John Mulaney:: The AD Interview


In his 2012 special New in Town, comedian John Mulaney begins a joke with the premise, “I was once on the phone with Blockbuster Video,” noting how “old-fashioned” that sentence sounds. “‘I was on the phone with Blockbuster Video’ — that’s like when your grandma would be like, ‘We’d all go play jacks down at the soda fountain,’ you’re like, ‘No one knows what you’re talking about, you idiot!'”

Speaking over the phone from his home in New York, Mulaney doesn’t balk at the term “anachronistic” when it comes to describing his sensibilities.

“I tend to like things that are a tick off the relevant chart,” he says. “Not by design — it just happens that way.”

Mulaney infuses  his work with a love for  less than current pop culture. Mulaney, his Fox sitcom, which ran for one season before being canceled, directly channeled the multi-camera format of Seinfeld and countless ’70s and ’80s programs. With his  Broadway show Oh, Hello,  Mulaney and fellow comedian Nick Kroll inhabit the roles of George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon, two Upper West Side guys straight out of a Woody Allen movie, who are as obsessed with Allan Alda and Philip Roth as they are generally unpleasant and disgusting. Whether writing for IFC’s Documentary Now! or performing stand-up, Mulaney draws on his often vintage  interests to create hilarious and slightly askew comedy.

“What’s fun about that is that those things can inform my comedy and hopefully it doesn’t sound like something you just heard yesterday,” Mulaney says.

Recently, Mulaney  took some time out away from his sold-out Kid Gorgeous stand-up tour to talk with Aquarium Drunkard. We discussed  Oh, Hello, which will be available to stream on Netflix June 13, and his previous special, The Comeback Kid, available on compact disc and vinyl via Drag City Records June 16, explored  his love of  Steely Dan, and dug into his favorite music performances from his time  writing for Saturday Night Live.  Enjoy.

Aquarium Drunkard: I get the sense that you are a Steely Dan fan.

John Mulaney: I’m a huge Steely Dan fan.

AD: The band seems to come up a lot in your work, especially in regards to your Oh, Hello character. How did you get into Steely Dan?

John Mulaney: I got into them my senior year of college. In 2002, my roommate Kevin, who I lived with in college and then for five years in Brooklyn, we were driving to take a Sears family portrait. He and I and my other roommates were going to get a family portrait done, so we were driving there from D.C. to Virginia, and he put on Pretzel Logic, which he had just bought on CD. I heard “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and was like, “Oh I’ve heard this song before. This is really good. Who is this?” He said, “It’s Steely Dan. ” I always thought of them as like the Doobie Brothers; I lumped them in with a lot of other groups.

That entire fall, we listened to that album. We had a lot of parties at our house and if we kind of wanted to put up a flag saying, “If you’re into this, you can stay,” we’d put on “Pretzel Logic,” the song. At some point in the night we’d get a little surly and it’d be like, “You all like our house, huh? Well do you like ‘Pretzel Logic?’ Because if you don’t you can leave, but if you like it we’re very happy to have you stay.” It was like, “How much of a buzzed loser do you want to be with us?” Then we got into Aja. It was really in steps. I remember that winter Kevin being like, “You have to hear ‘Time Out of Mind’ from Gaucho.” And that was like, “Whoa, this is nearly computerized jazz fusion. This is really getting into a type of music that one part of me wants to make fun of, but the other part of me loves so much.” So it’s always been very serious and totally kidding. But it’s very serious – I really love Steely Dan, but I also recognize that it’s synthy, poppy jazz fusion, and that’s very funny. I enjoy when people aren’t that into Steely Dan. I enjoy that almost as much as I enjoy talking to other Steely Dan fans.

AD: I saw Dead & Co. last night, and I think I have a similar feeling, in that I get why some people are not into this. But I genuinely loved it.

John Mulaney: The thing about Steely Dan, and also the Dead, and I would say Phish – we’re getting into a very controversial topic – is that they are funny. Those people like comedy a lot. Their lyrics are funny. They know they are funny and know what’s funny about their “lexical lunacies,” as Steely Dan would say. It’s kind of like being mad at a joke if you’re really mad at the music. At the same time, it’s not a joke and I know all three of those groups take it super-seriously.

AD: I want to ask you about the relationship between appreciation and humor that is explored in your work. The  episodes of Documentary, Now! you wrote  take on  Spalding Gray, William Friedkin’s The Thin Blue Line,  and the Bill Clinton doc The War Room — these legendary documentary films. And with Gil and George, you and Kroll are referencing a very specific kind of person, this mid-‘70s New York thing.

