Interview

John Mulaney, ‘Beta’ for Life

The stand-up comedian and ex-"Saturday Night Live" writer admits to being a pushover, a "beta," and shares his regrets over missed '90s joke opportunities.

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Photo Credit: Mindy Tucker

Comedian John Mulaney cut his teeth as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” where he co-created iconic characters like Stefon, the club kid/nightlife reporter on “Weekend Update.” After leaving “SNL,” John briefly had an eponymous sitcom on Fox. And all the while he’s done stand-up.

His latest comedy special is “The Comeback Kid.” In it, Mulaney shares anecdotes from his life and s observations on pop culture, including one very specific take on an HGTV show. When Brendan met with John, he asked him about the origins of that particular riff.

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John Mulaney: That was like months of watching that with my wife. I don’t really watch– I watch TV really passively and really… like, if I ever saw footage of me watching TV, I think I would start crying. I really watch TV like a true dummy. Like I’m not scanning it and trying to think of things. When I have observations about particular shows, it’s because I’ve been watching them for like nine years. So a couple of things start to occur to me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, on the special you joke about “Back to the Future” and other pop culture stuff so I assumed you were kind of a scholar and that you took a lot of pop culture in.

John Mulaney: I do take it in. I do take it in, I’ll completely take it in. I just don’t, in the moment, come up with the gags. I sort of notice things later. I notice things far too late. You know, like, I have new jokes about the O.J. trial right now, and it’s really bumming me out that I wasn’t an adult and a comedian in 1994. But there’s things I notice that I’m like, “Hey, can we talk about this?!?” And no one wants to talk about it.

Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Brendan Francis Newnam: So how did you get into comedy? You joke a lot about your traditional upbringing. Your mother was a law professor. Your father was a lawyer. What did they think about your getting into comedy for a living?

John Mulaney: My parents I think were savvy enough to know that if you tell a kid in the ’90s and 2000s not to do something, they’ll not only do it, but they’ll also be mad at you and you will come off poorly to everyone.

I talked to them later and they told me they basically thought it, they didn’t know if it would work out at all. They had no idea how it worked. They had no idea how to give any input, advice, or anything on being a stand-up comedian and like emceeing at Penguins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And so, they were basically, I think maybe had mentally decided to give me a year or two years.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you pretty quickly found gainful employment. You were a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”

John Mulaney: Well, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newman: How did that work? You were writing with some great people also outside “SNL” with Nick Kroll, doing other things. What if, if I’m sitting down with John Mulaney in a writer’s room, what do you bring? How do you think those guys describe your contribution to…?

John Mulaney: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I was a little all-purpose, I’d say. I think I was best when I was working with other people. And so I was kind of like good at, “Oh yeah, I like that and it should maybe have this.” I felt like I was a, like a short stop.

Brendan Francis Newman: You kind of punch things up and enhance them?

John Mulaney: Yeah. Or more just I could write jokes for different people’s sketches. I wrote my own sketches. Then Bill and I could sit down and we really overlapped in what we liked. So we would kind of write together in one voice.

Brendan Francis Newman: The “Bill” you’re referring to is Bill Hader, who worked on “SNL.” And you guys created the beloved “Weekend Update” nightlife correspondent, Stefon, right?

John Mulaney: Right, right. We wrote that together.

Brendan Francis Newman: Stefon was a club kid who would give suggestions about what people should do in the evenings and his riffs were filled with pop culture references. What did the idea board for that segment look like? It must have been crazy.

John Mulaney: The rule was things we had seen once. You know, that way it wasn’t complete pretend, but also it wasn’t that identifiable. So it was just– we just kind of wanted that thing of like, “Hmmm. A cleaning woman that looks like Smokey Robinson.” We wanted people to go, “I think I know what that is.”

Brendan Francis Newman: Rest in peace, Stefon. So it sounds like you worked collaboratively. Which isn’t super surprising since you often talk about you’re not really this alpha male.

John Mulaney: No. No. True beta. True beta.

Brendan Francis Newman: And so being a beta, being kind of looking young, did that work for you in show business? Like when you were coming up? Do you think it’s helped you to kind of appear guileless or?

John Mulaney: No [laughs]. Being an alpha would be helpful in certain situations. Standing up for yourself would be good in certain situations.

You know, I was thinking about this today. Just, if I’m on a phone call, I’ll agree to anything… So, I was saying, I don’t think I can talk to people on the phone anymore and then I thought, “Well that’s how you become crazy!” You know? That’s probably, like, step one in how you become Michael Jackson, is you’re like, “I can’t speak to anyone cause I don’t trust myself.” But I am a real… I’m such a pushover. It frustrates me.

Brendan Francis Newman: Note to the listeners. That’s how we got John on. He doesn’t even know where he is right now. We just called him up. We were like, “John Mulaney, please show up!”

John Mulaney: I actually don’t know where I am, but I am happy to be here.