The Stealth Success of John Mulaney

John Mulaney was waiting to take the stage when the “Saturday Night Live” announcer declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, John Mulvaney!”

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The Stealth Success of John Mulaney
, New York Times

John Mulaney was waiting to take the stage when the “Saturday Night Live” announcer declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, John Mulvaney!”

For Mulaney, that was the ideal punchline to his unlikely setup: a former “SNL” writer and failed sitcom star who at 35 had bounced back triumphantly as a stand-up and returned to his comedic alma mater as a guest host. “For someone no one knows, and whose biggest credit on that show was for not being on camera, it was perfect,” he said.

Mulaney might not be so anonymous much longer. He won raves for his April 14 “SNL” appearance and earlier this year sold out seven nights at Radio City Music Hall. It was there that he filmed his anticipated new Netflix special, “Kid Gorgeous,” due Tuesday.

“For my money, he’s the funniest person in America,” said Seth Meyers, the host of “Late Night” on NBC and former head writer at “SNL” who hired Mulaney as a writer there in 2008. “He’s this combination of great writing and great performing you so rarely see.”

Mulaney has earned a reputation as a comic’s comic, a choirboy type who makes the sort of embittered observations you’d expect from a much older, more cynical man. He’s a gifted wordsmith (“I do like to slip in precise turns of phrase,” he said, slipping in a precise turn of phrase), excels at playing characters in his routines and has become physically adept enough to make full use of Radio City’s massive stage. “It’s such a beautiful venue that it’s strangely intimate,” he said, exuding thoughtful affability whileeating a late-morning bowl of oatmeal at a Tribeca hotel restaurant last week. “I thought, ‘This is doable.'”

Of course, he embarked on his 2014 sitcom, in which he played a comedy writer named John Mulaney, with equal confidence, only to be brought down by anemic ratings and withering reviews. “Think it’s easy to clone ‘Seinfeld’?” Matt Roush asked in TV Guide Magazine. “Fox’s dreadful, embarrassing misfire ‘Mulaney’ proves otherwise.”

Mulaney put the blame on himself. “It was my baby,” he said. “I thought it was a very funny show, but I didn’t wrap the package and tie the bow in a way that people enjoyed it all.” (Some of the sitcom’s bits, like one about how “'Ocean’s Eleven’ with women wouldn’t work,” haven’t aged well, especially considering the forthcoming release of the female heist flick “Ocean’s 8.”) Still, he admitted, there were creative changes made when the show moved from its original home, NBC to Fox, that made it less personal, and in the process, less fulfilling. For example, in NBC’s version, Mulaney’s character had gotten sober at a young age, just as the comedian did in real life, but that got lost in the transition to Fox.

“I did not have self-discipline — one was not enough,” he said of his own wild-child days. “One day when I was 23, I thought, ‘If this were a movie, I would not be rooting for this guy anymore.’ It sounds weird, but that flipped me.”

The sitcom’s cancellation after just two episodes made it to air had a profound impact. “I’m not trying to be Frank Capra, but you truly learn so much from failure,” he said. “After that, I just wanted to follow my instincts. I’d stopped doing that a bit.”

So Mulaney went back to his first loves — starting a stand-up tour three days after the series was axed and creating a stage show, “Oh, Hello,” with Nick Kroll, a close friend since their improv days as undergrads at Georgetown University. In the show, which ran for 15 weeks on Broadway, Mulaney played George St. Geegland to Kroll’s Gil Faizon, crotchety old Upper West Siders who complain about everything.

Kroll said, “George is an outlet for John to express some of the stuff that doesn’t fit nicely into his polite young man persona.”

Mulaney agreed: “It was cathartic to play a Robert Durst-ian, angry white male who’s furious about losing his place in the world.”

He comes by this fixation on social standing honestly. Growing up the son of lawyers in Chicago, “my family was very formal and dignified — you had to sit up straight and you couldn’t have your elbows on the dinner table,” he said. “My friends would say, ‘This is like the 1950s.'”

Yet Mulaney didn’t obediently go into the family business; he felt a deep desire to perform from a young age. “I saw ‘Les Misérables’ on tour, and there was a little kid playing Gavroche, and I was so envious,” he said. “I wanted to Jeff Gillooly the hell out of him and take his spot.” This explains “Diner Lobster,” an elaborate, seafood-themed “Les Miz” parody Mulaney co-wrote with Colin Jost in 2010 that didn’t make it to air until Mulaney’s hosting gig.

Serving as an altar boy at his local Roman Catholic church, Mulaney got his first taste of stage time — and stage fright. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, I forgot to eat breakfast. This is warm. Everyone’s looking at me. Boy, this could be bad if I collapse,'” he said. “And now, in some theaters, it’s like, ‘Ooh, it’s warm up here. Why did I wear a wool suit?'”

He started doing improv with a children’s troupe in Chicago but his parents wouldn’t allow him to audition for the lead when the 1990 film “Home Alone” was shot in the city. “I was mad — I always had grand anger as a kid about how status and stardom were out of my grasp, like most 7-year-olds,” he deadpanned. “But I do think about how great Macaulay Culkin was in that role and how it would’ve been a crime if I had gotten it.”

After graduating from Georgetown with a degree in English and a theology minor, Mulaney moved to New York and quickly established himself in stand-up circles. At 25, he was brought on as a writer at “SNL.”

He got the news while having dinner with his mother. “She was excited, then this relief I never knew she needed washed over her,” he remembered. “The unsaid thing was, ‘OK, now we can tell our friends what you do.'” (When Mulaney told his parents he wanted to be a comedian, “my dad said, ‘What do you mean — like Steve Martin?'” he recalled. “He said it like, ‘You mean like Buzz Aldrin? You want to go to the moon?'”)

While working on “SNL,” where he helped create Bill Hader’s breakout club-kid character, Stefon, Mulaney honed a stand-up identity that belied his youthful looks. “I was born around age 23,” he quipped. “I feel like I’m 60, but the way 60 was in the ‘70s. Now 60-year-olds are doing SoulCycle. How old was Roy Scheider in ‘All That Jazz’? I feel about that old.”

It’s this kind of pointed humor that could make Mulaney a household name. “I don’t know what that would be like, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not a goal — that would be insane,” he said. “At this point, it’s like asking a vacuum-cleaner salesman, ‘What if you get as big as Apple?’ I’m not going to, but things are going well in the vacuum business.”

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