John Mulaney: Philip Roth and Steely Dan, yeah.

AD: How do the  things you’re fascinated by inform your comedy?

John Mulaney: You did not ask this, but because I thought you were going to ask it, I’ll answer the question I thought you were going to ask.

AD: Perfect. [Laughs]

John Mulaney: I am never, in my mind, making fun of anything. I’m just getting to do it the way I want to do it. Now, that’s also untrue, because I’m constantly making fun of things. But I could not like Spalding Gray more. So when people said, “This new episode skewers [Jonathan Demme and Gray’s] Swimming to Cambodia,” or, “They lampoon it,” I’m like no, no, no. You can’t find anyone with more respect for it.

I like the movie All That Jazz so much. I would fully make a shot-for-shot parody of it, just because I like it and I get to point out some of the things I think are funny about it. I do find that if you’re a comedian and you’re talking about something, people think you’re mocking it. That’s very untrue. I think, for most comedians, it’s a fascination. If you’re fascinated by something, you love it.

AD:  You’re clearly full-on obsessed with your source material. Same with Oh, Hello.

John Mulaney: Yes, full-on obsessed with Bella Abzug, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, The House of Blue Leaves, and Steely Dan and yes, all those things. Through these two characters, who are incredibly pompous and stupid, we get to look at, you know, how maybe someone would love but not get Philip Roth. And maybe I don’t get it. But you get to make fun of the characters using the source material and then pick on the source material a little bit.

AD:   George and Gil like Steely Dan. Do you ever think about what other music they might be interested in?

John Mulaney: Yeah, they like the Weather Report. And probably Manhattan Transfer. But the Weather Report, for them, was like the height of masculinity. Those guys, just crazy Joe Zawinul running around.

AD:  Steely Dan is similarly “masculine.”

John Mulaney: They’re macho! They have things to say about women and stuff. And I think that George and Gil like that the Weather Report were constantly taking their shirts off and strutting around.

AD: When we talk about your tastes, I’m a little bit nervous to use the word “anachronistic” but that’s…

John Mulaney: I know, they are. It’s not by design. But again and again, I gravitate toward it, so maybe some part of me thinks it would be cool…[trails off]

AD: Cool to what?

John Mulaney: Cool to be an “obscurist.” It’s not forced. But I sometimes [catch myself]. I was watching a documentary about Orson Welles while flying to do standup with my friend Max Silvestri, and he looked over at what I was watching and shook his head and said, “Too on-brand.”

AD: When you made Mulaney for Fox, were referencing those anachronistic interests of yours in terms of multi-cam sitcoms?

John Mulaney: Completely. Multi-cam, played out, trying to go for big, broad comedy in front of a live audience. So, you know, anachronisms can have their ups and downs.

AD: A lot of people thought about Seinfeld, which is definitely part of it. But I also though about Taxi, and other ‘70s and ‘80s shows, which I’m obsessed with. I was born in ’84, and I have a bizarre fascination with the years right before I was born.

John Mulaney: Isn’t it crazy what the world looked like then? I was born in 1982 and if you look at the newspaper from 1982, it looks like it was 1971. What we think of as “the ‘70s” was fully still happening until 1985.

AD: I love watching early Cheers and seeing that in full effect.

John Mulaney: You look at something from 1983 and because we like to divide decades with these hard lines, you think, “Well by the ‘80s it was new wave, Reagan, and the birth of MTV. And then you look at something from 1983, and it was guys in bell bottoms, people going to discos, and 45-year-old men dating teenagers.

AD: All the great things of the ‘70s and also the really creepy parts of the ‘70s.

John Mulaney: I remember as a kid every car was tan or banana-colored. And long.

AD: What I really liked about Mulaney was that it had those nods to broad comedy, which doesn’t feel in fashion now.

John Mulaney: I could have executed that better. I could have walked people into the “Museum of Multi-cam” with a different tone, a different “entrance” sign. But that’s what Oh, Hello became: every night, live audiences, and big, stupid jokes. I’ve pretty much done stand up and live theater since [the show ended], so the things I liked about it, I’ve got to see them manifest in a different way.

AD: The filmed version Oh, Hello premieres on Netflix this month. You’ve been playing George St. Geegland for a decade now. Does that surprise you that of all the things you’ve done, that’s the one that’s taken root?

John Mulaney: Yeah. It’s hilarious. It’s the thing we liked doing most, that we would go to as a refuge, when we were sick of trying to figure out what would work. We’d just do Oh, Hello because we liked it. And then Oh, Hello worked. So it’s very, very, very, very, very funny that it worked, because it’s…I’m not knocking the show or trying to be falsely modest. We worked really hard on it, and we had an amazing director, Alex Timbers, and every single person who worked on the show was so talented and we were thrilled, but at its core, it’s very funny and ridiculous that it even happened.

