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John Mulaney on lessons from the “alternative comedy scene” and the value of impostor syndrome 

What's new pussycat

KATHY HUTCHINS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com
John Mulaney’s brand of storytelling comedy poses a variety of relevant questions. For instance: “Can you make grown men and women weep tears of joy by playing Tom Jones’s ‘It’s Not Unusual?’”

In a now-viral stand-up routine known infamously across the internet as the Salt and Pepper Diner, he answers: “Yes, you can, provided that it is preceded by seven ‘What’s New
Pussycats.”

The Salt and Pepper Diner remains emblematic of Mulaney’s style. In describing the “best meal” he’s ever had — which had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with the jukebox selections — he manages to turn a relatively average memory of two boys’ mischief-making into an experience that’s somehow relatable, and certainly hilarious. When the Salt and Pepper Diner routine went viral, it was the first time many people had heard the name John Mulaney, but not
the first time they were exposed to his work.

Mulaney’s 14-year comedy career includes a stint writing jokes for a little NBC show called Saturday Night Live, winning himself an Emmy in the process. He helped create the popular Bill Hader character Stefon, leaving a legacy behind when he left the show to more fully concentrate on his solo career. But his work has branched off from skit-writing into every arena of comedy one can imagine. With multiple full-length comedy specials to his name, a Broadway show, Oh, Hello (which recently became available on Netflix), and even a single-season sitcom titled simply Mulaney (which admittedly turned out less successful than his other endeavors), he has done a little bit of everything. Currently, he’s traveling city-to-city on his Kid Gorgeous tour, which will stop in Colorado Springs this weekend.
Mulaney’s long-form comedy covers everything from his childhood exploits to his strange former bosses to his history with alcoholism. And though the subject matter of his work may not be all that revolutionary, the simple delivery and attention to detail, and the sort of relatable affability with which he approaches each routine has been effective, especially among young folks.

He spoke to the Independent about storytelling, the art of comedy, and the difference between self esteem and confidence.

click to enlarge The now-defunct Salt and Pepper Diner. - INGRID TORONTO
  • Ingrid Toronto
  • The now-defunct Salt and Pepper Diner.
Indy: The Salt and Pepper Diner was the first time I encountered your work. I laughed, cried, and shared it with all my friends — and that’s what everyone seemed to do. Why do you think the inter- net latched onto that story in particular?

John Mulaney:
I don’t know! The rule of thumb, 10, 12, 14 years ago, was to keep things short for
the internet. Everyone wants them to be 30 seconds because that’s what everyone thought would go viral. And so here I was doing five-minute stories. I was trying to be some kind of Mark Twain child up here, and these stories weren’t going to go anywhere. I was psyched when that one caught on. It’s such a long story, and such a funny memory for me. It’s very cool to see a lot of people respond to it.

It’s even a meme now.

I don’t know what it was! The first night I did it I [was sure] the audience wasn’t paying attention. But attention spans sometimes hold out. I don’t know why people root for those terrible kids we were. It’s so funny. We’re all adults and we would all hate that if it was happening during our lunch, but you can really get behind two little bastards doing it.
I find it particularly funny when comedians find those mundane, everyday moments and pick out the things that are ridiculous. Is that kind of how you approach stories like the Salt and Pepper Diner?

It’s funny you should say “pointing out things.” Somehow, with all my mental deficiencies — academic and day-to-day memorywise — I can remember a lot of details about everything, like a semi-photo- graphic memory for weird things that are happening. Peripheral things. I’ll forget to vote, but the day I forgot to vote, I can tell you everyone that was in line at Quiznos. It’s interesting how people just like details too. A lot of details in stories don’t have a point. They’re not even about what the story is about. Like, “I saw a guy with a parakeet on his shoulder!” And that’s the whole story, but it is interesting. Sometimes I think I don’t even make jokes out of things. I’ll just tell people what someone was wearing and because I found it funny, hopefully it is funny.

It seems to me that it’s those details, rather than the jokes themselves, that resonate. Have you found that to be true?

Yes. Totally. And as I get older and I get married and I get an apartment and I get a dog, I start to go: “Oh, I’m writing jokes about all those things everyone writes jokes about.” But if you just examine the hyper- specificity of your life, you can keep your melody different.

What do you mean by “hyper-specificity?”

I really do live that way. It can take me a while to get a story out because I’m like: “He had on suspend- ers, and he was wearing a T-shirt under them. The T-shirt was filthy but the suspenders were expensive...” and my wife will tell me to get to it.
I heard on NPR recently that comedians these days have to be real and vulnerable with their audience in order to be successful, and you do some of that in your storytelling. Do you find audiences respond better to that?

