2018 has been a great year for comedy, even if it’s also been a pretty weird time to try and do comedy at all. After all, where do you find humor when the world seems to be on the verge of collapse for any number of reasons, social and political and geographic alike?
For John Mulaney, it most frequently lies in the absolute strangeness of everyday life. To call Mulaney an observational comic would do at least a mild disservice to the unique sense of empathy and specificity he brings to his stories and performances about the weirdoes living among us. After all, they’re the ones who make life most interesting. They certainly enliven Mulaney’s work, from his tales of Detective J.J. Bittenbinder in his hit Netflix special Kid Gorgeous: Live at Radio City to his acclaimed work as the unhinged George St. Geegland in the recently concluded Broadway run of Oh, Hello, his two-man show with Nick Kroll.
What distinguishes Mulaney from so many comic voices fixated on the eccentric is the honest-to-God kindness he brings to his subjects. He can cut straight to the center of a topic or a person, hilariously so, but he’s never cruel in the way that so many comedians of yore might have been about the same topics or people. In his 2012 stand-up special New In Town, Mulaney remarks with a laugh that “adult life is already so goddamn weird”, and there’s as much affection as there is rueful awareness in his tone. The weirdoes, after all, are the ones who form a comedian like John Mulaney, a man in a suit who’s as interested in bygone references as he is in dealing with anything topical in his characteristically unorthodox fashion.
In an outstanding year for stand-up comedy, and comedy at large, John Mulaney was our favorite comedian of the year. We had the opportunity to chat with him for the better part of an hour about everything from his storytelling-centric approach to comedy, to the ways that we all talk about comedians and their audiences these days, to his most visible role yet as Peter Porker in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The Perils of the Crown
Hello, Mr. Mulaney, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Well, it’s an honor. Thank you for the title and the crown.
We’ll be sending an actual physical crown in the coming days, so you can look forward to that.
Not too — not too heavy, please.
You know, it can cause neck damage. As it has for many. The great royals.
Oh, Hello At the Oscars?
I have to ask: Are George and Gil hosting the Academy Awards? There’s been a lot of teasing, there’s been a lot of doctored photography.
I mean, I don’t know if they’re teasing. They said they are. I think their statement said, “We were offered it, and we accepted it, and we are hosting.” I’m concerned because I don’t want to call them liars, because they’re very litigious, but there’s been no corroboration from ABC or the Academy Awards themselves, and I think there normally is. And I’m just starting to get nervous for them, but they might not be totally truthful.
So it’s more a concern of whether they’ll be allowed to host the Academy Awards.
Am I concerned if they’ll be allowed? I had never considered that they would be allowed, although to be fair, it would be a first to have two unknown men staring down the barrel of 80 host. I don’t know if it would be a good first. My concern is that they have really doubled down on this claim or fact — again, I don’t want to get sued by them — but I have yet to see any corroboration that this is happening.
Well, we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled in the forthcoming days, absolutely.
Yeah, I’m pretty concerned. I’m pretty concerned. That it’s going to unravel and that they’re gonna look pretty bad.
Well, I hope they can be spared the most severe public humiliations.
Oh, well, they’ve already had those in the past, so I don’t know what could top what they’ve been through before. You know — they did a Balloon Boy thing a week after the original Balloon Boy. And that was just pathetic and embarrassing.
A true faux pas of the viral world.
I remember saying to them, “What were you thinking?” And they said, “Well, the first one was famous,” and it was like, “Alright.” And I was just dropping off a meal for them.
You tap into this weird feeling of pride that a lot of Chicago locals I know get when anyone they’re familiar with is referenced. Where do you think that comes from, that sense of civic pride about any marginally famous local being acknowledged?
We in Chicago love everything about Chicago, and take great pride in everyone from Chicago, because one—true pride, and also, we’re building our case for best city in the world. You know, that’s where they shot The Fugitive. We’ve just gotta remind everyone, constantly, of anything that ever happened there. [affects Chicago accent] Uh, you know, you ever seen Presumed Innocent? That’s the building. Stuff like that. We insist that movies were shot there, that people are from there. Even if we claim that the people weren’t shit when they were younger.
