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John Mulaney on the power of parody, and what really goes on behind the scenes at SNL

John Mulaney on the power of parody, and what really goes on behind the scenes at SNL

Austin Photo Set: News_sam_john mulaney_may 2012_headshot
John Mulaney
Austin Photo Set: News_moontower comedy_john mulaney_april 2012_1
Mulaney at Moontower Comedy Club Photo by Jon Shapley
Austin Photo Set: News_sam_john mulaney_may 2012_headshot
Austin Photo Set: News_moontower comedy_john mulaney_april 2012_1

If a function of comedy is to highlight the shared experience of everyday, mundane absurdities, John Mulaney is a master.

Onstage he’s full of magnetic energy, delivering perfectly crafted punchlines and occasionally slipping into a well-practiced Ice-T impression; whether he’s analyzing character tropes on Law and Order: SVU or exploring the unsettling dichotomy of nearing 30 while still feeling like a little kid, he’s got a way of making the audience feel like they’re part of something, a silent call-and-response where every joke’s met with a relieved “I know exactly what you mean.” He’s known for questioning the definition of “adulthood” while finding humor in his childish frustrations and world-weary old-mannerisms alike, with a playful self awareness that never feels forced.

While he often mocks his own incompetence, Mulaney’s managed to accomplish an astonishing amount of work in a relatively short time; in his four years on the Saturday Night Live writing staff, he’s also released an album and an episode of Comedy Central Presents, and his latest special, New In Town, received near-unanimous critical acclaim. He balances writing and touring with incredible ease, scripting a “Stefon” scene one week and headlining a festival the next, never once dropping the wide grin and affable demeanor he’s known for onstage.

We were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Mulaney during his recent trip to the Moontower Comedy fest, and while we camped out at the Driskill bar (in search of the historic hotel’s rumored ghostly guests), we talked about the writer’s room, balancing stand-up and sketch, the Internet’s impact on topical humor and more.

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You’re able to tour on off weeks at SNL; how do you manage switching back and forth between such intense and different schedules?

We do like three shows in a row then we take two weeks off, which has been great for going on the road. You know, you’re tired after weeks of the show but it’s a nice break if you’re able to do stand up and travel.

Both are tiring in different ways; SNL, you’re just inside all day in the office, up all night Tuesday night, up very late Thursday and Friday, and Monday, and then travelling is it’s own type of tiring — but at least you get out and you are aware of what hour of the day it is and stuff.

You probably get to sleep more, too.

It’s more restful to take 6 a.m. flights and take naps during the day than to be underslept at SNL, when you kind of have to keep going all the time. But both are really fun! I don’t mean to make them sound so tiring.

 

The only real point of reference I have for the way SNL’s schedule runs comes from James Franco’s documentary on the show.

I’ve never seen that. He had just hosted, he hosted the second show I ever did in 2008, and it felt like a few weeks later he was back to do that, because it was still before Christmas. It seemed cool, he got to film everything, but I never saw it.

It’s a really great primer on the way the writer’s room works; it’s always seemed like a secretive, ‘behind-closed-doors’ kind of thing.

I feel like sometimes it’s written about sort of generally, like [how] we write the show Monday and Tuesday, we rehearse Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday’s our read-through…

People still ask me, you know, do you guys get to meet the host? And it’s like, oh yeah, yes — it’s everyone in one trench for six days, so you’re working so bizarrely intimately with the hosts and people like that, like if the musical guest is in something you’re doing. I should see the Franco thing, I’m sure it gives good ways to phrase things.

 "When people go it’s sad and it changes it, but that happens. And people do long runs — you look back and you go, wow, that person accomplished an amazing amount of sketches and work here."

How involved does a writer get with the production of their material?

Oh, you produce it: The writer works with the costume department, the writer works with the set department, the writer works with special effects, lighting, sound. Our director, Don Roy King, we work with him. You’re down on the floor trying to figure out the entrances, and once you see something shot on the stage with cameras, it’s like: “Ok, Bill walks in… well, that means we have to cut away from what they’re doing, maybe Bill should just be in the room…”

You kind of have to reconfigure everything once you see it shot, so you’re involved from the time you write it until it goes on the air Saturday. We check cue cards by hand. You’re very responsible for what ends up in dress or on air.

