Alibi V.24 No.16 • April 16-22, 2015 

Comedy Matters

John Mulaney’s Delicate Weirdness

Boy-next-door comedian talks stand-up, SNL and human absurdity

And yet he looks so normal.
And yet he looks so normal.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Comedian and writer John Mulaney’s 2012 special, New in Town, comes from a joke he tells about a peculiar man who approached him in the street. The man pushes Mulaney in the chest, tells him, “I am homeless. I am gay. I have AIDS. I’m new in town.” To which Mulaney replies, “You’re going to close with ‘new in town’? That is not the most dramatic thing you just said.”

Mulaney filters the world and our human exchanges into a playful performance revealing how absurd we all really are. “I think we’ve all had interactions with people where the subject was so serious and sad,” he says, “but the interaction was so weird we just had to laugh.” Exuding a pleasant and innocent charm, his onstage persona is wonderfully weird as he moves from praising the joys of doing nothing to his childhood fears of quicksand. Often besuited and always clean-cut, his delivery is measured, but this cultivated boy-next-door exterior allows him to delve into precarious topics.

“I haven’t been able to be on the road steadily since 2008 … I used to be on the road all the time. I’m so relieved. I’ve been wanting to do this for years.”

John Mulaney

Mulaney, who headlines a 90-minute set at The Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe) on Thursday, April 23, started stand-up in 2003. “At that time, all I thought about was what the audience wanted—and please God don’t bomb,” he says. “But I think with age, anyone gets a little more confident in what they want to talk about and in their own voice.” It’s been seven years since Mulaney has been able to solely focus on stand-up for an extended period of time.

Don’t worry, John Mulaney. Someday you’ll be a tall, old child.
In 2008 Mulaney was hired as a writer for SNL. Transitioning from mostly stand-up to penning sketches for others challenged Mulaney to create comedy in a totally different environment. “I went from doing something very alone to being with people 36 hours in a row,” he recalls. “It was like suddenly playing for the Yankees.” During his time at SNL, he collaborated with Bill Hader to create “Stefon,” one of late-night’s most iconic characters. “There were a few people Bill and I knew who were the inspiration [for Stefon]. It started with that, but it grew into something different,” says Mulaney. “The storyline where he falls in love with Seth [Meyers] wasn’t initially planned, but it was a welcomed arc.”

Mulaney says that working for a sketch show like SNL consists mostly of translating jokes in the writer’s head to a logistical reality on the stage. “I learned a lot by having to constantly change for different guest hosts. If a joke didn’t work for the person who was saying it over and over again, then the joke had to change,” he explains. “In stand-up you just describe everything so people can imagine what they want, but with TV you have to take visual things into consideration.”

Much of the past two years has been spent writing and performing on his FOX sitcom, “Mulaney,” a very self-aware homage to multi-camera sitcoms of the ’90s. Initially hailed as the next “Seinfeld,” the show wasn’t renewed by FOX for a second season amid concerns about viewership. It’s the gratification from immediate laughter that has brought Mulaney back to live stand-up. “I haven’t been able to be on the road steadily since 2008,” he says. “I used to be on the road all the time. I’m so relieved. I’ve been wanting to do this for years.”

Oh Stefon!
Fear is a salient topic in a lot of his stand-up. Daily fears like driving terribly, childhood fears like being bullied for being Asian-American (even though he’s not) and adult fears like being worried he looks similar to a tall child. The joke involving the man with AIDS is a great example: Mulaney never focuses the punch line on the stark reality of the unease he must have felt during this encounter, nor how scared a man in this situation must have been. Instead, he centers the humor on the very strange conversation. Crafting a joke like this takes time. “Luckily, with stand-up you get to try out jokes constantly,” says Mulaney, “and I was able to tell that story over and over again before I said it on TV. He was having an extremely hard time in life, and yet he was super weird. And I always found that funny.”

That’s where the innocent charm lays itself bare. Mulaney collects these fears and displays them on stage like a glass menagerie, showing great care for detail and the delicacy of the topics, while always supplying a delightfully unexpected performance.

John Mulaney

Thursday, April 23, at 7pm

The Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe
Tickets: $29.50
lensic.org, 505-988-1234
All-ages