And we do have something that—we do have something that I, in New York, in every city that thinks itself the greatest place on earth, there’s one thing that if you mention, their jaws drop in awe. And that’s whenever I say that I often went to see the ’89 to ’96 Bulls. I think they would have traded places with me, even if they’d lived at the top of the goddamn Eiffel Tower.
That’s an automatic trump card.
Absolutely. Certain Knicks fans will try to push back, you know, and they’ll say “I love John Starks,” and that sets me off right away. I was just talking to Hasan Minhaj, and he said, “Did you ever go to a game?” And I said, “I went to many Friday nights at the Chicago Stadium.” He said, “You went to the old stadium?” It was like I was suddenly Alfred Hitchcock and he was Dick Cavett or something. It was like, “I can’t believe you’ve lived this life.”
Storytelling and Comedy
Storytelling is a huge part of the way you structure your comedy. Who are some of the people who influenced the way you tell stories and jokes?
A little later—a little later, like in my early 20s, I became a big fan of Spalding Gray, which was a huge influence.
My grandfather actually told a lot of stories. My grandfather was born in 1902, my dad’s dad. He grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, in East Troy. He put himself through Notre Dame playing poker. He knew Knute Rockne, because he was there when Knute Rockne was there. He became a pharmacist at a small company called Walgreens. He was at Walgreens for the next 70 years or something. He traveled all over the world. He did all of it: a pharmacist, and then eventually an executive at Walgreens, and also had this kind of Ernest Hemingway lust for travel.
But he would pull me aside when I was a kid and tell me stories about being out in the Serengeti, [where] he and a bushman were trapped, and there were lions, and — you know, he had true, great stories like that. And I think as his hearing got difficult, he would pull you aside when you were a little kid and talk right into your ear about it, which is really, really amazing.
Both about business and about farms and about — I mean, everything. 1902 to 1993. [Laughs.] What didn’t he see?
He watched the world change, needless to say.
Yeah, and he traveled for business as a buyer for Walgreens. So you know, [he] had to deal with Johnson and Johnson when they were still two people named Johnson and Johnson. And he also had to deal with various people that controlled liquor distribution in Chicago at that time. I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but they were the mafia.
I often think I got a lot from him. I’m realizing later in life, you know. My family grew up to be very modest and humble, and…not that my grandfather was arrogant at all, but I do have the same desire to tell stories where some guy — some guy tried to trick me, but I tricked him back, and I got ten grand! That to me is a great story.
My grandmother on my mom’s side is from Salem, Massachusetts, and is a raconteur, and can sort of tell almost jazz-like stories where people are referenced who I have no idea who they are. And in the middle of a story about why a certain wharf is named for a certain Revolutionary War figure, she’ll then have a tangent about how at that time, on the select committee, Patty McCory, whose wife was an EMT — there’d be these asides and details to her stories that just flowed. I actually sound like her a lot on stage.
On Telling Jokes When There’s a Horse in the Hospital
When everything in the world seems terrible all at once, where do you still find humor, while everything is kind of imposing?
Yeah, that’s a hard question to answer. I don’t want to be glib and say I can. “Oh, I can still find humor everywhere!” I would say that in [Kid Gorgeous], you’re looking at someone who’s very angry, but not about the things they’re talking about.
To me, it’s when Jimmy Stewart comes home in It’s a Wonderful Life, and a knob on the banister comes off, and he’s so pissed, or when he finds out that Zuzu went home without her coat, and he just screams at the teacher over the phone. He’s not actually mad about that. He’s mad about everything.
I like that a lot, you know, people that explode about something in the moment. “There’s no ketchup!” And what they’re mad about is the state of the world, the state of the universe, the state of them. And it comes out in small waves, like Captcha requests when you’re logging into a website.
Comedy and Age
In all of your stand-up specials so far, you seem to keep landing on this idea of being a kid, and the ways in which being a kid is really frightening, especially when you don’t understand anything. What about that is interesting to you as an idea?
Well, that is one of the only things I have perspective on, because I have 20 years…no actually, I’m 35 now. I have 25 to 30 years of perspective on it. I couldn’t answer what I’m like now. Other people would be able to. But I can look with some hindsight on what I was like as a kid. And what’s fun about that is, you’re never really accurate, you’re talking about how you feel now about how you were as a kid.
