John Mulaney is a smart guy. I don’t know if he can perform open-heart surgery or master time travel, but his comedy is very smart and very funny. From his solo standup act to his role as George St. Geegland alongside Nick Kroll’s Gil Faizon as the “Oh Hello” comedy duo — they portray a pair of decidedly non-PC senior citizens — Mulaney’s routine oozes with sincerity, even when the stories may be hard to believe. Self-deprecating, astute and quick on his feet, Mulaney elevates observational humor from hackneyed clichés to the hilariously absurd.
The 32-year-old Chicago native has starred in a slew of successful standup specials, released two well-received albums and won an Emmy for his work on Saturday Night Live. His eponymously named FOX primetime sitcom (2013-’15) bombed with critics but only fortified his loyal fanbase.
John Mulaney recently took time out of his busy day to talk with Folio Weekly about his time writing for and appearing on Saturday Night Live, working with Martin Short and Elliott Gould, and discussing hot lady ass with a random stranger in the cradle of civilization.
Folio Weekly: A lot of your comedy that I’ve heard talks about insane things that happen to you. I imagine cutting your teeth as a comedian can be both rewarding and frustrating. Is that the place you need to go as a young comedian to succeed?
John Mulaney: I think you need to go to a city with a lot of comedians, but there are few different approaches to it. New York has tons of comedians, tons of clubs and tons of people that might be looking for comedians to cast them or for late-night spots. But then I think there are so many great comics that maybe came out of being in San Francisco or Chicago or Austin for a couple of years. You can develop with other comics your age without all the chaos that is New York.
Why go to New York then instead of Chicago?
I sort of got into it because I already had friends living there who were doing comedy; I went to school with Nick Kroll and Mike Birbiglia and they were the only people I knew that were doing this after graduation, so that was the place to go for me. But who knows, if they had gone to Denver I may have gone to Denver.
But if you’d gone to Denver, we might not have ever heard the bits about crazy homeless people who are new in town, or abandoned wheelchairs.
A lot of crazy people come up to me and say things. I’ve found that just happens a lot. I was in Jordan and this guy came up to me and just started talking about women’s asses that he’d seen. This was in Petra, near the ruins where they filmed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and this Jordanian guy just started talking to me about some woman’s ass — so maybe I have a sign on me that says “Please come up to me and say anything.”
You are an Emmy award-winning writer/producer for Saturday Night Live, so I assume you did a ton of hard drugs, based on what I’ve read about the show.
But you also may have read about the past 30 years of SNL where nobody does drugs. I’ll be honest, I have no connection to the beginning of Saturday Night Live, but it’s just a very different place. I mean, the idea of doing anything but taking care of yourself to survive is very different. I may be talking out of turn, but I think we produced more work than they did in the ’70s and we also pre-taped a bunch of things.
It sounds like a real job.
Yeah, it’s still a fun, crazy job and you still get to be up really late and live sort of a vampire existence, but the idea of how much you ruin yourself during the week already, the idea of adding hard drugs to that sounds … difficult.
What did you learn about yourself while you were working there?
I’m good at assignments. I was very, very productive there. I never really wrote sketches before I worked at Saturday Night Live. I had no idea how I would do there. But I was pleasantly surprised that I was good with assignments, and I can be pretty lazy without them sometimes. I’ve been touring lately, but in terms of writing, I was being very lazy, and then the SNL 40th anniversary rolled around and they called me and asked if I would write some stuff — and I had it done in hours. It’s weird, because I hated school, but in the comedy world, I do well with structure like that.
Obviously, your character from SNL, Stefon, is someone we all know and love. Did you write any characters who were left on the cutting-room floor that you wish had made it?
Yeah, hundreds. Well … yes and no. Sometimes it becomes fun that they didn’t make it. Like, now in my memory, I’m almost fonder of them because they were outcasts. Sometimes it’s fun to have your idea cut long term, because you can think how it could’ve been amazing without exposing it to an audience.
My favorite character of yours is George St. Geegland from “Oh, Hello” and “Too Much Tuna” fame. Since, sadly, Kroll Show is no longer, what is George up to?
I’d imagine he’s hounding Nick Kroll, and calling Comedy Central every day, confused and angry. But I think Nick Kroll and I will be doing more with those characters in the future. I’d do “Oh Hello” forever; I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it.
George’s one-step-beyond what should ever be said to anyone is fantastic.
He always has some crass, unfunny artless thing to say. I really like artless, lazy jokes, I like a character who says flatly insulting things and thinks it’s funny. Just mean and piling on.
You got to work with Martin Short and Elliott Gould on your sitcom. What was it like to work with comedy legends and what experiences did you gain from having your own show?
Everything creative in the making of the show was really fun. And we made all 13 episodes before it premiered, so we kind of got to make it in a bubble, and for that I’m really grateful. It can be hard and frustrating to make a TV show and get feedback as you are working, because you try to recalibrate, and sometimes there’s internal or external pressure. I am really grateful that I got to make the show I wanted. As for working with Martin and Elliott, I’m still not quite used to the fact that I know them. This may sound corny, but as I was writing it, I thought about how perfect it would be if Martin Short could be my boss and Elliott Gould could be my next-door neighbor. It really was like a wish list thing.