EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published back in September of 2013, in advance of his appearance at Oddball Fest. Mr. Mulaney will be performing at the Merriam on Saturday, hence this encore presentation. Enjoy, and check back tomorrow when we will be giving away a pair of tix for the show. Why? Because we love you!
BY JONATHAN VALANIA As co-creator of the ever-popular Stefon (‘New York’s hottest club is…’) sketch on SNL, comedian John Mulaney is probably better-known for his work behind the camera than in front of it, but that will change soon. Last Friday we got Mulaney on the horn
in advance of his appearance at the Dave Chappelle-starring Oddball Fest at the Susquehanna Bank Center tomorrow night. DISCUSSED: Dave Chappelle walking offstage in Hartford, writing for SNL, inventing Stefon, making Bill Hader break character and laugh on live national television, that status of his in-development sitcom Mulaney, co-starring Dana Carvey and Elliot Gould, dealing with hecklers, the secret of comedy and making mean old ladies he meets on the street laugh just because he can.
PHAWKER: Thank you for coming on the blog today. I think you’re a really fucking funny guy.
JOHN MULANEY: Well thanks.
PHAWKER: And for a guy who couldn’t possibly be more Caucasian, you do a really good black, homeless HIV positive guy impersonation.
PHAWKER: Let’s just jump into my questions here: you’re doing three dates of the Dave Chappelle Oddball Fest, including Camden, which is the raison d’etre for this interview. Let’s just get to the elephant in the living room here: last night Chappelle walked off stage in Hartford, apparently because of hecklers in the audience being too loud, etc. What do you know about that? What’s the inside line you can give us?
JOHN MULANEY: I know zero. I am not on tour yet. I only do three dates and that’s the first I’ve heard of that.
PHAWKER: Oh really? You didn’t hear about this yet?
JOHN MULANEY: No, what happened?
PHAWKER: Oh, I don’t know if it’s that’s big of a deal. But yeah, it’s kind of blowing up the internet right now; you should check it out. I guess he just decided he didn’t like that the audience was too loud or too rowdy so he kind of just sat there and smoked cigarettes and pretty much did everything but his act until his allotted time was up, then just walked off.
JOHN MULANEY: Oh wow. In Hartford? Oh I totally heard none of this … I was hanging out with the dog all day. I haven’t really been online, haha. So…
PHAWKER: That’s a pretty good alibi. How do you handle that situation? Do you have a standard response to hecklers? Like are you one of those, ‘I don’t come to where you work and slap the cock out of your mouth’ kind of guys?
JOHN MULANEY: What do you mean by heckler?
PHAWKER: I don’t know, people just shouting shit out in the audience. Things like that.
JOHN MULANEY: Do you mean people trying to ruin the show, or people who are trying to help advance the show.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with people trying to ruin the show.
JOHN MULANEY: I’ve never really encountered it. One guy … I had one guy, I have a couple memorable “you suck” type heckles. One of them was the guy in Tennessee. He yelled very kind of eloquently, “Sir, I think I speak for everyone here when I say that we’d enjoy silence more than the sound of your voice.”
PHAWKER: And your response was?
JOHN MULANEY: Too many to name. Really a lot of people. I grew up really liking everything that was happening when I was a kid, like The Simpsons, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and all that. But I was also really into older comedy albums, both like old radio stuff like Jack Benny and things like that. And Bob and Ray. And then also sort of old standup albums that I would get, like Woody Allen’s first album I really loved. I sort of sought out a lot of old stand up albums. So I really like comedies from the 30’s and 40’s.
PHAWKER: What was your ‘Aha!’ moment that you decided ‘comedy’s what I’m going to do with my life!’
JOHN MULANEY: I don’t know if it was one moment. I really wanted to be a nightclub entertainer as a little kid, based on like Ricky Ricardo. And then I liked being funny; very early I remember thinking like ‘I want to have a late night show.’ It was always some version of comedian. So it just seemed like finding the version of comedy performing that I like, you know. I wasn’t always positive I’d do standup. But, you know, I knew that I wanted to do something. I like the idea of hanging out all day and then going to a nightclub and doing a show and that being your work. I just thought that that was great.
PHAWKER: Are you still a writer on SNL, or have you moved on?