Do you have a team of writers you tend to work with?

Yeah, a writer named Marika Sawyer, she and I write a lot of stuff together. I write with Seth Meyers a lot, and I write with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen a lot; we all kind of cross-pollinate and work with each other, but those are some of the people I probably write with every week. And a guy named Simon Rich, who left the show this past year, he and I and Marika wrote a few thing together every week, so we were really like a little team for awhile there. He’s now working at Pixar and doing really well, but we miss him.

One thing I really appreciate is how you, and Seth, will Tweet writing credits for specific sketches; I wouldn’t have known Kumail Nanjiani was co-writer on the Game of Thrones sketch, for example.

Yes, he was a guest writer that week.

It aired right after he went on Pete Holmes’ podcast at SXSW and mentioned he had auditioned for the show, but he was real secretive about his involvement…

He was like, something good came of it but I can’t say what, and Pete’s like, what does that mean!? It’s so funny that Pete asked that, it’s like the most awkward question — Pete and I talk about this all the time, how it feels crazy to talk about things before they happen, and only with close friends can you be like, “I think I might get offered this thing…” So it’s really funny he asked in front of a crowd.

There are lots of rumors about people coming and going after the end of this season; there hasn’t really been a big change in cast since you’ve started though, right?

No, I’ve been there pretty steady; Amy and Forte, and then Jenny and Michaela and Paul Brittain, who are all hilarious. When people go it’s sad and it changes it, but that happens. And people do long runs — you look back and you go, wow, that person accomplished an amazing amount of sketches and work here. I have had a pretty steady class since I’ve been in there though, since 2008.

Is it the same for the writing staff?

It’s been a lot of the same folks, it’s been a nice core group since I joined. And you know, a lot of people have been there much longer than me, lot of people I’ve worked with were people who had already been there one season — they’re around my age but they had been there one year [when I started]. But it has been a core group since 2007, 2008, so that’s really fun.

How did you get involved with the show?

I auditioned for the show — they’d seen me do stand up around New York for a couple years. I did monologues at ASSSSCAT a few times, and I got to know Seth and Amy, because they were doing ASSSSCAT a lot at the UCB Theater. So I would do monologues and I think, you know I’m not positive, but people over there had seen me, and Seth recommended I might be a funny person to audition. They had seen some Conans I’d done, the old Conans.

 "I auditioned and I kind of thought, 'Ok, I’m not a perfect fit as a cast member, but I just want to be really funny.' And I think I had a funny audition. It certainly felt scary as hell, but pretty good after."

So I auditioned in the summer of 2008. I auditioned the same afternoon as Bobby Moynihan, and a lot of other people who have gone on to do really cool stuff — me, Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan — and they knew I’d written for other TV shows, so I auditioned and I kind of thought, “Ok, I’m not a perfect fit as a cast member, but I just want to be really funny.” And I think I had a funny audition. It certainly felt scary as hell, but pretty good after, you know? I thought, “I feel good about what I did.”

And Seth called a couple days later and said, “You know, we don’t have an opening for you on the cast, but would you want to write for the show?” And I was like, absolutely, that would be equally…I honestly say this, equally incredible. The sort of pedigree of who’s written for the show as well, both are pretty extremely cool. So that was in August of ‘08 and I jumped into the whirlwind of the 2008 election season, so my first couple months were insane and really, really fun.

Does writing during elections and for Update force you to do more research on current events?

Yes, you need to stay on top of it, but I always feel like we need to cover the stories that most everyone’s heard about, so that means the stuff I just would have heard about no matter what. You know, those types of news stories where, even if you’re not paying attention… I’d say I’m USA Today informed. I’m aware of major trends and major stories. And then very niche stories that people are like, “That’s not a big story, John.” Like Stephen Hawking going to strip clubs, that’s not a big story.

It seems like it’s been a slow-moving election year — do you feel that on the show?

It’s how a lot of primaries are. There have been a lot of really interesting characters; Cain and Santorum and, even though Romney’s thing is that there’s nothing there, that’s his essence, you know? It’s just a question of how invested the audience is in those people, and you can tell that by how much they laugh at references and jokes to them. I don’t know what to compare it to, I guess I’ve never been there for a primary season where you just have debates with like, 12 people, and some of them are just representatives who managed to get 30,000 signatures, and some of them could be the next presidential candidate.

