"Someone told me that I must be a new soul because I'm very anxious all the time. I think if I were an old soul, I would have some more perspective and I wouldn't be as on edge as I am as a person. I think real old souls are those people that are just kinda like, 'Hey, who cares?'"
– John Mulaney
Guy MacPherson: Hey John. How are you?
John Mulaney: I'm so sorry that I'm running late.
GM: You're actually running early because I wasn't expecting you until 12:45.
JM: Oh, really? Oh, wow! All right, kick ass.
GM: Where are you right now?
JM: I'm driving. I'm in Vallejo, California, home of the Zodiac killer. I'm driving from San Francisco to Sacramento.
GM: Well, don't be a distracted driver on my account.
JM: No, no, don't worry. I'm doing well.
GM: Have you ever been to Vancouver?
JM: I have not, no. This is going to be my first time. I'm very excited.
GM: I see that both your parents are professionals – a law prof and a lawyer.
GM: Were they thrilled that you went into entertainment?
JM: They were smart enough to know that if they said no, or if they discouraged it, that I would do it anyway and be pissed off and such. So what was cool about them was they supported me but later told me that they thought it wouldn't work and that then I could go back and find a regular career.
GM: And what would that have been?
JM: I don't know, you know? They weren't like, You have to be a lawyer just because we're lawyers. But my brother became a lawyer, my sister works for the mayor's office in the city of Chicago, and then I got into comedy and now my younger sister's a comedy writer. So I have one under my belt, too.
GM: You were so successful at a young age. Very few top comics, who can draw in the kinds of venues you're drawing, are your age. When you think about it, a lot of them are older and have been at it a lot longer. I'm thinking maybe your parents, being professionals, spurred you on to succeed even sooner than you might have otherwise.
JM: Well, there's a lot of people, fortunately, my age who are getting to play really cool venues. So we're all very lucky in that regard. But I remember I was doing standup in 2005 or something and, you know, you'd make, like, a few hundred bucks here and there doing feature weeks, and I did not realize I had to put any of this money aside for taxes. I remember getting a tax bill that almost made me cry in front of my roommate. I remember my dad lent me a little money to pay off my taxes and I was able to pay him back. I remember I was very determined to not just make it one of the hundreds of times that I took money and didn't pay him back. So yes, I think I wanted to show them I was a real adult even though I was not.
GM: When your first album came out and it resonated with so many people of all ages, to be in your twenties... I'm thinking others of your age who got some popularity were more niche among the comedy nerds rather than a larger audience.
JM: Oh, well, I think I have some nice popularity but it's always comedy fans that keep us in business. People who love standup help us go on the road and do what we want. There's always that comedy core.
GM: You started your standup before your writing days at SNL. How many years were you doing it before you got the job?
JM: Let's see... Saying I kinda started in the summer of 2003, I guess about five years. But you know that first year of standup, you can't get up on stage that much. It wasn't like I was doing it every second.
GM: So that is pretty remarkable, you would even have to agree, to get a job like that five years in.
JM: No, it was insanely lucky and it completely changed my experience as a human being. It was like suddenly going to work for the Yankees or something.
GM: That's a good analogy. Was there jealousy amongst your peers? Comics can be like that.
JM: No, there's a lot of stuff to go around. I haven't sensed that, actually. I know that's a cliché of comedians but I have never sensed that. There's just lots of stuff to do. I'm not trying to make it sound like Grapes of Wrath where I'm telling people to move to California for jobs that don't exist. But there is a lot of work to go around, when you really look at it. There's standup to do, there's writing for everything from movies to awards shows. I think I came up in the generation that was very supportive of each other and also very, very fortunate that we're able to make a little money and get some work and not feel so afraid all the time.
GM: Yeah, that is true. The new generation is a lot more supportive of each other.
JM: It seems like it, yes.
GM: I read that in college you said you wanted to write for TV shows and you want to have your own show. You just gotta pinch yourself. You've done both.
JM: Yeah, well in college I remember I met my roommate and everyone at my college knew what they wanted to do, very decidedly. And I knew I wanted to do something in comedy. I didn't know what. I just remember saying I want to be a TV writer like Conan O'Brien. I remember saying that to my roommate the first day of freshman year just to have something to say. And so to actually have worked at a show that Conan O'Brien wrote for is pretty crazy.
GM: Are you an old soul? I know that you like Dennis Wolfberg and David Bowie and you watched Nick at Nite. Your references aren't just of somebody your age.
JM: Someone told me that I must be a new soul because I'm very anxious all the time. I think if I were an old soul, I would have some more perspective and I wouldn't be as on edge as I am as a person. I think real old souls are those people that are just kinda like, 'Hey, who cares?'
GM: Que sera, sera.
JM: Yeah. That's a soul that's been around. I think I must be fresh to this earth, that's why I'm nervous all the time.
GM: But you do have those old frames of reference, though.
JM: I do, yeah. I always gravitated towards different eras. I don't know why.
GM: Did you tour opening with Birbiglia?