JOHN MULANEY: No I left there in 2012, so last summer.
PHAWKER: Were you still doing the Stefon stuff though?
PHAWKER: Okay. And so I’m guessing that means you’re not going to be taking over for Seth Meyers in the anchor chair of Weekend Update?
JOHN MULANEY: Um, I have no idea.
PHAWKER: Okay … That’s a curious response.
JOHN MULANEY: No I mean, I’m not going to say ‘no.’ I don’t know.
PHAWKER: I think you’d be a good choice.
JOHN MULANEY: I’m working on a show right now that I’ve developed that we just brought over to Fox, and so I don’t know, you know?
PHAWKER: Tell me about that. It’s called Mulaney. With Elliot Gould and Martin Short attached. Is it kind of your Seinfeld?
JOHN MULANEY: Oh that would be extremely presumptuous!
PHAWKER: Well, that’s my thing. I’m known for it. Presuming. Often wrongly.
JOHN MULANEY: It’s kind of my Mulaney. I was just trying to do a more classic sitcom in front of an audience based on me maybe five or six years ago when I lived in Brooklyn, had a couple of roommates and lived with other comedians and things and yeah, so we’re developing it now at Fox.
PHAWKER: And where does that stand?
JOHN MULANEY: Well, if it were to be on the air tomorrow, I’d plug it! But it’s moved to a new place, so we’re figuring it out with a new network. I am, you know, working on it and waiting to hear.
PHAWKER: Now you said you were living in Brooklyn six years ago. Where are you now? Did you move out of New York entirely?
PHAWKER: Moving on up!
JOHN MULANEY: Well sure, I actually moved a few years ago to be kind of closer to 30 Rock, for my commute and everything. I have a lot of friends here. But Brooklyn’s awesome. Loved living there.
PHAWKER: So a couple of SNL questions: walk me through a typical week of writing an episode of SNL. I’m just picturing you guys sitting around rolling doobies, doing beer bongs, that kind of thing.
JOHN MULANEY: No it was like people drinking coffee and green tea and frozen yogurt.
PHAWKER: You are ruining it for me.
JOHN MULANEY: We would write, you know, as it’s been described in those books, you know, you kind of write all Tuesday night. I would normally write with a few other people Monday as well. You can get a jump on the week earlier than Tuesday. You’re getting everything ready for Wednesday when we have this table read. And then things are picked on Wednesday that will go in the dress rehearsal. And from there, once your section’s picked, you’re rewriting and rehearsing Thursday/ Friday. Saturday there’s a run-through for everything that will be addressed. Then at 8pm is dress, after dress, some things get cut, then it airs at 11:30.
PHAWKER: Now, before the Wednesday table read, how many sketches are there in consideration.
JOHN MULANEY: Forty to forty-five.
PHAWKER: Wow. And how many sketches wind up on an episode?
JOHN MULANEY: Probably 10-12?
PHAWKER: So you and Bill wrote, you came up with the Stefon character. So over the course of a couple dozen sketches, New York’s hottest club has featured the following: sunburned drifters with soapsuds beards, grumps, German Smurfs, ghosts, banjos, a stuck up kitten who won’t sign autographs, Urkles or fat Urkles, a wise old turtle that looks like Quincy Jones, and a Hawaiian cleaning lady that looks like Smoky Robinson. And freezing. Cold. Air. How did you guys come up with that stuff? Neither of you strike me as club kids, or nightclub denizens.
JOHN MULANEY: My rule is always things I had seen once, but only once. And I think the best ones are vaguely familiar in that you’re kind of ‘Well I kind of know what that is, or I can picture that. But I haven’t seen it a lot.’
PHAWKER: What was the inspiration for the Stefon character in the first place? Was that you or Bill? Or somewhere in between.
JOHN MULANEY: It was both of us, yeah. I knew a guy that was always trying to start these club nights in New York. In New York, people do not open clubs, but they’ll do like a party that you pay to get into at like a weird space, like a warehouse. So he was always starting these and would list things. And that was really what I liked: that he was always listing things for ‘what is this going to have?’ and it would be like goats, old men in wedding dresses, it was going to have everything. He would list things. And then I really liked his energy in assuming that we knew what he was talking about. And then Bill said he knew a guy who worked at this coffee place and he would kind of have that voice and would cover his face with his hands a lot.
