From January 30 through February 3, John Mulaney returns to his hometown to take over the Chicago Theatre for a string of shows featuring material from his forthcoming special, Kid Gorgeous. The self-proclaimed “tall child” and former Saturday Night Live writer has released three albums of upbeat observational comedy (The Top Part, New in Town, and The Comeback Kid). He starred in the short-lived 2014 sitcom Mulaney, which was vaguely reminiscent of Seinfeld but ultimately felt to critics and fans alike as an inadequate platform for Mulaney’s humor. A year ago he wrapped a five-month Broadway run of Oh, Hello, in which he and Nick Kroll played nebbish, finicky Upper West Siders. By phone from his home in New York City prior to his arrival in Chicago, Mulaney spoke about his comedic influences, which include a lot of local references and a surprising amount of vitriol and misery.
Richard M. Daley
We had brownouts during the summer and he’d come out full red-faced, screaming at ComEd. That’s what I thought a mayor was, a guy with sleeves rolled up, superpissed, very little filter. I remember when the Bulls were about to repeat [in 1992]. They were going to win in Chicago. And I swear to God, I saw a press conference where Daley said, “If you’re celebrating, don’t fire guns into the air. Because those bullets, they come right back down.” And I really liked that we had to be told not to do that. You probably shouldn’t discharge your weapon at any event.
People on the street in Chicago
There was a guy who used yell this one joke over and over again, which was, “What’s Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Ba-na-na-na!”
The way they would talk. It was a lot of, [happy-go-lucky voice] “How ya doin’ guys? What do you got goin’ on here? Oh nothin’, huh? Nothin’? Nothin’ in the backpack? So we should just go because there’s nothin’ in the backpack?” It was this sarcastic, facetious little stage play. Like, “Oh, just hangin out, OK. Yeah, well you know, you’re not supposed to be in this park. So what do we do now?” That type of hilarious, condescending voice makes me laugh a lot.
I liked all of his vocabulary and language. He was such a great orator and would say [about rivals], “He’s a racist from head to toe and hip to hip.” He spoke with such flowery language.
An hour-long interview is, to me, the greatest. He would do shows where he would just interview an audience member. Now I think if you did that, most of the audience would be savvy. I like watching how things spill out of people.
The strictness of Saint Ignatius College Prep
I enjoyed the older, crotchety teachers. There was a geometry teacher who had a gravelly voice. If you asked to open the window, you’d get “JUG,” which was detention and stood for “justice under God.” He was so grumpy. There was a funny, low-level cruelty in giving out detentions.
Being yelled at
I’ve always enjoyed being yelled at. It’s so funny! Just the idea of being 14 and having your shirt untucked and bringing a grown man to red-in-the-face screams because your shirt is untucked. It says so much more about him and what he’s going through.
The comics in the scene when he entered stand-up
When you first start, you sound like a lot of your contemporaries just out of sheer survival or mimicry. Mike Birbiglia, Dave Attell. [Laughs] There’s a few I can’t name anymore, I guess. Then there are people like Paul F. Tompkins that I would listen to and go, “That is how I would like to do stand-up comedy.”
Power and pacing. Like, literally pacing the stage. I kinda wanted to do Spalding Gray plus Earthquake.
Shatner’s Raw Nerve
My friend Joe Mande, the great comedian, turned me on to it. William Shatner would talk to other men in crisis—occasionally a female guest, but mostly men his age. They sat on this S-shaped conjoined love-seat thing. I remember them interviewing Jon Voight and gradually breaking him down until he admitted that when he came home, there was no one there to meet him.
He has a collection of short stories called Forty Stories. There’s one called “The Flight of the Pigeons From the Palace,” and if you could, please credit the wonderful comic Jacqueline Novak for telling me about this story many years ago. Early in college she was like, “You should read this.” It’s this guy describing an attraction he began in the empty palazzo, and it’s just him naming everything in the exhibit. All the things are totally abstract, anthropomorphic things like, “We auditioned a volcano.” It’s a weird non sequitur list thing of semianimate things. I can’t really describe it except that if you read it I think you would think that I was indeed impressed by it. Not to be a guy who’s like, “You know who’s a great influence? It’s this writer you’ve never heard of.” But this story is genuinely hilarious.
Andy Rooney being interviewed by Larry King
They were talking about the Elizabeth Smart case. He starts off going, “What do you think of all these kidnappings, Andy?” Andy says, “What do you mean?” “Aren’t there more kidnappings than there used to be?” “No, there were always kidnappings.” So that’s how it starts. Later in the conversation, [King] goes, “Are you a Catholic?” And Andy says, “I won’t answer that on the ground that it could incriminate myself.”
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions
These really scratch an itch for me. They’re such train wrecks every time. I’m obsessed with falling-outs between people, so I love watching bands that don’t like each other accept an award gracelessly. No grace. So many people come with a bad attitude. I remember when Blondie was inducted, there was an argument onstage. I also love aging heavy-metal or aging punk or postpunk people having to put on reading glasses in order to read a speech. Steven Van Zandt comes out in that pirate thing and then he has to put on these little cheaters from Walgreens. I love the used-to-do-drugs cadence that Joe Walsh has—it’s like a slight lisp. It sounds almost California-ish. And these are the people that haven’t done drugs in years but still kind of have a heroin voice.
I love lack of polish. People are getting too good at being on television. Look at the amount of people on HGTV who are not professional broadcasters. They’re totally comfortable speaking into camera, they know how to mimic a rhythm they hear in commercials or elsewhere. And then these fairly legendary bands that have performed in front of many crowds get up there, and it’s just—they don’t know how to “cheat out” and face the audience. They mumble. It’s just great. I look forward to it every year.
It’s very rare you hear people openly criticize people by name. It’s such a fundamental inability to be diplomatic at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Most people in mainstream or even semi-independent entertainment are pretty diplomatic. These people get up there and are like, “I want to thank Seymour Stein for never signing us!” I, like many people, wish I could be superpetty.
Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra films
He was so angry. I don’t know why he’s remembered as a happy character. He’s so quick to scream at people and turns violent in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s the angriest person with the least amount of control. I like a seemingly straitlaced guy that then screams very much.
I watch a lot of sad things, like the Robert Kennedy eulogy given by Ted Kennedy. I watch the Jim Henson memorial service a lot. I watch a lot of Lou Reed interviews. I just love Lou Reed. I don’t know why I was so drawn to him and the Velvet Underground.
His stilted, flat, literal weirdness. When I first started doing stand-up, I was doing an impression of David Byrne. He had a hyperliteralism that matched up with the way alt-comedy was in 2004 when I first moved to New York. “This next song is about haircuts!” He would talk like that. The lyrics are very funny too, like, “Look over there! Another car!” It sounds like someone making up a song.
His intense drama. I can tell he knows it’s funny. People aren’t intense enough. Everyone seems to have the same understanding of how to talk, in a sort of, “Hey! Everything’s great.” They’re even-keeled. [Herzog is] extremely odd and intense, yet he can sit down with anyone for a documentary. And they aren’t fazed by it. In Into the Abyss he’s interviewing death-row inmates. He says stuff like, “I want you to know that I am against the death penalty personally, but I am not here as your friend and I don’t think you deserve any sympathy for what you did.” He shakes this guy’s hand in Into the Abyss and goes, “I can tell by your handshake that you have calluses and you are a working man. I, too, was a working man.” The more I’ve become myself, the more I’ve been comfortable incorporating things that sound like something Werner Herzog would say, just for my own amusement. v