JM: I did, yeah. That was one of the most formative experiences of my time as a standup because Birbiglia took me on the road for like 35 days straight. We were on a bus and I had to do a show every single night. I had to open for Birbiglia whether we were in a college in Boston, Massachusetts, where it's just gangbusters, whether we were in Youngstown, Ohio, in a hotel, whether we were in Grand Island, Nebraska, at a Holiday Inn that had a special rooms stage. It was like no matter what, the bus stops, you get off, you do a show. And I think before that experience, I always secretly hoped that the show was cancelled. Because I was new to standup. I wanted to do it but I didn't want to actually do it. I was scared, you know? And after that experience, I always wanted the show to happen.
GM: How many years in were you then?
JM: Like one-and-a-half.
GM: Wow. And playing to these big rooms.
JM: Yeah, sometimes you do a college show, you had this huge room and I had to go out there and open the show. Mike Birbiglia just gave me hours of advice that I still think about when I'm doing standup. So I had a very good mentor in him and he was also a good patron in that he actually took me out on the road so I could emcee and I could make a little money doing that.
GM: And prior to that you were just strictly local?
JM: I was just screwing around. I wanted to do comedy and say I did comedy and I'd go do the same seven minutes in small rooms in New York. And then he said, 'Do you want to open for me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?' And I emceed for him at Penguins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I started doing my set and I realized I don't have seven to ten minutes; I have three minutes! The rest of this is just like cute little nonsense that works sometimes. So it was good to go everywhere in the country and get my ass kicked a lot.
GM: He asked you because you were friends with him in college?
JM: We didn't overlap but we knew each other through the improv group we were both in.
GM: At Georgetown.
GM: What was the best piece of advice he gave you?
JM: For emceeing a show, he said treat it like it's your show. You're bringing up these acts and you act like it's your show. You're welcoming the crowd. You're the host. Have ownership over it. Tell them who you'll be bringing up. And it sort of changed the way I thought about it. I thought, like, oh, I'm the first comic that they hate. And instead I came up with the sort of inflated idea, but it helps in the moment.
GM: Like you're Ed Sullivan.
JM: Yeah, I'm Ed Sullivan. I have a great show for you tonight, including Mike Birbiglia (laughs). And when I first started headlining, I was about to headline the Houston Laff Stop, I was really nervous and I talked to him about it. I said, 'I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to go from having been a feature middle act.' And he said, 'Well, you just have to act like this is your show and you have every reason to be there.' And I was like, 'Well, that was your advice when I was an emcee,' and he was like, 'Yeah, but I was lying when you were an emcee. It's not your show; it's the headliner's show.' For me, there were a lot of little psychological hurdles where you just go, boy, why should anyone listen to me? Why should I hold a microphone? But you realize people are excited for the show. This is something you should be excited for.
GM: So it's all a confidence game, really.
JM: Oh my gosh, there's nothing about it that is not a confidence game.
GM: Did your job writing at SNL help your standup? Or are they just two completely different things?
JM: I bet it did but I couldn't point out to you how. And to me, they were pretty different.
GM: To get that job, did you have to submit sketches?
JM: No. No, no, I auditioned. They saw me on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, I was on a couple times as a standup, and they had me audition to be a cast member. When we would audition cast members, you'd see a ton of people and many of them you were looking for writers as well. I didn't know that at the time. I just thought I'm about to audition for Saturday Night Live and I'll be able to tell my kids once that I auditioned for Lorne Michaels. And I knew I was not going to get it so I just went in and thought, okay, just be as funny as possible. This'll just be a cool story. And they called me a couple days later and they said, 'We do not want you in the cast, but we'd love you as a writer.' And I said, 'That's amazing.'
GM: That's a little daunting because you're writing for other people, which you hadn't done before.
JM: No, I had. I had written for a show called Important Things with Demetri Martin and I had written for some other Comedy Central projects with different people. So I'd done a little of it.
GM: Oh, there you go. But you knew you wouldn't get it. But you didn't really know, you just wanted to think that.
JM: No, I knew. I mean, there were just such funnier skinny white guys back then. There was no competition.
GM: Is it true you turned down the offer to replace Seth on Update?
JM: No, that's not true.
GM: What's the status of Mulaney now?
JM: The Fox show? We're airing our last couple episodes in the next few weeks of our first run. We made 13 of them and the last couple will be airing in the next month.
GM: Do you know about next season?
JM: I don't have any clue about that kind of thing. No idea.
GM: I remember when it was coming out everyone was saying it's the new Seinfeld.
JM: Well, one person said that.
GM: Was it only one?!
JM: Well, no. Someone at the network said that because that's how you sell a show to advertisers. You make claims like that, which I understand. Then people seem to think that I was saying that it was the next Seinfeld, which was not true.
GM: Was it a vision of yours? Obviously you liked the show.
JM: It's a weird thing because I'm such a huge fan of Seinfeld that if I said it wasn't an influence, I'd be such a liar. And yet I did really want to do something different. I'm less thinking about Seinfeld and more thinking about the TV that was on at that moment and how I wanted to do something that looked and sounded different than the TV that was on at that moment.
GM: I guess you and Jerry were both skinny, white, cleancut guys.