One, I was young when I started doing standup, so I didn’t have that much to draw on. I had funny characters in my life, and I … I guess I was pretty young, it maybe came out of being on the road and, you know, people saying, “You look young, you look young.” I didn’t feel young; I felt the oldest I’d ever felt. But people would say, “You look young.” I thought about that, I wasn’t trying to cater to some perception. But I realized, “Okay, you’re not that mature-looking,” so I wore a suit to insist that I was in charge of the proceedings [laughs], and I talked a lot about the stories from growing up, I think mainly just because I liked them.
You know, 25 is different than 36. I can get grumpy now, and it was fun not to withhold that. I don’t think it comes off as grumpy, meaning sour. I hope not. But you know … at 36, with a tear in my hip and less successful nights of sleep, I now go, “Oh, I get why adults just go goddammit,” all day long, for no reason, you know? I find myself doing that. “Oh goddammit, it’s in the drawer?” I’m getting into that phase a little. I find it funny, and I also don’t wanna become that person fully. But I wanted to be mad onstage and find a funny way to do that.
I had also just done Oh, Hello on Broadway, where I played a character who’s furious. I think doing a 140 shows where I was screaming at a Broadway audience as an unlikable character was very helpful and liberating, because I had to just sit there and scream at them and not care if they didn’t like it. Or care, but commit to it, and not change if they didn’t like it.
The Value of Giving People a Show
As far as Oh, Hello goes, how did that change or alter in any way how you understood using a stage?
This has been reinforced in a lot of great ways throughout my career, now in its sixth decade, where you know, people paid for a show. I started thinking about that when I was emceeing at Caroline’s Comedy Club, and Brian Posehn was the headliner. I overheard this couple get their check at the end of the night, and it was way more than they had anticipated, and I heard the husband say to his wife “oh, that’s okay, we just won’t go out next weekend.” And I thought, This is people’s night out. This is about them. It’s also about me [laughs], but it’s about them. Put on a show.”
I had a set for The Comeback Kid at Chicago Theatre, I really enjoyed that. And working on Broadway, it was, “Scale! Scale!” People are coming to a fancy venue. They’re excited. You’ll do so much more when that curtain raises and there’s a real set, made with care, that’s beautiful to look at. Even if every joke had stunk, I wanted people to get their money’s worth just by that curtain going up, and seeing the set.
Without changing the material or the tone, this is people’s night out. Make it a big deal.
As long as we have the chance, I wanted to talk about Spider-Ham. For all you’ve done, it’s your cinematic debut. How’d you get involved with the project?
Because these superhero movies are always kept under wraps, I got an email where the project had a fake name, and it said, “They want you for this movie. We can’t send you the script. We can’t tell you what it is. Do you wanna do it?” And I’ve made this joke before, but I’ll repeat it: That’s how a lot of kidnappings begin. I was available, so I said yeah. It was great.
I’m being a little facetious; I knew it was [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller. But I didn’t know anything about it. When I got there, I was like “…Spider-Man Spider-Man? Nicolas Cage, did you say? Mahershala Ali? Hailee Steinfeld? Liev Schreiber? Jake Johnson? And me? Okay.” I was shocked. I can’t believe I’m involved in something that big.
I was proud to be able to give voice to Peter Porker. The film is such an amazing collage of animation styles and different universes. I look at it in awe. I can’t believe I had any part in it.
A Discussion About “Changing Crowds”
One of the big dialogues around comedy this past year has been how the crowds have changed. You’re hearing a lot about that from comedians. Especially as somebody who came up during the period of time when those crowds have allegedly changed, how do you regard that?
Just to clarify, and I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate or be contrarian at all. When people ask this question, I’ve been curious lately: What do you mean, when you say, that the crowds have changed? I ask that sincerely. I can’t think of anyone who’s actually said it, or seen a crowd and gone, “They’ve changed,” myself.
I’m not trying to be argumentative at all, but without naming names … are there names? I can’t think of people who are on record saying it. I recognize it as a kind of public domain thought now, that comedians are upset with audiences who want an evolution of thought and language. And I just haven’t actually heard that articulated by a comedian.
In fairness, I’ve mostly heard it out of older comedians, at the risk of generalizing.
