Great stand-up comedians and children share the gift of being able to see the mundane with fresh eyes. Chicago-bred comic and writer John Mulaney, a Saturday Night Live staff writer, sometimes “Weekend Update” commentator, and co-creator and writer of SNL’s Stefon, possesses a remarkable ability to find the beguilingly absurd in the seemingly commonplace. Mulaney opens New In Town, his brilliant new CD, by comparing himself to a tall, poorly preserved child, but Mulaney’s stand-up would have an ingratiating, childlike innocence even if it didn’t delve deep into his confusing childhood as a Caucasian male whose thin eyes, black hair, bowl cut, and voice like “a little flute” got him ridiculed for being alternately Asian-American and a woman.
Mulaney’s playful delivery lends a daft innocence to the most unlikely subject matter. In the album’s title track, for example, Mulaney talks about being approached by a gay, homeless, AIDS-stricken man who ends his spiel by semi-flirtatiously mentioning that he’s “new in town,” as if that was somehow the most relevant piece of information, and should serve as closer. Mulaney’s subtle gift for creating indelible characters just by modulating his voice a little renders the anecdote not only hilarious, but unexpectedly sweet.
Man-children are commonplace in stand-up comedy, a world where growing up is frowned upon. For most comics, that means talking extensively about beer and sex; for Mulaney, being a man-child involves possessing a childlike sense of wonder at the ridiculousness of the world. (Impregnated With Wonder would be a great title for New In Town if Pete Holmes hadn’t already taken it.) Mulaney takes palpable joy in his immaculately crafted words; New In Town benefits from an incongruously understated, casual perfectionism. It’s consistently brilliant, but in the best Midwestern tradition, it’s too modest to make a big deal about itself.
On John Mulaney’s 2009 comedy album The Top Part—it’s on Spotify—the Chicago-bred comic flashes a sharp, charming sensibility, riffing on the silliness of ’80s and ’90s pop culture as well as lightheartedly looking back at all of the stupid stuff he’s done. He’s a rare comic that can pull off a style that’s funny but at the expense no one in particular; he’s good at homing in on the nodes of ridiculousness that everyone can relate to, whether why Scarface is so stupid or trashing your friend’s parents’ house in the name of a party. Recently, GQ spoke with Mulaney about his upcoming Comedy Central special, New In Town, his work as a writer (and occasional performer) on Saturday Night Live, and what he likes to watch on TV.
You don’t necessarily fulfill people’s mental stereotype of comedy writers.
Sometimes I think people forget what they look like. I have a different picture of what I look like in my head. I look a little more mature and a little more ragged. Then I look at the mirror and I’m like, Oh, look at that nice, happy boy.
Nominees for The Award for Outstanding Producer of Live Entertainment & Talk Television: o The Colbert Report (Comedy Central. Producers: Meredith Bennett, Stephen T. Colbert, Richard Dahm, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, Tom Purcell, Jon Stewart; additional producers eligibility pending arbitration completion) o The Ellen DeGeneres Show (Syndicated. Producers: Mary Connelly, Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Geiger Schrift, Ed Glavin, Andy Lassner, Kevin A. Leman II, Jonathan Norman, Derek Westervelt) o Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO. Producers: Scott Carter, Sheila Griffiths, Marc Gurvitz, Dean Johnsen, Bill Maher, Billy Martin) o Saturday Night Live (NBC. Producers: Ken Aymong, Steve Higgins, Erik Kenward, Lorne Michaels, John Mulaney) o The 64th Annual Tony Awards (CBS. Producers: Ricky Kirshner, Glenn Weiss)