become a frustrated person. I don’t ever go back there because I think, “This will be the day I get on-camera.” That would be a miserable way to go through what is a very hard schedule. I work there because I really love it. I really like writing with Bill [Hader] and Fred [Armisen] and Andy [Samberg] and all these people I get to collaborate with. I love writing for people like Fred and Bill that can do things I can’t absolutely do as a performer. It’s a really rewarding job. People know who SNL writers are. They know things you worked on. That’s a very flattering thing. That’s not an existence that other TV writers have. We’re very lucky in that regard. I still get to go on the road and do stand-up.
AVC: What was the inspiration behind Stefon, whom you write with Bill Hader?
JM: I knew a friend of a friend who was trying to start a club night—that thing in New York of starting club nights in different spaces that aren’t traditional clubs. An old warehouse, things like that. And he would just list things that it was going to have. So that rhythm, “It’s going to have everything, it’s gonna have lights, broken glass, freezing cold air”—that rhythm of listing things, and always trying to set up these deranged club nights. And Bill knew a barista in the city who talked like Stefon, and that kind of physicality of putting their hand on their face. He always seemed a little exhausted and a little on-edge.
AVC: It’s funny that character is so popular, because it’s just such a New York thing. It’s amazing that it translates to other markets.
JM: Yeah. Although when I was growing up, I loved when SNL was about New York. Not being from New York, I thought it was cool knowing something about New York. Like that Harvey Keitel sketch with the subway operators, I didn’t know what that was, but I watched it and was like, “That’s cool, that’s what it’s like there.” But it is a very metropolitan thing.
AVC: Presumably there’s a different audience for SNL than for your own stand-up. How often does the audience cross your mind when you’re writing?
JM: The audience crosses my mind always. Making things accessible becomes a lot more important when you’re rewriting. I think people should sometimes have unfiltered, pure comedy written up on Tuesday, and then worked on or framed better when we do rewrites on Thursday at SNL. In terms of stand-up, I still want things to be clear to the audience. I’m more comfortable with things in stand-up, because I get to take the responsibility for them, and the audience knows who it’s coming from, vs. you’re putting it in a sketch with actors. Sometimes your point of view comes across best when you’re saying it, vs. injecting your point of view into a scene where maybe that’s not what the audience likes. So yeah, you can be more direct. You get to do a lot more in sketch comedy, which is awesome. You can be silly, you can be clever, things can be more absurdist. Those things can be in stand-up as well. If you’re a conversational comic, like I think I am, you also have to sell it to an audience rather than just talking about it. Like, having a point.
There’s this comic named Ross Bennett who I knew from the Comedy Cellar. I was doing this club called the Stress Factory in New Jersey, and I had bombed terribly. Ross was there, and he said, “You’re very funny.” I said, “Thank you.” But he said, “These people have no time for your cleverness. You need to get to the point.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You will really capture someone’s attention if you’re saying something that they find interesting, or agree with. Or they at least understand what you’re saying, and what your point is. You can be clever with puns and do whatever the fuck you want, but to have a point that at least you believe in, that’s a strong thing. That’s the backbone of stand-up.
AVC: You smiled when you mentioned that you were bombing. What is it about bombing that comedians like?
JM: It’s really funny to get up onstage and try and be funny and no one is laughing at you. It’s really pathetic. It’s a failure. Somebody failing at their job and having to keep doing it is really funny. You get onstage and you know in a couple minutes, like, “Well, this is not good,” and you have to stay up there for an hour. It’s like if the waiter kept dropping things over and over and over and couldn’t get anything on your table, it would be really, really funny.
AVC: What do you do when you’re bombing?
JM: I never turn on the crowd. Sometimes, you think it’s a terrible show, and then afterward, sometimes people say they really liked it. So turning on the crowd is only going to alienate the few people who might like it. What do I do in that situation? Get through it. I like to acknowledge it. But I just push through it. It’s an hour, hour and a half. Just push through it, it’s over soon. Goes by so quickly. But I have to acknowledge it, or I’ll just start laughing because it’s so bad.
AVC: That gives them permission to relax, too, if they see you laughing.
JM: Yeah. And you can sometimes dick around in those moments. You’re in this weird little eye of the hurricane where everything is calm and still, and you know that they hate you in that moment, and you can have fun in it.
AVC: Whatever happened to that movie you wrote with Nick Kroll, where Tracy Morgan plays a Nigerian prince who shows up in TJ Miller’s dorm room?
JM: They’re not going to make it. It’s not a bad thing. It was cool to write a movie and work with Nick and pitch a movie with Tracy. It was fun to see that side of things.
AVC: What did you think of that side of things?
JM: Slow. Lucrative, though. Very lucrative. But slow. Months and months and months. I have to find one thing funny for, like, 24 months. My God. I work in stand-up and instantaneous comedy, then I go to other formats and it’s like, “How long are we going to stay with this?”
AVC: It’s amazing anybody writes anything.
JM: It’s amazing that any movies get made. I had an old joke about that, about how a movie costs like $100 million. I would pay to just see $100 million. The difficulty of getting a movie made through a major studio is so extreme that when a movie comes out, everyone should give it four stars because it was accomplished. Everyone got up at 4 a.m. every day, and they had to light the set, there were problems with the boom, and the actor didn’t want to do it, but they begged him, and he did it. But by that point, the actress was unavailable, so they had to get a new one, a fucking nightmare. Any movie that comes out is a huge accomplishment and should get standing ovations.