Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Here’s how John Mulaney got so good at writing jokes

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

To kick off the third season of Good One, Vulture’s comedy podcast, guest John Mulaney gives listeners some much-needed insight into how the hell he became one of the best living stand-up comedians. Anyone who has watched his new special, Kid Gorgeous, will agree that Mulaney is in peak form right now, but his journey to becoming a confident joke-teller was a long one. And, like many comedians, the road to success started with one of the worst sets of his life.

“I just ate it the whole time. I bombed so terribly. Just silence,” Mulaney said of a set he did at the Stress Factory in New Jersey about ten years ago. One failed bit from that night eventually ended up on Mulaney’s first album, The Top Part, albeit in a more refined form:

Originally, as Mulaney says, the joke was a bit more conceptual. He would start off by simply offering up the premise, “You know how movies cost a hundred million? What if you could see the money?” At the time, Mulaney was working a lot of alternative rooms in New York City where “audiences had a lot of patience.” But after taking his act on the road, he soon realized this kind of delivery wouldn’t fly in most rooms. That night, after bombing so terribly at the Stress Factory, the headliner, Ross Bennett, pulled him aside and said, “You know, you’re very funny. But these people have no time for your cleverness. Just get to the point.”


Since then, this sense of urgency has informed all of Mulaney’s jokes. Before putting too much focus on clever tags or riffs, he makes sure to first lay the groundwork for why the thing he’s talking about needs to be addressed. He also steered his stand-up sets towards topics he had more strong opinions about. “If you don’t care, or if you don’t seem like you care, why should they care?” he says.

You can listen to the whole interview with Mulaney here, which includes discussion of Oh Hello On Broadway, his recent SNL hosting stint, and a cold read of some of his best punchlines.