Over the weekend, John Mulaney and Nasim Pedrad closed out the New York Television Festival by sitting down with Grantland’s Andy Greenwald for a Q&A and screening of their new FOX sitcom, Mulaney.
The sitcom had the weekend off — pre-empted Sunday night for Game 5 of the 2014 World Series — but has faced stiff competition from the fall season’s #1 overall TV program, Sunday Night Football on NBC, and the #1 scripted series among adults 18-49, The Walking Dead on AMC. Not to mention a love/hate relationship from TV critics, who love Mulaney as a stand-up comedian but don’t seem to care too much for his multi-cam throwback of a sitcom.
Just last week, FOX announced it had reduced the episode order for Mulaney’s first season from 16 episodes down to 13, just as Mulaney, Pedrad and the rest of the cast and crew were about to produce episode 14. Don’t call it a cancellation, though. As Mulaney himself answered the toughest question thrown at him Saturday night, it would have been weirder to debut with a 16-episode season. Thirteen is the standard normal order of episodes for new TV series, with full-season orders granting a “back-nine” order for a total of 22. Not 16.
“It’s not fun to read ‘Episodes Reduced’ because of the obvious association. But FOX has been fantastic about the show and really behind the show. And it was a scheduling decision that actually frees me up to promote the show and tour right now, and go back out on the road and do stand-up, which I’m very excited about. So there are a lot of benefits to it. Normally you make 13 and then you go off and promote the hell out of ’em.”
Roll the clip.
And for all of Mulaney’s hints and reminders of Seinfeld (and there are many), Mulaney prefers to compare his sitcom to another multi-cam comedy set in New York City and starring a stand-up comedian: The Cosby Show.
To wit: Nasim Pedrad’s Halloween musical number in a dead man’s apartment.
“He wanted it to be a fun, weird show with things that were less traditional,” Pedrad said.
“I wanted it to be a very elastic world,” Mulaney told Greenwald. “And The Cosby Show loomed really large in my head. The Cosby Show was both grounded in obviously, very real relationships because of the family and the kids and stuff. But the world that they had was very elastic. They could do an entire remodel of the house…There’s a whole episode where they remake the house into the real world, and all of them play characters in it, and we actually did an episode like that as an homage. In terms of musical numbers, I think they had one per episode. So I’ve always wanted to go back to that thing where you can have storylines, but you can have a point of view that is grounded in the real world and your opinion of something, then make it very elastic world where anything could happen. And it’s a real place where things can happen at an exaggerated pace, and you just don’t talk about it the next week.”
Mulaney also said he wanted his show to acknowledge some of the struggles and quirks of life as a stand-up comedian, without being too much about it, a la Seinfeld.
“There were just little things on my list,” he said. “Like in the pilot, Seaton Smith’s character Motif does a Hudson River cruise show. And that’s like a thing that you do when you’re starting out. You do these dinner boat cruises for like $400, and it’s a really big deal. And there are all these little degrading things that you have to do when you’re starting out in stand-up that I wanted to pepper in throughout the show. But I very quickly wanted to — you know these two characters are stand-ups. You know Martin Short’s character Lou used to be a stand-up and was in movies, and is now doing that thing of hosting a huge game show and taking the payday. But also, and I think because most of my stand-up material isn’t about show business that I do, that I wanted it to be just about their lives, as well. So I think from when I first started writing it, I scaled back how much I wanted to write just purely about stand-up comedy. And then there’s some episodes where we focus more heavily on it. But I wanted a range of stuff.”
Fellow stand-up comedian Pete Holmes shows up in the storyline for Episode 11, “In The Name of the Mother,” which screened at the NYTVF. Holmes plays a local Catholic priest, Father Trey, and offers some funny ad-libs.
“We were shooting that. And Pete did his line,” Mulaney recalled. “We did the first one and he just went, ‘I have alts.’ I was like, ‘I know you have alts.’ And then he took out a piece of paper…Pete Holmes, he shockingly had a lot to say.”
Greenwald wondered what Mulaney had learned about sitcom writing by the time he reached that 11th episode.
“You don’t need that much explanation of why people want to do things,” Mulaney answered. “When a character wants to do something, they just want to do it. And you don’t need to add endless pipe to why they want to do it. Well, particularly in this episode, because, it’s like, we all have parents. And we all have a mom. So the idea of why would you not want to disappoint your mom doesn’t need to be set up in some sort of long speech of, ‘My mom’s head will explode if she ever hears a lie, ergo, I have to do this.’ So it was more like after a pilot where you have to set up a lot of stuff. No. People, audiences know what’s going on and you don’t need to belabor the story over and over again.”
For Pedrad, it’s having more time to do more than one take, or extended scenes. Even if that means having much more than 22 minutes in the can to get down to 22 minutes.
“There’s so much they can do in editing. Sometimes we go into a show two or three minutes long, and I’m like, ‘How are you going to cut that down?'”
Mulaney: “Yeah, like nine minutes long, sometimes!”
Pedrad: “And they find a way to do that.”
As Mulaney told an audience member, he also found a way to tell exactly the stories he wanted to about his alter-ego “Mulaney” and his friends, regardless of the typical pitch process with the networks at NBC and FOX.
“Yeah. Here’s a pilot we already did it at NBC. I could make more like that if you wanted!” he jokingly described his pitch for FOX. “No. That thing of sometimes when developing a TV show, you pitch the pilot, and they go, ‘OK! But what happens in episode nine?’ And you make up something? You don’t know what’s going to happen in episode nine. I happened to be very lucky wherein I did this show exactly the way I wanted to do it, and I did the episodes I wanted to do, and the stories I wanted to tell that were pulled from things in my life. But I didn’t know how to do it until you do one. I didn’t know how to do stand-up until I did stand-up the first time. It’d be like saying I’m about to go onstage for the first time and saying, ‘Well, what’s your hour special in five years?’ You don’t know because you’ve haven’t seen what works and what feels right.”