JM: There's no comparison, though. He is the best and that show is the gold standard.
GM: I guess the expectations are unrealistic when you compare.
JM: All expectations are unrealistic. I've learned that this year.
GM: Have you met Jerry? Have you heard from him about it?
JM: I've never met Jerry Seinfeld, no. I'm very intimidated to meet him. I just look up to him a lot.
GM: One day I'd love to see him driving you to a coffee shop.
JM: Oh, boy. I'd be so nervous I don't think I could handle a cup of coffee.
GM: Going back to your love for older eras of show biz and comedy, I love that you have Martin Short and Elliott Gould on your show.
JM: Oh, that was one of the pleasures of my life to work with them.
GM: Maybe younger people don't know, but Elliott Gould was in almost every movie in the 70s.
JM: I'm the hugest fan of Elliott's work. I mean, the guy worked with Ingmar Bergman. And now he's worked with John Mulaney and Zack Pearlman. To separate Ingmar Bergman with the cast of Mulaney, if that's all I've done is shorten the degrees of separation, I'm very proud.
GM: It being a 3-camera sitcom with a laugh track, if it is one...
JM: No, no, no, it's not a laugh track. When people say that, I'm confused because there's a live audience there. So I don't understand it. But I don't know if people just call a live audience 'laugh track' or if they think they're not real people.
GM: I've been to some TV tapings and they sweeten the laughter with canned laughter. Because the audience can't give the same hearty reaction if you're doing multiple takes.
JM: Oh, well, you know what? Normally you have to turn down the laughter because people get very annoyed by live audience laughter apparently.
GM: But live audience and multi-camera – that's a throwback as well, isn't it?
JM: Yeah, I did very much want to make a show that looked like one of those old multi-cams but a lot weirder. I wanted it to look like a show from the '90s and just have a very different sensibility.
GM: How is it weirder?
JM: Just darker. Stranger. I think that all of our stories, say what you will about my show, but I think all of our stories were very unique and were not just about dating or marriage or kids or anything that a lot of shows went over. We had stuff about fainting during a doula's childbirth, we did episodes where people take peyote, we did episodes about people that stalked Gene Wilder. I just wanted it to look familiar, look like something you might see on a rerun of a show, but not have the same kind of jokes.
GM: You've achieved your goals of writing for TV and having a TV show. Do you have other goals? Movies, perhaps?
JM: Well, my only goal is to do standup till I'm an old, old man. I mean, really. I like to do these other things but when I look at people like Joan Rivers and Don Rickles, I think that's what I want to be doing. When I'm 80 years old, I want to have a show booked where I get on a plane and get dressed up and go do a show and I'm an old, old man. I think that would make me very happy.
GM: You're a little more held-back with releasing specials, unlike some who release them every year.
JM: Only because I was working on this show.
GM: That's what I was going to ask, if it was a result of being busy or just a specific strategy.
JM: Yeah, it was a result of being busy and wanting the specials to be good so I didn't want to just turn out whatever I had. My hat's off to some people that do that. They're much more prolific than I. But I'm touring now and I'm going to tape a special this year that I hope people enjoy.
GM: What's your relationship with the Innocence Project?
JM: My wife and I do these benefits for them and we work with them both by donating and trying to spread the word with these live shows. But my relationship started just as someone who really admired the work they did. My wife's family has donated to them from the time she was a young kid so she was familiar with them. I knew about them just by being someone who reads about the legal system or crime a lot. I was aware of them through the West Memphis 3 and different cases that really stuck in my mind. So I'm very proud that we actually get to know the people that work there now.
GM: Your parents must be proud of doing that, them being lawyers.
JM: That's true, yeah. My parents have also been very generous to them, as well. They do legal work and they do amazingly hard work.
GM: Did you listen to Serial? Are they involved with the Adnan case?
JM: I can't remember. There's several different... There's local Innocence Projects. We do work for the national Innocence Project, my wife and I. And I forget who's involved in the Serial thing. I did listen to Serial.
GM: I was just wondering what became of their research into his case.
JM: Here's the thing. I'm not at all qualified to comment, but it was funny to see Serial where people want their weekly fix. And having studied these a little through the Innocence Project, it doesn't happen in a week. These cases take years and years to get people out. Even when you have a lot of people working on them, it takes tons of money and tons of years and it's very frustrating work. That's why what the Innocence Project does is so amazing. People know someone to be innocent for twenty years and you just have to find as many appeals and loopholes as you can. So it doesn't happen serialized in one week, you know?
GM: Oh, yeah, yeah. Even when there's mounds of evidence and even DNA evidence, the courts just take forever.
JM: They do.
GM: Are you bringing an opener to the comedy festival?
JM: I'm not sure at the moment but we'll let you know for the article. I don't know right now. I haven't planned that yet.
GM: You mean you don't know who it will be or you don't know if there will be one?
JM: Oh, there will be one. I don't know who it will be. I'll be sure to follow up with you before you run it, though.
GM: Alright. That's all, John Mulaney.
JM: Alright, sir. Pleasure to talk with you.