Most late-night talk-show chats are not designed to be newsworthy. Guests agree to come on to promote their new or next gigs, and the hosts are just happy to have a continuous flow of new guests to promote said gigs and fill up airtime and make us laugh or help put us to bed. At least back when more of us watched late-night TV late at night.
All of this is to say that Stephen Colbert managed to have an actual conversation with John Mulaney in the middle of all of that regular hullabaloo on Wednesday night’s episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Mulaney had just told a great bit about how his wife realized that Mulaney puts on an act with his mother, and how, since he also puts on an act onstage as a comedian, maybe he’s also putting on an act around his wife?! He wraps a bow on this tidy tale with an observation about heaven and hell, and Colbert, who likes to talk about religion as well as politics and humor, decided to ask a serious question. As if it were a talk show. Or for you kids, a televised podcast.
Mulaney: “If there’s a hell, I think it’s an encyclopedia, and you can just look up what everyone in your life thought about you. And if there’s a heaven, it’s a Wikipedia, and you can just change that.”
Colbert: “That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful, and sad, at the same time.”
As the audience applauds, they both reach for a beverage. Colbert says he prefers a hot cup of coffee for each segment of the show to keep him alert. Mulaney jokes just water for him. “Just water fro me and tremendous anxiety, yeah.”
Colbert: “Do you have a lot of anxiety?”
Mulaney: “I do have a lot of anxiety.”
Colbert: “And that’s why you don’t want anyone to actually, ever truly know you.”
Mulaney: “Oooh. That’s a really good question.”
Colbert: “Thank you.”
Mulaney, realizing this is not a podcast but rather, broadcast network TV, asks for a moment to ponder his reply, and Colbert gladly gives it to him, milking the moment.
Mulaney: “From an early age, I tried to be funny for the adults. I mean, my mom said, ‘When you were a baby, you used to poke your head out of blankets.’ And she said, ‘It was like you knew how to be cute.’ She didn’t say it, like, flatteringly. She said, ‘It’s weird. It’s like you knew what you were doing.’ I think I feel I have to provide that in order for people to like me. Then, you know, like the idea of, would they like me just as me without poking out of the blanket, metaphorically, is a real thought or concern.”
Colbert: “Follow up question, Mr. Mulaney….At the crux of your answer is the need to be liked.”
Colbert: “Do you think you’ll ever get to a stage where you can be yourself because you don’t care whether they like you or not?”
Mulaney: “I don’t mean to turn it on you, but…”
Mulaney: “May I, how do you feel about that? Like, where are you at in your process in, or do you have a process in terms of being in the public eye, being very funny, and coming home and facing Stephen in the mirror? Those 4 a.m. moments, you know.”
Colbert: “I have gotten to a place where I don’t want a lot from the audience, other than to make them laugh. And to make a connection that my internal anxieties, as I express them externally through the joke, when it makes them laugh, I have the sense of camaraderie and community that I’m not crazy to feel this way, because they wouldn’t laugh unless they recognized it in somebody else.”
Colbert: “It might be an anxiety about life or death, or about what happened today in the news. And so there are a lot of people out there who I know don’t like me. Because of the sometimes-divisive nature of the jokes that I make. You know what I mean?”
Mulaney: “OK, right. That feels personal?”
Colbert: “No, what feels personal is the connection I make with the people who do appreciate the jokes. And beyond that, I’m just doing my job, and I wish no one harm. And if some people don’t like what I do, I don’t like that, but it’s not my problem.”
Mulaney: “Wow. That’s really great. That sounds like a great state to be in.”
Colbert: “It’s pretty good.”
Mulaney: “That’s very good, yeah. I think I am coming out of a phase where, do you know The Velvet Underground song, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’?”
Mulaney: “I think it’s a beautiful song. I realized listening to it, no one else can be your mirror. You just have to not go off what other people think of you to be what you are.”