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Taped before a live studio audience, okay? case file #43: Mulaney

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My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

Though only a sprightly 33, John Mulaney has already accomplished more than most comedians do in an entire career. As a critically acclaimed Saturday Night Live writer, Mulaney co-created a beloved recurring character in nightlife expert Stefon, won a 2011 songwriting Emmy for “Justin Timberlake Monologue” (which inexplicably defeated The Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow” and “I Just Had Sex”), and established himself as one of the most talented and beloved comedians around. As a stand-up, Mulaney released instant-classic specials and albums like New In Town. Although barely out of his 20s, Mulaney has developed a singular voice and sensibility that’s half elfin, childlike man-sprite and half genially cantankerous old man.


It sure seemed like everyone loved Mulaney: critics, fans, his fellow comedians, hopefully his family, even the perpetually aloof and distant Lorne Michaels. So when Mulaney left Saturday Night Live, it was a natural step for him to make the big leap from cult writer and comedian to network television star by creating and starring in a show to be executive-produced by his old SNL boss.

As if that weren’t exciting enough, Mulaney’s maiden television vehicle would co-star a pair of bona fide legends: Elliott Gould as Mulaney’s daffy, pot-smoking gay neighbor Oscar, and Martin Short as his egomaniacal boss Lou. Expectations were high, but early buzz was dire. NBC, which had success with Michaels’ 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, developed the show before ultimately passing on it.


The show was then partially re-cast, with Griffin Newman (playing one of Mulaney’s roommates) exiting and Zack Pearlman entering. The network switched from NBC to Fox, which ordered 16 episodes of the re-tooled Mulaney. A show that once sang with possibility and promise was now a wounded beast with a tortured backstory and cloudy future.

Mulaney didn’t just fail to meet the sky-high expectations of a John Mulaney-created vehicle exec-produced by Lorne Michaels and co-starring Short and Gould. It failed to meet the expectations that historically greet professional entertainment. Mulaney made plenty of lists and generated plenty of talk, but the lists were of the year’s worst new shows and the talk was bad buzz expressing shock that such a talented young man could have created such a horrible program.

Mulaney scored the lowest ratings of any premiere in the fall of 2014, retaining a little more than half the viewers of its lead-in, Family Guy. The reviews were even worse, and a skittish Fox cut the show’s first-season order from 16 to 13 before canceling it. A show that seemed like a can’t-miss proposition on paper ended up missing about as profoundly as a show not called Cop Rock can miss.

Mulaney has cultivated a cozily antiquated personality for a young man. There’s a good reason his signature character is one of the creepily aggressive, Alan Alda-obsessed old Jewish men in the “Oh, Hello!” sketches that ran on Kroll Show. Mulaney is more Bob Newhart than Louis CK, and during his stint on Saturday Night Live, he was writing for a venerable, old-school show-business institution whose lineage can be traced back to the Catskills and Your Show Of Shows.


So there is a certain logic to taking this walking anachronism and inserting him into an increasingly anachronistic, creaky form: the multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience. And at least for its opening credits, the concept of John Mulaney in an old-school sitcom works spectacularly well. Each show opens with Mulaney performing a stand-up bit that informs the narrative to come, Seinfeld-style, although even here Mulaney’s delivery is sometimes rushed in a way that makes lines that kill onstage weaker and muddled.

In the first illustration of the show’s colossal miscalculation, these stand-up comedy bits are way too short, often hovering around the one-minute mark. It’s a testament to how little Fox understood Mulaney’s appeal (or maybe to how Mulaney misunderstood his own appeal) that the network somehow assumed that audiences would be in a hurry for Mulaney to stop doing stand-up (something he’s very good at) and start acting (something he is, to put it diplomatically, not quite as gifted at).


After stand-up that is invariably the highlight of each episode, the opening credits explore a funky, sepia-toned New York of yesteryear as reflected though a comforting haze of nostalgia. The fonts employed in the opening credits, the woozily infectious theme music, and the shots of New York all give the show a nicely retro Welcome Back, Kotter vibe perfectly capped off with Ice-T, of all people, announcing that Mulaney is filmed before a live studio audience.

A great opening credit sequence, like the one on Louie, is entertaining in its own right, while indelibly establishing a show’s tone and texture. The opening credits for Mulaney are wonderfully entertaining by themselves, but they set audiences up to expect something way better than what’s to follow, sadistically implying that the show is a fully realized manifestation of Mulaney’s genius, when it is anything but. The awesomeness of these opening credits means that audiences have nothing to look forward to after Ice-T’s opening announcement, only a grim gauntlet of strained punchlines and arbitrary plots from a man who seems imprisoned by a show he created himself.


The first episode of Mulaney is a narrative expansion of one of Mulaney’s best-loved stand-up comedy bits, an extended anecdote about seeking a prescription for Xanax that leads to a painful proctology exam. Watching Mulaney’s killer Xanax routine get clumsily transformed into a sitcom plot is like listening to your wedding song get sped up and sampled on an LMFAO/Will.i.am collaboration: It is destroyed in re-contextualization, which is true of Mulaney’s whole stand-up persona as well.