I don’t think that’s a hard and fast rule at all. Because you can still have a real character, a total artifice, and have an amazing hour of stand-up, and audiences love it. I think that it’s the well-told half- truths — that’s someone’s phrasing. The well-told half-truth that hides the lie.
You’re up onstage saying a lot about yourself, but like any human being that likes to be candid, there’s still things you don’t say. I think what I’ve noticed, and I don’t mean to sound new-agey, is that if you’re actually prepared to say a lot about yourself or reveal a lot, the audience can see that. It is something some performers give off. “I don’t think this guy cares what we think of him.” And that is the most compelling thing. Then the material itself doesn’t have to be super revelatory or personal or dark. You just know this person doesn’t care what we think of them. And that’s so refreshing because we all care so much about what other people think of us.

Do you care what other people think of you?

Yeah, and then sometimes not. Sort of recklessly not. I will stress out when we leave dinner with another couple, and I’ll ask my wife: “Was it weird when I reached for the chips? And I knocked Barbara’s glass? And I didn’t say anything?” I’ll freak out about those things. Should I write them an email? (I always want to write people an email when I get home). But then sometimes just for fun I’ll be in a veterinary waiting room and I’ll loudly have a fake phone call just to see what happens. So yes, I think I hate to be embarrassed, so sometimes I have to extremely embarrass myself just to get out of it.
click to enlarge Mulaney and fellow comedian Nick Kroll portray awkward and elderly New Yorkers in Oh, Hello. - COURTESY NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Netflix
  • Mulaney and fellow comedian Nick Kroll portray awkward and elderly New Yorkers in Oh, Hello.
Speaking of embarrassment, what happens when a joke or a story doesn’t land?

Stories. Augh. Stories not landing is rough. I had this story about Bill Clinton in my last special and it’s about 12 minutes. Or it was sometimes. Committing to that when an audience didn’t like it was hilarious because you couldn’t just go “ah, nevermind” in the middle of a story that clearly wasn’t over. Jokes bomb- ing means much less to me. Stories bombing are like
a job interview going bad. Because you start saying what was funny about it, like if you explain it they’ll start laughing.

Ouch. How do you recover from that if it’s in the beginning of the set?

Depends night-to-night. Sometimes I dial in like “alright, you don’t like me,
well let’s make it far worse.” It feels crazy to bomb, and that’s what’s funny about it. You’re now giving a non- humorous speech, and people are drinking and staring at you. And it’s very funny, so it feels insane. I think I go into a kind of altered state. Luckily when you have a nice tour it doesn’t happen that way, but popping into clubs and trying something new and having it not go well — standing there at midnight in some club you’re like “well, I guarantee you people I have stuff that works. I’m just not doing it tonight.”

That is one of the blessings of what was called the “alternative comedy scene” that other people, other great, great comedians laid the groundwork for and created this amazing space. I got to do some of those types of shows. And the difference was that there was an understanding with the audience that these venues — in New York, L.A., San Francisco or wherever — that I’m trying stuff out, and I want it to do well, but I’m okay if it doesn’t. There are still places I’ll go where I have to try out something that’s 20 minutes long. And I can’t just go up in front of paying customers and find my way. But there are cool comedy rooms that are a couple bucks to get in, or free.
Can you tell me a little more about the alternative comedy scene?

It was a term that no one ever liked, but was used. I don’t mean to sound like a historian who is knowledgeable in a useless field, but basically you go to comedy clubs and there’s a cover charge and you buy some drinks, so it’s a night out. You’re either committing to a night of watching eight great comics or one great headliner. The alternative comedy scene emerged because there were shows being run in New York and L.A. and other places — I experienced it in New York, where there was a show called “Eating It” at Luna Lounge — and on any given night it would be like Jessi Klein, Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Marc Maron and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Legitimately for $5 you’d see that all the time. All the time. And people were trying things out. People would tell stories about unlikable things they did. Maybe it’ll stick and become new material, or maybe you’re just seeing this one thing this one time. But you just kind of take away the night-club, drink-service, high-cover-charge infrastructure, and people are happy to watch someone work on their stuff.

There was a [rule] where I started that you didn’t do the same set twice. People didn’t really follow that, but there was one orthodoxy that was like: “Oh, that person was in the crowd the other week and I don’t want to do the same jokes.” Which is crazy. But the notion of spontaneity was so intoxicating that that itself started to define the scene. These shows are weird; you never know what’ll happen.
Performing for politicians went surprisingly well. - U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO/STAFF SGT. KAT JUSTEN
  • U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kat Justen
  • Performing for politicians went surprisingly well.
Would you say those kinds of shows helped you grow the most?

