"I don’t look like someone who used to do anything," John Mulaney told the crowd in his 2012 Comedy Central special New in Town. "I look like I was just sitting in a room on a chair eating saltines for, like, 28 years.”
But though the baby-faced entertainer may not look it, the 32-year-old Chicago born comic has a comedy resume thicker than most stand ups twice his age. Starting out as an intern at Comedy Central, Mulaney has steadily written his way up — all the way to the halls of Saturday Night Live. It was there that he earned a reputation as one of the show's most prolific writers, penning sketches such as Bill Hader's beloved Stefon and Herb Welch. He wrote for hosts like Paul McCartney and Justin Bieber, and even wrote a song with Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake. His work with Timberlake earned him and SNL head writer Seth Meyers a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.
In the middle of all this, he was able to release The Top Part, a 2009 half hour special on Comedy Central, and New in Town, a 2012 hour long Comedy Central special that earned him some critical praise and much deserved attention as a stand up comic.
It also eventually earned him his own television show, which he left SNL to pursue. Unfortunately, after 13 episodes on Fox, his self-titled series, Mulaney, was cancelled last January. "I look back on making the show really fondly," Mulaney says. "It's my noble failure. I tried, and I wanted to do it this way. Some people liked it — just not enough."
True fans of Mulaney must feel conflicted about this. On one hand, how excited we were when we all heard the news that John Mulaney was getting his own television show. Mulaney had a proven record as one of the best comedy writers alive, and had been learning the ins and outs of TV for nearly his entire adult life. And how badly we all wanted him and all his cheery self-deprecation to succeed. But when his show — a multi-camera throwback in which he played the main protagonist — failed, fans were overcome with conflicting emotions: The obvious and immediate disappointment about what could have been, and the giddiness at the thought that now, finally, we'd have John Mulaney the stand up comic all to ourselves. No distractions. That's something that hasn't happened since he joined the SNL staff in 2009.
"I've been really chomping at the bit to get back out on tour for about seven years," Mulaney laughs. "So I'm thrilled."
He'll be filming a new stand up special on May 30 in his hometown of Chicago at The Chicago Theatre. It will be his first special as a married man, something Mulaney says has changed his comedy, though not in the obvious ways. "It's not just that now I have jokes about being married," he says. "It's also such a big thing in my life that I'm happy about. You kind of disassociate from other problems, which is nice."
Mulaney is a indeed happy man these days and that's something some people might not associate with successful stand up. After all, aren't misery and sorrow essential ingredients in comedy? Mulaney doesn't think so. "I'd say happiness can be really helpful," he says. "When you're really happy you kind of know that most things are stupid and knowing that most things are stupid is the best springboard for comedy."
This newfound perspective has no doubt been helpful in Mulaney's transition from television back to stand up. Sure, the show might not have worked out, but there are still many things to be grateful for — like working side-by-side with Canada's all-time best export, Martin Short. "He's wildly funny all day long," Mulaney says of the former '80s SNL cast member. "It was sort of one of those surreal dream come true things that — when you're working day in and day out — occasionally seems normal for a second, and then I would remember I'm sitting with Martin Short. It was great and I'm really lucky to now know him and everyone else in that cast."
The cast he's referring to included former SNL player Nasim Pedrad and film and TV veteran Elliott Gould. It was a stellar team and, if nothing else, the show's failure should prove two things. Firstly, it should go to show just how difficult it is to make a good and successful television show. That's no secret to most in the industry. Before Louis C.K. was making critics' mouths water like starving rottweilers, he was performing CPR on his dying HBO series Lucky Louie as it whirred over the heads of pundits all across this nation. And when someone as funny — as provenly funny — as John Mulaney can't do it, well, it must be hard.
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And lastly, Mulaney's death should teach us all a lesson in forgiveness. Because if you aren't rooting for John Mulaney to get another chance at his own show, you don't know comedy, you don't know television, and you don't know John Mulaney. Who among us ever gets something right the first time anyway?
But, for now, Mulaney fans can take comfort in the fact that the comic isn't moping around. He's back on the road doing what he does best: making us laugh. Or something like that.
"I want to take cooking classes," Mulaney says when asked about his future plans . "I don't know how to cook anything and I think it would be good to learn to cook something."
John Mulaney is performing at the Parker Playhouse, 707 Northeast 8th Street, Fort Lauderdale. Friday, May 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $26 to $32.50 plus fees. Call 954-462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.
Follow Ryan Pfeffer on Twitter.