PHAWKER: And is it true that you would hold up the cue card for that sketch and that you’d often change the script at the last minute without telling Bill in the hopes that you would make him crack up on live TV?
JOHN MULANEY: Well I would substitute things in, but I would tell Bill right before. You know, you can’t just throw someone new cue cards. You know, I’d say ‘hey this has been changed to this’ so it’s more that he only had a second to process it before he had to say it. If you have to say something enough times in rehearsal, you get too used to it.
PHAWKER: And is laughing during an SNL sketch frowned upon? Or tacitly accepted?
JOHN MULANEY: Well Bill was always embarrassed that he laughed. And he would sort of apologize every time even though it was me who was trying to do it to screw him up. So you know, I think people don’t like to do it. You know, they’re very professional at running SNL. So you wouldn’t set out to do it, but sometimes things are really funny and there’s no one pretending that it’s not fun in some way when something is legitimately funny and people break.
PHAWKER: I read somewhere that Stefon is supposed to be David Bowie’s son.
JOHN MULANEY: Yes, he is. His dad’s David Bowie.
PHAWKER: You ever hear from Bowie on that?
PHAWKER: And one last thing on the Stefon thing. I’ve heard there is talk of a Stefon movie. True or false?
JOHN MULANEY: We had conversations about it.
PHAWKER: And that’s the extent of it to date?
JOHN MULANEY: Yeah.
PHAWKER: That’s not a very sexy answer.
PHAWKER: Okay, um, last question, this is kind of a Zen one, and that is: the secret of comedy is?
JOHN MULANEY: The secret of comedy?
PHAWKER: The secret of comedy, yes.
JOHN MULANEY: Who said it’s a secret? It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?
PHAWKER: Whether or not people will laugh or not?
JOHN MULANEY: Yeah.
PHAWKER: It’s supposed to be a very philosophical question, you’re supposed to offer some kind of profound response.
JOHN MULANEY: Well my response was very profound. There’s no secret! It’s the clearest thing. Like ‘What’s the secret to drama?’ I don’t know. How can you measure it? But if people laugh, it’s funny.
PHAWKER: It’s a dumb question, I’ll admit it.
JOHN MULANEY: No it’s not a dumb question! I think it’s a question people think about a lot. But it’s kind of like … it’s just either funny or not.
PHAWKER: Well let’s just deconstruct this. How does this work? That you are able to trigger an involuntary response – and laughter is an involuntary response — in not just one stranger, but an entire room full of strangers. That somehow you are able to…
JOHN MULANEY: Well I go back and forth on this. I was just talking to someone about this. At a certain point, if they paid for the show, you have to wonder seriously how involuntary it is. Because they want to laugh. I made this old woman laugh the other day when we were walking our dogs and that was like, fun, because I was like, ‘Oh that woman that looks like a miserable old lady wasn’t expecting to laugh and I made her laugh.’
PHAWKER: But what are you saying? That anybody can walk into a comedy club and get laughs just because people come there because they want to laugh? I don’t think that’s true.
JOHN MULANEY: No I’m not saying that. I’m just saying it’s not totally involuntary.
PHAWKER: Okay, I am trying to think of a good wrap up question. Can you think of one? That was my wrap up question. I wanted to have a good zinger ending, and I don’t feel we got a good ending. We need a good ending.
JOHN MULANEY: I disagree, I think that there’s no secret was a good answer, but we can agree to disagree about that.
PHAWKER: Well we can leave it at that if you feel strongly about it. I’ll look at it again…
JOHN MULANEY: I’m really glad I can publicize these [Oddball Fest] shows. I know that it’s me everyone is coming to see. I’m really hoping that…I know my name is the one filling the amphitheater, and I’m very excited.
PHAWKER: Well, I hate to tell you that the only reason I’m talking to you is you’re the only one doing phone interviews to promote Oddball Fest.
JOHN MULANEY: Haha. Well you should have said that from the beginning! You should call Chapelle and see if he wants to talk.
PHAWKER: Oh, I did. But in all seriousness, you’re very funny and I would have been happy to interview you whether or not you were involved with the Oddball Fest.
JOHN MULANEY: Well that’s very nice of you to say.
PHAWKER: I know.