It’s funny because you want to cover the crazies the most, they’re the funniest, but at the same time you know the real news is the other candidates. So there’s been a lot [of people] there… and then they all disappeared.

It must be hard trying to work on characters knowing that they could be out of the news cycle the next week.

We did this thing on the Josh Brolin show, which was all of them in a bar singing “Good Riddance,” that Green Day song; thinking about it when we were working on it, each of these people was at one point the frontrunner — each of them had that moment where they were on the cover of Newsweek and people are going, “Things are changing!”

I mean, Rick Perry… I was down here last July at Cap City, and I remember hearing on the radio then, people were saying, “Our governor’s going to make a run for it!” And he entered the race and shot ahead and just burned out so quickly. But anyway, working on that sketch it was like, oh wow, these people were at one time, for at least two weeks, the national discussion, It could be them.

And then there are topics like Trayvon Martin; when that sketch first aired I almost held my breath, because it easily could have gone either way, but it was handled so well on the show.

Colin Jost wrote that, he’s a really funny stand-up comedian as well, he’s been on Fallon and stuff. It was a good way to get into how low-rent Piers Morgan’s show is; we had seen Steven Seagal on Piers Morgan talking about Trayvon Martin, and it was like, everyone but the informed people are commenting on Trayvon Martin. I’m not saying that’s all that other people can do, shoot a short response, it’s more like we get to ruminate, we do impressions, we get to do the Piers Morgan show, and I still think that doing that type of bigger parody is a lot of fun.

You also write a lot of classic TV show parodies, like the recent Obama Show sketch; did you grow up obsessed with sitcoms?

The Obama-Cosby Show, Seth and I wrote that together. I was a very much raised on TV, and not even just good sitcoms, like The Cosby Show; I probably spent more time watching crap, bad sitcoms from the late 80s and early 90s. Like, I didn’t watch Twin Peaks, I watched Just The 10 Of Us. I wasn’t even aware of the best TV of that era, I was just watched whatever half-hour comedies were on. So yeah, I have a lot of files in my head from that stuff.

Do you have an interest in writing more narrative shows?

Sure, that would be a lot of fun. I love that form. You know when people say the sitcom, the multi camera sitcom is dead, because it’s all going to be single-camera? Those single-camera shows are awesome, but I was raised on a steady diet of multi-camera shows with a live audience, and I still think you can make really funny shows with that format, I’m sure you can. It would be a great thing to do.

It’s great to see SNL writers starting to release side projects, like the I Wanna Have Your Baby web series; is it difficult to sort of compartmentalize things during the regular season?

I did an hour special for Comedy Central, so I’ve always been working on those things. I’ve written some movies, and that process takes a long time, so I actually haven’t worked on as many side projects that are shorts and things like that. I’ve sort of been trying to devote as much time to doing stand-up outside the show as I can, and other things I’ve worked on never see the light of day. But I’m really psyched, like with[Christine] Nangle [with I Wanna Have Your Baby] and Mike O’Brien with Seven Minutes in Heaven, that people can shoot stuff at work or with Broadway Video — it’s been a great way to have more stuff coming from our writers, because they’re so funny.

This season saw the introduction of several writers with extensive web video experience — Sarah Schneider from CollegeHumor, Chris Kelly from The Onion and Funny or Die…

Yeah, I’ve known Sarah for a long time, through my friends at CollegeHumor, she’d been a friend of mine and I asked if she wanted to come do a guest writing week — she came last season and did two shows that turned into five shows. What’s great is that people coming from the Internet understand the best length for comedy, and what attention spans are, so she had a really cool pedigree, as did Chris Kelly, who did some of my favorite stuff at ONN. Like the five–year-old that wrote Fast Five — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, they talk to the screenwriter of Fast Five and it’s a five-year-old kid. Having made a lot of stuff, you see that people have sharper instincts, and Sarah and Chris are great.

Is the growth of web comedy changing the way people are getting hired?