I have to say with comedy clubs, [I] would be super nurtured in these kinds of rooms. They were fair — if stuff wasn’t good it didn’t work, but you could easily recover. I was doing those and simultaneously opening for Mike Birbiglia on the road, right? So I was working with Mike and I’d be in Cedar Rapids one night and the East Village the next doing some small loosey-goosey show. I’m really grateful I got to do both. Because if you’re never doing the same set twice, then you’re not developing. But if you only have the same seven minutes that works with this crowd in this club on the road, then you’re not evolving, too.

Now, you were 26 when you started writing for SNL, right?

Twenty-five! I was hired Aug. 7, 2008. I turned 26 my first couple weeks there. They had a cake for me, but no one knew me. So they all sang happy birthday and then just kind of walked away. It was summer hours, not everyone was in the office yet. I was there as the new writer and they were like “Okay, here’s your cake.” ... It was very sweet, I was very touched.

As a 25-year-old going into a household title like SNL, I can imagine that’d be a little intimidating.

There are things I look back on and am amazed I wasn’t scared. SNL, I was so scared. I got a call from Seth Meyers while I was at dinner with my mom, and he asked me if I wanted to be a writer. My stomach turned to fire. I couldn’t finish dinner and I didn’t eat for a week. It was like they were saying, “Okay so you pick up rocks on a farm, right? Well we’re going to blast you to the moon now. And you’ll still be picking up rocks there, but now you’ll be doing it on the moon.” It was the same work — writing jokes and thinking of funny things — but it was in a tower called 30 Rockefeller [Plaza]. And the jokes I would write would be watched by the whole nation and hated or loved.

Did you ever suffer from impostor syndrome?

Oh yeah. Steve Higgins [a producer for SNL] asked me on one of my first one or two days: “You feel like a fraud?” And I said yes, and he said, “Good. ’Cause if you didn’t, you’d be an asshole.” And it’s really true! If you walk in at 25 and you’re like, “I got this,” you’d be insufferable. A couple people in comedy have pulled that off, but I think embracing how terrified you are is the only way to begin there.
“The tour is everything I’ve ever wanted to do.” - COURTESY JOHN MULANEY
  • Courtesy John Mulaney
  • “The tour is everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Would you say you’re confident now?

I think I have high self-esteem, but I’m not confident. I’ve always had a high self-esteem, though.
I have no problem with my deficiencies, but I have no confidence in myself. I did stand-up at Joint Base Andrews for the 75th anniversary of the USO. President Obama, First Lady Obama, Dr. Biden and former Vice President Biden were all there. As was Letterman, Jon Stewart — crazy. And I heard about it and I was like “I can’t imagine that going well, but I’ll be okay with myself.” And it went just fine, so that was good. If you expect doom, more often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised. That may not be true anymore, but there was a time it was true.

What do you mean it may not be true anymore?

Well isn’t the world going to end? There’s an eclipse and everyone’s furious, and yeah. It used to be like “I’ll expect the worst! And then it won’t happen!” but some- times you readjust. Like, I didn’t see that one coming!

Speaking of, you may not be a socio-political comedian, but you do discuss politics. Have you ever had a negative reception? We have a reputation as a conservative town, so I’m a little curious.

Negative as in “I’m dancing and this is the town from Footloose?” No, I grew up with many conservatives. I’m used to them. I don’t really walk out there thinking, “I hope I don’t upset a voting bloc.” People who come to comedy shows are in a good mood.

I did do a charity show in Philadelphia where a full millionaire booed me for making fun of Donald Trump. He was clearly a millionaire, and he was try- ing to talk back. I was like, “You can’t heckle! You’re in a tuxedo with ivory buttons! You don’t get to rabble rouse if you have 10 million dollars.” However, that was a while ago. Things change.

So I’m curious: What is your next step? Do you have solid plans for the future or are you kind of riding the wave?

To me, the tour is everything I’ve ever wanted to do. It doesn’t feel like riding a wave, it feels like riding a bus. From city to city [laughs]. I’m a comedian. I don’t mean that like “isn’t it obvious,” but I really like doing stand-up comedy and performing live. I still write for TV shows. We did our second season of Documentary Now! so I’m working on that. There’s always a lot going because you don’t know what’s going to pan out. But ever since I could quit my first temp job when I was 23 because I got enough money doing stand-up to pay for rent in Brooklyn, I decided that’s great. That’s all I ever wanted.

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