I keep hearing this, and it’s fine, I’m sure there are examples. But it gets discussed, or asked of me, like it’s a phenomenon. That I just don’t see. I talk to three comedians a day, every day, and I personally have not heard anyone say, “What’s going on with these audiences? You can’t even make fun of the disabled anymore!” I’m not hearing these things, personally.
So where do you think that discussion comes from, then?
I think it’s a thing that’s written about. I think it’s a little cart-before-horse, all these “trends in comedy”, and then they become sort of written in stone. “Oh yes, yes, comedians are having trouble now because they want to say politically incorrect things, and they are mad at the audience, and they’re mad at young audiences, and they won’t play colleges.” I’ve seen those things attributed to certain comedians who actually didn’t say that. And I am positive that there are people in professional comedy who have said it. I just mean that I don’t find it a widespread thing among my contemporaries, or many comedians I speak to.
And there are many issues in the entertainment industry, so I’m only speaking to this perhaps-strawman that’s been built of the comedian who says he’s sick of political correctness. Yes, there are a couple. Over the years, I’m sure you could pull quotes. It is not a phenomenon that’s discussed in a way of, like, “This is a negative.” It’s more like, “Oh, remember when we did that sketch in ’08? Yeah, we wouldn’t do that now. The tone’s a little off.”
Comedians adapt. You wanna be a comedian because you see a headliner on TV, and then you spend a decade being an emcee, where your job is really just to welcome everybody. You learn how to make fun of the venue, you learn how to make fun of the shopping mall where the comedy club is.
Then you become a featured act, you’re doing 25 minutes, so now you have to adapt to that. You’re not the headliner, but you have to own the stage. You’re not the emcee either, so you don’t just want to be welcoming everybody, that’s their territory.
Then you become a headliner, and as people have said, now suddenly the confidence you give off controls an hour of these people’s experience. You play colleges, you do charity events, and you adjust your language. Comedians are constantly adapting.
If there are comedians who say, “You can’t say anything anymore,” to that I would say, “Think of how many times you’ve adapted. Now do it again.”
Also, I have just not found that to be true. I’ve played three colleges this month, and people have a sense of humor.
Comedians of the Year
It’s been an outstanding comedy year. What are some of the releases that you’ve really enjoyed?
It’s been one of the best years of the decade. Look at the variety of specials that came out. I loved Nanette [Hannah Gadsby’s special], and I loved Adam Sandler’s. I loved Ali Wong. I just saw [Anthony] Jeselnik tape his special. Chris Rock’s Tambourine was fascinating and hilarious. Michelle Wolf’s special was great. Ryan Hamilton. Patton Oswalt. Steve Martin and Martin Short, who’ve been doing this since the ’70s, made a hilarious special. All across the board, different ages, different backgrounds, all did excellent work that was successful and well-appreciated. It’s probably one of the best years of specials ever.
Pretty much every special you just named is streaming somewhere, whether on Netflix or HBO or somewhere else. Have you seen the industry change or grow in any way because of the accessibility of these specials?
More people seem to know stand-up than before. I’ve always said that people don’t know what stand-up comedy is. More people than you’d think don’t know that stand-up comedy is normally an hour of someone onstage, and that it’s not a speech. That they are opinions playing with expectation and surprise, occasionally being facetious, often being honest. Maybe getting to the strange thoughts people have.
It’s funny when I see a comedian’s set referred to in the press as “their remarks”, as if it was a speech, like, “I wanted to give a speech and I genuinely thought this would go well.” It always makes me laugh.
I’ve thought for a long time, people don’t know what stand-up is. More than you’d expect. Now that’s changing, because people just watch specials.
The View From the Top
Have you seen your fanbase change at all in the last couple years?
I remember I was in Madison, WI around 2011 or 2012 and it was a lot of people who were in high school, and they were with their parents, and it didn’t seem like their parents were just chaperoning. It seemed like they also enjoyed the material. So it’s been really fun to watch a wide breadth of ages and backgrounds enjoy it, because you know, it’s the thoughts of a ridiculously outdated, silly man in a suit.
I will say, I think the most gratifying thing, having been a kid that listened to comedy albums in my room, and how much that meant to me, is to get any kind of email or message online from someone who’s, you know, “I’m 13 and I just got Kid Gorgeous and I’m listening to it.”
That means a lot, a lot, a lot.