Well, it obviously is, thoughout. And I think it’s in a good way — it’s not a fad, it’s not us being like, “People like the internet!” It’s the best way to see someone’s sensibilities sometimes. There are people that we see from their Tumblrs, from Twitter, from short videos they’ve made, but even from Tumblr and Twitter you get a sense of what this person’s sensibility is. And that’s what most shows are looking for — really funny people.

 "What’s great is that people coming from the Internet understand the best length for comedy, and what attention spans are."

There are a lot of people who have a background in pure sketch and so their submission might be more traditional, but you’re not looking for someone who’s the best at writing a five-page, formatted sketch; you’re looking for people who can bring the most interesting point of view. It’s great that you can see people’s work online now, it’s so much more entertaining to see submissions that way and it gives you such a better idea of what hey do. Reading submissions, funny things still jump off the page, but it’s really cool that people have that outlet now that shows can see if they want to keep moving in that direction.

Since SNL covers timely, topical material, is the immediacy of the Internet sort of competition now? Like, within five minutes of a story breaking, it’s already been covered by a thousand comics on Twitter.

We still have this thing that makes me love the place so much, which is that like, there’s a lot of immediate response to news, or commentary on news, but we can sort of take it and extrapolate to the sketch world; we get to mount a whole piece that we can take that as a jumping-off point for a funny premise and do a larger sketch on it — a big, show business-y sketch, which I really enjoy.

There are tons of comedies produced every day online about what’s happening, but it is great to try to think, “Well, what is a great three or four minute fully realized piece to do about it?” And that’s still a fun thing we get to do. We’re on only four days later, so it can still feel very in the moment.

What are some sketches you love that have never made it to the air?

Well, some of them I’m going to keep trying to get on the air, so I don’t want to spoil them.

Does persistence pay off with that?

You can sometimes get something on the list for the air show, and you think it’s about to air on TV, then we run out of time and we have to cut stuff; people will be getting in costume at 12:45 and then you go up to them and you go, “Sleepover is cut,” and it’s like, “Oh, ok,” and then tthey change and the show’s over. That happens a lot, we have lots of material that gets cut for various reasons that people resubmit and redo.

And there’s plenty of things that have gone to the table on a Wednesday and don’t get picked for whatever reason, and we try them later with a different host, a different year. I had something I wrote last year that didn’t make it past Wednesday that Fred and I then wrote again, rewrote and submitted this year, and it got picked and it was in dress and got cut after dress. But you can keep trying ideas, you just need to rewrite it and figure it out a different approach.

 "Even now, my fourth year there, on Monday and Tuesday I have a real feeling of dread, of just like, 'I’m screwed, I have no ideas.'"

There’s a character Bill and I wrote who was a guy — this is going to sound so unfunny now — he kind of looks like Sam Elliott, and he’s a guy who’s pretending to be a student on a college campus to sell kids on going to Santa Fe for spring break, but he’s clearly an older guy and he keeps going [hushed whisper] “Santa Fe.” He’s just trying to sell kids on how great the turquoise and the silver is.

When you come up with a premise, is there a way you decide whether it’ll work better as a sketch or a stand-up bit?

One thing is topicality — we do a show every week and, in stand-up, I’m sort of compiling a lot of material that at the end of the year I’d like to do a special with. So if I have a take on something, or an opinion on something that is very of the moment, it naturally lends itself to a sketch more. But also, you know, a lot of my stand-up is not like crazy personal or anything, but it does come from my own particular life and stories that I tell, and so things will occur to me that just seem like, “Oh yes that’s something that I would stay onstage.” Or things will occur to me that I go, “Oh, that’s an observation that would be best served by a sketch. “ I don’t often have to think what do I want to do with that idea, it always immediately makes sense to me.

And at the show, I’m in that mode; I definitely think of sketch ideas when I’m not at the show, but it’s kind of two different modes, it’s a slight shift. Some things would be so much more fun to see them staged with a set, with costumes, with people doing impersonations, with people acting out the whole scenario.

Real talk: If I had your job, I’d be paralyzed with fear of writer’s block. But with the show’s demanding pace, are you even allowed to stop and think long enough to panic?

