Looking for a stiffly directed version of Seinfeld with an Irish guy acting like a lightly effeminate old Jewish man sprinkled with unbelievable situations and unbelievable prop humor? Then Mulaney fits the bill.
John Mulaney is a good stand-up. His jokes are solid, his delivery sharp. Back in the 90’s, that was a good start for a sitcom. Today, it’s not so easy.
The premise is familiar: working stand-up seeks success in the big city alongside friends and neighbors who are characters. Every once in a while, said stand-up performs. Jerry Seinfeld succeeded with this formula, and recently Louie CK slammed dunked a modern version of the premise, proving that just because someone else did something similar before, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done again.
However, unlike Louie, which takes that formula and recognizes the modern aesthetic of more realistic situations that lead to absurd results, Mulaney fails on almost every level.
That’s not to say there is no funny in the show. It’s based on Mulaney’s aforementioned stand up, and assuming the viewer isn’t already familiar with the bits, the comedy is there in the writing. The problem is the performances don’t deliver on that comedy except for maybe two or three times per episode.
It’s not for want of talented performers. Nasim Pedrad of SNL fame does the best at delivering some funny. Veterans Martin Short and Elliot Gould try valiantly to make their ridiculous characters – an insane game show host and gay Jewish neighbor, respectively – fit their talents. But it has to be said that there is a consistent stiffness throughout the performances that can’t be blamed on the actors. Elliott Gould especially comes across as very stiff, and this from a man who nailed his character in the recent Ocean’s movies, and is no stranger to the sitcom.
What’s more, the supporting cast are given characters that are sincerely unbelievable. For example, the drug dealer friend, Andre (Zack Pearlman), is shown at one point lifting an entire love seat by himself from one end of a comically large box. Which would be funny, except that the bit is sort of orphaned both by the other characters and the rest of the show, which doesn’t really establish its world has having that be possible. And then, the characters watch a video of Andre being born as part of some Miracle of Birth instructional video. A nice twist – “Oh, hey, I think those are my parents” – but then the video goes on to reveal Andre’s mother stating that she doesn’t want to hold her child and doesn’t care if it will have a negative effect on him. In what world would that happen?
Comedy doesn’t have to always make sense, but at least it should somehow be consistent in the world the show is creating, and Mulaney fails to do this.
The icing on the cake, though, is how Mulaney is shown doing his stand up. In Seinfeld, Jerry is shown in a sitcom comedy club doing bits before or after the situations they relate to happen in the show. In Louie, sometimes the stand-up relates directly, sometimes it doesn’t, but in every case, the reality established by the show is maintained by appearing more naturalistically in an underground comedy club. In Mulaney, he does his stand-up before the studio audience of the show they are about to record. In essence, the fourth wall is broken, but they don’t even commit to it. Chappelle’s Show used stand-up type set-ups in front of a live audience to justify the laugh track for the video sketches he did. Chappelle spells that out by literally hosting the clips. One presumes that is sort of what Mulaney is going for, but instead, the line is blurred because Mulaney’s character on the show Mulaney is a stand-up, and here Mulaney is doing stand-up in front of the set for the show Mulaney. Is the Mulaney doing stand-up in front of the set the character in the show, or is it the performer doing stand-up for the audience about to see the show? One has to presume the latter, but it’s weirdly unclear and awkward.
It’s worth pointing out that the first few episodes of Seinfeld were awful. Don’t believe it? Watch them. Watch especially the changes in George Costanza. But that was at a time when a sitcom was given a chance to find its way. Today, networks are far more unforgiving, and even with Lorne Michaels producing, it seems unlikely that Mulaney will survive unless it picks up its game in the third episode.
Oh, and the “Irish guy acting like a lightly effeminate old Jewish man” thing? Much less entertaining than it sounds.
Sundays on Fox
5 out of 10 furniture boxes
Update: January 17, 2015
Have actually been watching the episodes, more out of an academic interest than anything else. In episode 9, the show has shown some improvement. For one, they finally clarified what Mulaney is doing at the top of the show. He does a few jokes and references “In this episode,” which makes it much clearer that he’s supposed to be speaking with the sit-com audience before the taping.
Also, there are more laughs in this episode, mostly because Pedrad’s character is the main focus, and so she gets a lot of funny lines. Elliot is still used poorly, but Martin Short’s character comes across as more nuanced. Even Mulaney gets more effective jokes in. Whereas there were maybe 2-4 laughs in previous episodes, this one has probably closer to 20. This could be due to the cast finally relaxing a little, or perhaps the writers are writing more honest reactions for them.
Unfortunately, the low point of the episode is the character portrayed by Seaton Smith, Mulaney’s comedian friend Motif. He’s a black comic, and some mileage is made about how racially oriented the promotions are for minority stand-up shows. But the jokes he’s doing just aren’t good. That’s ok when they’re not supposed to be, but in the episode he’s supposed to have discovered a new voice, and while the characters on screen think he’s hilarious, those on this side of the screen don’t. There’s potential with the Motif character, as he’s a middle-class American trying to fit into what could be called BET comedy. But the execution misses, and it’s hard to tell if it’s the writing or the performance. Considering the way the rest of the series has gone, blaming the writing seems fair.
All this said, then, the rating stays the same, but it might be worth watching if you’ve run out of other things to view.
Eliot has been orbiting show business for over 20 years as an improv comedian, video director, and general guy you might barely recognize. Currently best known for his work on the comedy podcast Never Not Funny: The Jimmy Pardo Podcast. He wrote previously for MacEdition.com, and is working on a collection of short sci-fi and weird tales that will probably be published someday. He is also one of three principals in Modest Games.