Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pilot Season: Mulaney (Standup Comedy Makes Bad Sitcoms)

About six months ago, while scanning randomly through Netflix on a quest to watch something funny and enjoyable that I wouldn't have to think about too hard, I ran into John Mulaney's standup special, New in Town. I loved it. I laughed so hard I had a mild coughing attack (though not as hard as I laughed at Patton Oswald this one time that...I should not finish that story). It was great. When I put two and two together, I realized that this was the same John Mulaney whose show had just been picked up by FOX, and I was very happy.

I mean, super talented standup comedian, network sitcom, cast that included both Elliott Gould and Nasim Pedrad, what could go wrong?

Everything. Everything could go wrong. Mulaney, the show, is horrible and bad and just almost painfully cliched. Please do not watch it. We need its ratings to be low enough for a mercy killing so that John Mulaney can go back to doing standup before his reputation is permanently damaged. Just. It was so bad. So. Bad.

But this actually highlighted another problem, as I thought about it. Aside from Seinfeld, which is a solid show, if not quite as ridiculously amazing as people keep saying it was, I really can't think of any sitcoms based on a standup comedian that have worked. A few years ago we saw Whitney, which was painfully bad. Sure, Roseanne and King of Queens and Home Improvement were all based around a standup comedian, but when they wrote the show, they wrote it to be slightly different from said comedian's act. The comedians weren't playing themselves. In Mulaney, John Mulaney is playing himself. Same name, same personality, same character.

And, worst of all, exact same stories. For starters, the fictional John Mulaney, like the real John Mulaney, is a standup comedian. All of his friends and roommates are standup comedians. About half of the plot of the pilot episode comes directly from New in Town. And I don't just mean that he has some storylines based on jokes from that special, I mean that he literally recites the jokes from the special word for word. There aren't actual plotlines, it's just him doing standup comedy while pretending to have a real conversation with someone.

Which, as I hope you all have gathered, really doesn't work. It's not funny. While his story about that time he accidentally got his prostate checked is amazingly hilarious in the comedy special, it's dumb and gratuitous in a sitcom. In a sitcom, it's weird as hell, because there's no setup. It's not well written, it's just John Mulaney and another actor pretending to act out a story with Mulaney reciting the same jokes from the standup bit, out loud as though the doctor can't hear. 

It's so bad.

The "plot" of the pilot episode nominally followed rising standup comedian John Mulaney as he got his first big comedy job: writing jokes for aged and failing comedy legend, Lou (Martin Short). Lou is insulting and mean and horrible, and John quickly regrets getting a job working for him. It is unclear whether or not the job is paid, but it's not living up to his expectations of getting his work out there and improving his career.

To incentivize John to keep writing jokes and showing up for work (where he mostly has to sit around and listen to Lou talk about the good old days, which is pretty realistic and yes I have had that job), Lou promises to let John open for him at a charity walk to end breast cancer. Only when it comes to that day, all John gets to say is that Lou is canceling his appearance, sorry everyone, bye. John is very upset and miserable, until he gets a chance to talk to his aging hippie neighbor, Oscar (Elliott Gould), who tells him that he should wait long enough to see if there's something in it for him in this job.

And, of course, there is. While Lou is still a terrible horrible boss, he is going to use John's jokes in a piece he does on television, thus giving John some exposure and also money, and John decides that this is enough and he will stick it out. Yay, happy ending, the end.

The thing is, that's not a very good, interesting, or inventive plot. If the best you can do for your pilot episode is make twenty minutes about a guy sitting around talking, then that's not a good sign. Worse, all of the minor storylines are absolutely terrible and insulting.

Like, John's two best friends and roommates, Jane (Nasim Pedrad) and Motif (Seaton Smith) are just horrible stereotypes. Jane is a psychotic stalker obsessed with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. She spends the whole episode stalking him, burning his things, reading his emails because she knows his email password, and generally being an MRA's idea of how women work. Motif, meanwhile, is a fellow standup comedian, who makes jokes about being a "problem bitch", and generally is obsessed with promoting himself and selling merch and being a big sellout who talks about "bitches". Because he's black. Omg, so edgy.

But the biggest problem with the show remains how it doesn't feel like a show. It doesn't feel like there's any story here or any interesting point of view on the world. It just feels like some studio executive watched New in Town, and decided, "Yes, I would like to see the prostate scene acted out for me. And maybe a couple of others." But the actual good material in there, the really interesting stuff John Mulaney talks about in his standup, the stuff that really has the potential to be compelling artistically and comedically, gets ignored. Because it actually is edgy.

The best part of New in Town isn't the prostate joke, nor is it his joke about finding an abandoned wheelchair, or even his bit about growing up with two lawyers for parents. It's when he talks about being an alcoholic, and all the weird crap he got up to. It's funny because the stuff he did really was ridiculous, but it's also a little bit deeper. We're hearing a man talk about a time in his life when he did things he is genuinely ashamed of now. 

John Mulaney is a recovering alcoholic. He talks about going to parties with people his age (late twenties, early thirties) and how no one knows what to offer him to drink. He talks about the stuff he doesn't actually remember doing but heard about later. He talks about how awkward it is to be in his late twenties and have that kind of past, when he looks like the kind of person who just "sat in a room eating saltines" for twenty years.

Mulaney doesn't work because it has absolutely no emotional depth. It's all surface and laugh track. If it were to work, it would have to actually deal with stuff. Sitcoms don't avoid emotions, they delve into them. Good ones do, at least. I mean, the reason we all love the first few seasons of How I Met Your Mother isn't because they avoided emotional confrontations and realizing that the main character had some issues. They didn't. Those seasons are full of deep dramatic, genuinely moving things happening. Same thing with Friends. They work because they're rooted in the genuine flaws and problems of the characters.

So yeah. Save John Mulaney from this show. Or at the very least, let the show become a reflection of what's really worth hearing in his standup. Because I can watch a dozen specials about funny guys with interesting reflections about New York City. But there's only one John Mulaney who became an alcoholic at like fifteen and barely remembers high school. There's only one John Mulaney who can tell me about how hard it is to be a standup comic at bars and comedy clubs, making people laugh and drink and knowing he can't join in. That's emotionally affecting. And I guarantee that if the show figures out how to tap into some deep emotion, it'll actually manage to be funny.

But seriously, until that happens, don't watch this show. It's terrible.

Dear Nasim Pedrad: You deserve better. Love, me.


  1. as soon as I saw Nasim was on the show, I immediately wondered why it wasn't her show. I tried watching Mulaney's stand up on Netflix but it seemed to generic. Louis CK has just ruined me for all other comedians. Well first Dave Chappelle ruined me, and now Louis CK has ruined me even further.

    1. I love Nasim Pedrad, and I am super bummed that she's marooned on a terrible show like this. Maybe if we yell loud enough we can get her cast in that all-women Ghostbuster's remake and she can leave this thing?

      I loved Mulaney's standup, but I do really love the more inventive stuff, like Louis CK or Bo Burnham or Reginald D. Hunter. (Dave Chappelle is amazing.)

  2. Two of the best TV comedies ever, Seinfeld and Louie, came from giving a vehicle to stand-ups. Problem is, Mulaney seems to want to be Seinfeld and isn't interested in innovation. Louie, meanwhile, took the form and ran with it into the future about twenty years. In summary, go watch Louie.

    1. I'm not huge on Seinfeld, but I do agree it's seminal. As for Louie, I have trouble thinking of it as a sitcom, actually. It's more a comedy that happens to be about a half an hour long.