Great stand-up comedians and children share the gift of being able to see the mundane with fresh eyes. Chicago-bred comic and writer John Mulaney, a Saturday Night Live staff writer, sometimes “Weekend Update” commentator, and co-creator and writer of SNL’s Stefon, possesses a remarkable ability to find the beguilingly absurd in the seemingly commonplace. Mulaney opens New In Town, his brilliant new CD, by comparing himself to a tall, poorly preserved child, but Mulaney’s stand-up would have an ingratiating, childlike innocence even if it didn’t delve deep into his confusing childhood as a Caucasian male whose thin eyes, black hair, bowl cut, and voice like “a little flute” got him ridiculed for being alternately Asian-American and a woman.
Mulaney’s playful delivery lends a daft innocence to the most unlikely subject matter. In the album’s title track, for example, Mulaney talks about being approached by a gay, homeless, AIDS-stricken man who ends his spiel by semi-flirtatiously mentioning that he’s “new in town,” as if that was somehow the most relevant piece of information, and should serve as closer. Mulaney’s subtle gift for creating indelible characters just by modulating his voice a little renders the anecdote not only hilarious, but unexpectedly sweet.
Man-children are commonplace in stand-up comedy, a world where growing up is frowned upon. For most comics, that means talking extensively about beer and sex; for Mulaney, being a man-child involves possessing a childlike sense of wonder at the ridiculousness of the world. (Impregnated With Wonder would be a great title for New In Town if Pete Holmes hadn’t already taken it.) Mulaney takes palpable joy in his immaculately crafted words; New In Town benefits from an incongruously understated, casual perfectionism. It’s consistently brilliant, but in the best Midwestern tradition, it’s too modest to make a big deal about itself.