AD: The Comeback Kid is coming out on vinyl on Drag City Records. How did you connect with the label?

John Mulaney: I’ve always been a big fan of the people that work there, but more importantly, the music they put out. They’ve put out my favorite musicians, like Joanna Newsom, and my favorite comedians, like Neil Hamburger. They put out that Andy Kaufman project [Andy Kaufman and His Grandmother] that Vernon Chatman was involved in — it’s great. I’ve just always liked the label, everything they put out, and their approach to albums and protecting artists and not worrying about what every other label does. Through that, they’ve created a better label and a nice home. You just feel good being part of that.

AD: Were you a fan growing up in Chicago?

John Mulaney: No, I learned much more about Drag City as I got older. One of the heads of Drag City, Dan Koretzky, actually ran this comedy showcase called the People Under the Stares Show [in Chicago]. Many of the great comedians, local and visiting, would do that show. So a lot of my friends were doing it then and I heard about Dan through that. I was once going to do it, but I didn’t get to. But people like Fred [Armisen], Morgan Murphy, local guys like David Angelo, they were all doing that show. It was the cool scene there.

AD: I want to ask about your time writing for SNL.  Do you have a favorite musical performance from your time there?

John Mulaney: I do. It was my second to last show, I think of my first season, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the guest. They played “Zero,” because It’s Blitz! had just come out, but then they also played “Maps,” because they were on SNL for the first time and were like, “Let’s do this one.” I just stood fairly close to the stage and it was an awesome performance. They sounded great in that room. Sometimes the best bands don’t, for some reason. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve seen bands that are phenomenal just sound a little off [on that stage]. But in the room, they sounded amazing and they sounded amazing on TV. It was just the three of them blowing out that studio.

My last show as a full-time writer, Mick Jagger was the host and musical guest. He did “The Last Time” with Arcade Fire; it started with these a cappella singers on what we call home base, which is where the monologue is. It started with them and there was this big camera move that went over to the stage. It was just so cool.

I would watch a lot of rehearsals, because the actual Saturday night show, the live, televised event, you’re often very busy during it if you have pieces in the show. So I wouldn’t get to watch people on the floor. Fighting through to get closer to the stage, it’s like, “Eh, I don’t have twenty minutes to do that.” So I’d watch a lot of people rehearse on Thursdays. I remember standing there with a few other people watching Paul McCartney rehearse on a Thursday afternoon. He was the musical guest with Paul Rudd. And that was incredible.

AD: I have to imagine that’s one of those moments were you really feel like you’ve made the right choices in life, standing there watching Paul McCartney.

John Mulaney: It’s like, “Oh, I’m on the moon. I forgot I was on the moon because I’m here most days, but I forgot, I live on the moon for some reason. I got a job working on the moon.”

AD: I haven’t had a chance to see Kid Gorgeous. What’s this material like compared to your other work?

John Mulaney: There’s a little more yelling. Playing George St. Geegland for 140 performances – who’s a mean man – I would say got me a little more in touch with how fun it is to yell and be so angry. It’s very funny to me. I think I missed it, or rather, I got comfortable with yelling and having the audience think on some nights that I or the character was insane. I’m definitely yelling and getting very angry about things, and there’s nothing funnier than people getting very angry about things.

AD: What sort of things are you angry about these days?

John Mulaney: Just, you know, when they try to give you a receipt at Goodwill. I don’t want that. Anything. I just like to yell “How dare you?” now. It’s so funny to me. And people who say, “I’ve never been treated this way.” People screaming in the airport. This isn’t in the act, but I was at the airport and the flight was canceled. We were all upset, but there’s this woman screaming, “How am I going to get to my god-niece’s christening?” I can’t think of a less important event. Your god-niece? What? And she’s screaming.

AD: I love when people will say, “Do you know who I am?” in adverse situations.

John Mulaney: I love that. Because you might as well be wearing a monocle at that point.

AD: That’s one of the hilarious things about George. He’s a guy who lives his life based on “do you know who I am.” I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you — you’re a very nice person. But it’s got to be fun to play someone who’s truly a monster. He’s a terrible person.

John Mulaney: But he’s a great guy, too. [Laughs] You know, he’s got a daughter. [Laughs] He has no talent. He’s just one of the many, unimportant 70-plus white men who’s just furious. It would be better to tell them they’re important than deal with their wrath. words / j woodbury

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