John Mulaney is one of the best stand-ups working today. If you look up any of his sets or specials, what you’ll find is carefully crafted bits with precision delivery. Along with Bill Hader, he also created and co-wrote the character Stefon, one of SNL’s best recent bits. He knows what he’s doing and he does it very well.
Which is why it’s not only sad but confusing for me to say that his new sitcom, Mulaney, is simply not good. Like, at all.
The premise of the show finds Mulaney playing a version of himself, a struggling comedian with comedian friends who is looking for a break. He finds this break in a job opportunity with Lou Cannon, played by Martin Short, a vague TV personality. Cannon hosts a game show but has also done a one-man show, and is apparently a known comedian? There are some comedians who have done game shows, but they don’t usually “tell jokes” so much as ad lib off of contestant comments. Maybe more will be explained in further episodes, but his role in entertainment is pretty cloudy to me unless I’m just supposed to accept “it’s Martin Short.”
The job itself brings with it fitting compromises and struggles – the kind of things a pilot episode needs to establish – but also offers Mulaney’s character advancement. With Mulaney playing a comedian surrounded by other zany characters, like Motif (his goofy fellow-comedian and roommate), Jane (his intense other fellow-comedian and roommate – ?), Oscar (his gay neighbor), and Andre, his drug dealer (?), in addition to Short’s Cannon, what is set up is essentially Seinfeld via The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Unfortunately, not only does the show appear to be inspired by those premises, it draws liberally from Seinfeld as though it were some obscure piece of pop culture instead of being the mega-success it was. In this pilot alone, we get Mulaney addressing a stand-up audience at the opening of the show as well as partway through, all with his name blazing across the screen very similarly to the opening credits of Seinfeld. His two roommates, though they may develop differently, appear to be pretty paint-by-numbers “girl” and “best friend” à la Elaine and George, while Oscar serves as the whacky next door Kramer, er, neighbor. And in possibly the most blatant and lazy introduction, Andre is the character everyone loathes but who hangs around anyway. I half-expected Mulaney to throw out a “Hello, Newman,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens eventually in a meta “joke.”
But you might be saying, “Well, formulas exist.” And you’d be right. Many shows have drawn inspiration from the likes of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Cheers, All In the Family, etc. It’s only logical that Seinfeld would eventually show up on that list. The problem as I see it, though, is that the show doesn’t just have roots in those other shows, it has an entire grove. I don’t see the show making an effort to set itself apart from any other sitcom, which is surprising considering the talents of the cast, especially Mulaney. When you think of all the great sitcoms that have challenged the medium in the last decade-plus, from Arrested Development to The Office to Parks & Rec to 30 Rock to It’s Always Sunny among others, it’s pretty disheartening to see a show say, “Let’s spin the clock back twenty or thirty years.”
While it is possible Mulaney simply hasn’t “found its voice yet,” I think it’s much more possible that its voice is just really bad. “Borrowing” aside, the jokes as written bounce between rewoven Mulaney stand-up bits and boiler-plate sitcom jokes. The Mulaney bits are of course better and smarter, and are often amazing when performed in his sets, but here they feel shoehorned and odd. I think part of it is Mulaney can’t perform them with his great delivery because he’s forced to affect a sitcom smirk. The other “sitcom jokes” are about what you would expect, with little of the wit we’ve seen in those great recent examples above. Some are just flat-out bland or bad, but the audience apparently doesn’t know the difference.
Which brings me to the unfortunate business of addressing the laugh track. This. Is. Abysmal. For one thing, while I and many others grew up with laugh track shows, I think we can agree that the best shows of the last 10-15 years are those which lacked it. It’s an outdated device, one born out of an uncomfortable “groupthink” mentality and one which is insulting to the audience of any show. I’m very disappointed to see Mulaney’s show using it, but the sadder fact is this is exactly the kind of show that deserves a laugh track: it’s generally bland and easy.
While I’m sure the show was filmed live and therefore the laughs aren’t canned, anyone in the know knows stage audiences are encouraged to yuck it up as much as possible like trained seals (many are paid), and when that’s not good enough, bigger laughs are added to the track to “sweeten” it. In Mulaney’s pilot, so many small or flat jokes got huge laughs and it was very noticeable that it was not natural.
Though it’s certainly possible the show could improve in later episodes, as I said, I think the show does have an identity and that is of a late-’80s/early-’90s safe sitcom. Much of what I saw indicated this direction, and my guess is FOX wants to get some of that easy Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory money.
John Mulaney can do better. He has done better. And I want him to do better.