The overarching conceit for Mulaney seems to be Mulaney starring in a painfully generic sitcom that could have aired anywhere from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, before the conventional multi-camera sitcom was increasingly replaced by the single-camera, laugh-track-free comedy. It’s hard to pull off a multi-camera sitcom these days, because rhythms and conventions that audiences once accepted as natural and organic now seem strange and jarring.


Mulaney is such a deliberate throwback to an earlier era of television comedy that it almost seems like a parody or deconstruction of the form like Get A Life or That’s My Bush! But to its discredit, Mulaney plays its sitcom conventions straight. It’s the kind of show where female lead Jane (Nasim Pedrad) is introduced storming onto the set, hitting her mark, then yelling to the studio and home audience as much as the other characters, “I am not crazy!” in a way that conveys, in true hack comedy form, that craziness will be her defining characteristic. But Jane isn’t even genuinely crazy, just cutely, safely zany. Pedrad doesn’t play a character much beyond “The Girl,” though about halfway through the first season, the show does drive home that her character is an Iranian immigrant, which is referenced so extensively from there on out that it would be distracting if it didn’t also give the character a desperately needed specificity.

That’s what Mulaney is lacking: specificity, a point of view, and a consistent sensibility. The show is populated less by people than types: the girl (Pedrad), the black guy (Seaton Smith as Motif), the preening show-business phony (Short as Lou), the Jack Black type (Pearlman), and the ditzy, stoned old queen (Gould as Oscar).


The idea of the Jack Black type (previously known as the John Belushi type and, at its most nightmarish, the Dan Fogler type) is to be entertainingly obnoxious. Even Black has a hard time time hitting that balance, and his imitators invariably embody the obnoxiousness of this archetype without entertaining. Pearlman is no different. He was clearly conceived as a breakout character—the Newman, or Kramer, or Fonz—whose every appearance generates titters of excitement and anticipation from audiences. Instead, if feels like the show realized that it had made a horrible mistake bringing him on board and tried to edit him out of every episode, unable to remove him completely.

Even Mulaney, who created the show and plays a character with his name and his profession, comes off less like the John Mulaney fans have come to know than a boyishly handsome stand-up comedian type. Mulaney doesn’t even come across as an actual comedian, just as a guy who might dabble in the form.


In Mulaney, the conventional multi-camera sitcom drops Mulaney between giant slabs of white bread and devours him whole. The show can never figure out what it wants to be, beyond something that belongs in the past. The show is so old-fashioned that ham-fisted references to Sex And The City, Friends, and Home Alone feel like nods to contemporary media while references to Twitter feel jarring and anachronistic.

If Mulaney were in fact a contemporary of Friends, audiences would have an easier time accepting its conventions. But in 2014, Jane, John, and Motif don’t really make sense individually or as a trio of best friends. Motif initially seems inspired by Mulaney’s fuzzy memory of someone describing a performer he saw on Def Comedy Jam. Motif’s material is all manic physical comedy and street affectations, but offstage he’s ultimately revealed to be a child of wealth and privilege merely faking a hardscrabble upbringing for professional reasons. The characters in Mulaney travel in predictable directions, but at least they’re evolving. The show initially seems to have no real sense of what to make of Jane. Is she a kook, a wacky friend, the desperate single girl, or the potential love interest? Mulaney ultimately depicts her as shallow and scheming, which may not be overly progressive or deep, but is at least a choice.


Louie and Seinfeld each perfectly represent their creator and star’s sensibility, but Mulaney only begins to give audiences a sense of who Mulaney is as a performer and person, as opposed to a generic sitcom lead, in its final three episodes, which represent a huge step up from the previous 10. The show shakes off some of its stiffness and embraces a goofiness that should have been its tone from the beginning. It’s a testament to the show’s low standard that the mere fact of Mulaney wearing silly hats in consecutive episodes makes a huge improvement in the quality of the comedy. And an episode that pays creepy homage to Manhattan—in a plot where Mulaney mentors a girlfriend’s precocious teen daughter—gives a sense of what the show might have been had it escaped the suffocating strictures of conventional sitcoms and allowed Mulaney to indulge his arty, melancholy inner Louis CK.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the show gets good toward the end, but it does grow less awful. By the end of 13 episodes, the woefully underwritten, underrealized, and wasted cast at least merits the faint praise of being appealing and attractive. There are funny lines and ideas throughout, but they cannot survive the show’s toxicity, the hermetic sense that it takes place in a poisoned realm where no comedy can survive. Mulaney took an innately funny, tremendously talented young man and placed him in a context where he could not succeed, no matter how extensive the re-tooling.


It sucks to see someone as gifted as Mulaney face-plant so hard professionally, and so publicly. Mulaney ends its only season on a desperate gay-panic gag, which underlines that the show’s swift death is a blessing in disguise for its star, since it spared him from continuing to squander his prodigious gifts. Mulaney still has a bright future ahead of him, but Mulaney suggests it isn’t as a sitcom star.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure