In an industry where people can get rich and famous for anything but merit, Mulaney’s success, even at the tender age of 25, is something upon which everyone can agree and can celebrate. Especially when we’re talking about a comedian who got his start onstage when he was 7. At 25, he brings a maturity that speaks beyond his years. So when we spoke on the phone, he naturally downplayed his youth.
"I’m 47 years old. Isn’t that hilarious? It makes so much more sense now," he tells me. "No, I’m 25. People have started younger than me. I sometimes have regretted starting late. Starting at 20, because I could have done it in high school…but I’m glad I got to do normal things when I was young."
Wait. Wait, wait, wait a second. 20? Didn’t you start comedy much younger than that? Right.
"I always liked hanging out with adults and getting them to like me. In that sketch group Rugrats I was in (when I was 7)…and I was Nixon for Halloween when I was 10, and that was just to make parents laugh. I’d try to be funny. But it’d be nonsensical. I’d just parrot things I heard adults say. Like, ‘You need a lawyer.’ I’d just say expressions."
Where did that onstage presence come from, though? You don’t sound like a young stand-up.
"I grew up with The Simpsons and Wayne’s World and everything else, but at the same time, I was listening to a lot of Jack Benny and Bob & Ray and Burns and Allen stuff. To me, I knew the comedy that existed, but at the same time, part of being an entertainer, to me, was those guys. I don’t know how I reconciled that in my mind. I watched Jack Benny, but I watched a lot of Desi Arnez, too. I watched a lot of I Love Lucy as a child," Mulaney said. "I don’t know why I’d be mature, but as far as cadence, and, I’ve listened to comedy my whole life and a lot of that was old-fashioned entertainers. My first thought about being an entertainer was being a bandleader. I’d be a Cuban bandleader. Like Desi Arnez."
When you arrived at Georgetown University, did you realize that you were attending a new hotbed for stand-up comedians (Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia and Nick Kroll are just a few of the other recent Hoyas to make a name for themselves in the comedy scene)?
"Not at all. I still really wanted to work in comedy. TV, film,
what-have-you. Still kind of amorphous stuff," Mulaney said. "But I
remember my first week at Georgetown, thinking I’ve done a lot of
theater stuff and comedy and thinking of comedy, I should really
develop some other interests! That first week, thinking, these four
years are going to be spent developing other interests. That same hour,
literally, I heard a knock on my door. And they said, ‘Did you hear
there are auditions for the improv group?’, and I went and I did it and
Nick Kroll was the director, I got it, and did nothing else."
How was the D.C. comedy scene then?
"There were a couple of open mics, and the D.C. Improv is a good
club. I only started doing stand-up the summer before my senior year,
so I didn’t get into the scene down there," he said.
So where did you start? "First place I ever did stand-up was the B3
in New York in the summer of 2003. The B3 had an open mic on Tuesdays
and it was hosted by Romy Rome, and Nick Kroll actually took me there,
and I watched him and the next week I signed up to do it," he said. "I
was interning at Comedy Central."
How was that start? "I liked it a lot. It felt very good. I had a
few ideas about what jokes I wanted to write, though. I think I tried
to be very weird the first few times I’d been on stage, though. I don’t
think I knew this stuff at the time, but it took me a while." Before
you became the mainstream comic you are now, you mean? "Law and Order,
drag queens and pirate’s chests. Now I really speak to what’s on
people’s minds," he jokes. "What happened was I took all my real jokes
and grounded them."
How much did the Comedy Central internship help you figure out how
to make it in comedy? "They had a manual and it had all the secrets to
comedy, and I stole it. I’m up to page 22."
Is that on your Wikipedia page?
"My Wikipedia page is going insane. It’s filled with new lies. It’s
crazy," he said. "I’ve never touched my Wikipedia page." How did it get
out of control like that? "The first time, I was on the phone with
someone with Time Out Chicago, and they said, ‘Were you born in
Dorchester, and grew up in an orphanage?’ They’re all (the Wikipedia
"facts") really weird and a lot of them are gay rumors, which is
interesting. Maybe I’ll allow everyone to post lies for three days, and
then lock it down, and that will be my official bio." But how will
people know when it’s done and officially unofficial? "Oh, no, I’ll
send out a MySpace bulletin: 72 hours of lying and I’ll lock it!
Because it doesn’t matter. It just truly doesn’t matter. Wikipedia
doesn’t matter. What matters is Ask Jeeves."
Ha. You know they got rid of Jeeves. "They did?"
But they haven’t gotten rid of VH1’s Best Week Ever, where
some people may know you best. Does that show make you pay more
attention to Law & Order, current events and other things on the
TV? "They have a lot of great producers who keep you informed of what
they’re going to talk about. I recognize more names and things because
we’ve talked about them on the show. I follow my fair share of pop
culture news…but I haven not been one hundy percent engaged with it."
Let’s get back to what’s real. One of your bits that really hits
audiences is the joke you and your friend played on a restaurant when
you were 11. How did you realize you could turn a childhood prank into
a stand-up routine? "It’s a funny story. I thought it was really
funny," he said. "I did it one night at Rififi, as just a tidbit, I
mentioned that we did this once, and people laughed a lot, and I
thought, wow, I’d forgotten how funny it was…I’d been on the road
with Mike Birbiglia, his stand-up is really funny threads running
through a lot of great stories. I think it was after seeing Paul F.
Tompkins at Bumpershoot. I had a lot of personal stories to tell. I
wanted to put hard jokes into it. I didn’t want to just tell a yarn."
"I think part of it, I’ve had this conversation with Pete Holmes,
the goal is to be as funny as we were at 13. So part of it is
remembering s@%$ that I did when I was 12 or 13."
A shorter, different version of this interview appears in print in today’s New York editions of the Metro John Mulaney co-headlines this weekend at Comix
in New York City, with John Oliver on Friday and Nick Kroll on
Saturday. Mulaney also will tape his first half-hour Comedy Central
Presents special on Aug. 29, and ticket information for that is
UPDATED! A bonus extra part of my interview with Mulaney has been discovered…in my notes (ahem). Anyhow. Read even more of our chat — focusing on TV writing — here.