Even now, my fourth year there, on Monday and Tuesday I have a real feeling of dread, of just like, “I’m screwed, I have no ideas.” And it’s not accurate — I do have ideas, I am working on things, but I do feel every Tuesday night like, this is going to be the week I just turn in three pieces of garbage and everyone tells me to get lost. That’s self-imposed, that’s not the vibe at the show, that’s my own self-imposed mania.

But we have a good amount of writers, and the reason there’s a good-sized group is that some of us are going to have weeks when we have nothing in — and those weeks are good, because you need to not kill yourself every week — but, you know, you want stuff in not out of competition, but because it’s really fun to see your sketches mounted. But if some people don’t have a great piece that week others do, so it always is balanced out.

"When I watch improv shows I wish there was a way to do stand-up and writing and everything else, but there’s not enough hours in the day."

This is random, but, when you were on the podcast Making it with Riki Lindhome, you mentioned doing the Artist’s Way workbook…

 I like that stuff. I like assignments a lot, I just find it helps me get over myself; you know, “I need to write 10 jokes about this!” I just enjoy that.

Is that how writing for Update tends to be?

Sometimes, or just in general, working at the table we’ll ask, “What would be a good way to tackle this?” And you can toss ideas around, it’s nice and narrow.

Changing topics — I knew we’d be talking, and asked some friends if they had any questions; one I got was, “Where did you come up with your character, George St. Geegland, in the ‘Oh, Hello Boys’ sketches you do with Nick Kroll?”

Oddly, a little bit is my nana, even though she’s an Irish Catholic grandmother in Marblehead, Massachusetts. (My whole family’s from Marblehead, Salem, Lynn, I grew up in Chicago though, my dads from Chicago.) Kind of her. Kroll and I wanted to do characters from Hannah and her Sisters, like Upper West Side types, small men in  a comfortable, 65-year-old, world of, like, crappy bagel coffee and stuff.

We once saw these two guys at bookstore — Alan Alda had a memoir that came out in like, 2003, and they were buying copies of his memoir — buying separate copies — and they wore turtlenecks and sports coats, they were like professors but you could tell they’re not professors. That’s kind of what it is, they look like professors but they’re not. So it’s a variety of people, a little Martin Landau, a little George Plimpton-y, sort of, in the look. But a lot of the mannerisms, I’m not sure; I know some of my nana is in there for some reason. She just has a lot of anecdotes that she tells, sort of like exasperated stories.

The short answer is: Martin Landau, George Plimpton and my nana in Boston.

Like, that old person confidence where they just don’t give a shit.

Exacly. Like, “I’m going to tell story that might have a slight racist word in it, but I don’t care.” My grandmother doesn’t tell racist stories, I don’t mean that, just the confidence of, “I’m going to be as weird as I want to be.”

Did you ever do improv?

I did improv for four years in college. I was in the improv group there, from my freshman to senior year, then I moved to New York and took classes at UCB for a couple levels. I interned at UCB, so I would mop up the bathrooms and stuff and that paid for class, so that was a good situation, but then I was going on the road some, and I was missing classes, and you know, when you take an improv class you miss a couple and you’ve missed like a quarter of it. So I stopped. I miss it though; I’ve piggybacked with some groups at UCB over the past few years, and it’s fun. And when I watch improv shows I wish there was a way to do stand-up and writing and everything else, but there’s not enough hours in the day.

Your latest special, New In Town, is so great — I especially love the sitcom-style intro.

Thanks, a really funny guy named Jake Szymanski from Funny or Die shot that, and Reggie Watts did the music. It’s much longer than what aired, we shot all day and had a lot of funny setups and stuff, but it ended up, with broadcast time, it could only be like 20 or 30 seconds. There’s a director’s cut on the DVD, though.

What do you have coming up next?

I’m building the next hour, but you know, [this season has] been a lot of work, so I’ve been doing that and building the next special. I’m really excited to do another one. After doing one from start to finish, with an intro and figuring out the arc of the whole hour, it’s fun to think about another now, with those lessons learned.

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You can catch host Will Ferrell and musical guest Usher SNL tonight; the season finale, hosted by Mick Jagger, airs May 19 on NBC. You can see more from Mulaney at his website, on Twitter or in his special, New In Town.