Comedian John Mulaney is the throwback kid

John Mulaney is a throwback himself, an obsessive student of comedy history, a young man with an old soul.

John Mulaney has the benevolent wide-set eyes, cresting hair and copacetic choirboy appearance of a superhero who has taken a spa day. He is trim to the point of receding, and as angular as Peter Parker. He walks with his hands plunged deep in his pockets, and when he listens, he is assessing and shrewd, suggesting a confidence and insight beyond his 32 years. But here's the thing about Mulaney: He's also worthless, redundant and antiquated, a portrait of high self-image commingling with low self-worth.

And those are just his words — "I am the most useless, ridiculous creature on Earth," he told me. Last spring, at Largo at the Coronet, the influential comedy club on the edge of Beverly Hills, Calif., the comedian and writer did a 10-minute stand-up set during comedian Nick Kroll's monthly showcase, and when Kroll tapped Mulaney on the shoulder to wrap up, Mulaney jumped and whispered: "Oh, you gave me such a start!" Kroll explained later: "That's John. That's the way he talks. Guy's an 85-year-old Irish woman."

It gets worse.

No — funnier.

A month ago, in his corner office in Studio City, Calif., above the soundstage where he had been shooting "Mulaney," the new sitcom he created for Fox (premiering at 8:30 p.m. Sunday), Mulaney said he had just gotten a text from Claire, his younger sister, who works as a writer on "Saturday Night Live," where Mulaney himself spent six years as a versatile, beloved writer. She was in their hometown of Chicago, waiting for a train and noticed a poster advertising his series. Someone had scratched a Hitler mustache on her brother's lip. So she sent him a picture of it, along with the following: "Well, at least they're not comparing you to Seinfeld anymore."

As he talked, I noticed that the walls of his office were bare. There was a photo in his bookcase of himself and two childhood friends at St. Clement School in Lincoln Park, smoking cigars after their eighth-grade graduation; there were a handful of hardcover books (a Hollywood history, an MTV history, a memoir from Donald Fagen). But that was about it. He noticed me looking around and said: "I never moved into my 'SNL' office, either. I just didn't want to jinx anything. Everything is ready to go in a single box, should I require it."

Self-deprecation, melancholy and a punctured entitlement, in a well-mannered package — that's his thing.

Call it a Midwestern shrug of diminished expectations. In his stand-up act, he describes being honked at by drivers, pushed around by airlines, insulted by strangers and, for the most part, deserving the abuse. In the pilot for "Mulaney," his co-star Martin Short, who plays his boss, tells Mulaney the Character that sincerity will take him "straight to the middle." In fact, Mulaney said the subtext of the show — he plays a comedy writer named John Mulaney, rooming with an African-American comic (Seaton Smith) and a personal trainer (Nasim Pedrad) — "is that I am not needed. My type of person is not necessary. One character's family is from Iran, one is a black comic working harder than I am, Martin plays a famous comedian, Elliott Gould plays a politically minded gay neighbor. And here I am, the white male who amuses himself. Everyone else is just more relevant. I am not contributing enough to society to warrant my rewards. It's hilarious that I think I deserve to be entitled to anything! I had a comfortable upbringing, and I screwed around as a kid. My time should be over. What do we need less than a TV show about a white stand-up comic? It's not that century."

By the time he's done, I'm not sure if he's talking about himself or the version of himself on "Mulaney."

I also can't decide if Mulaney is modest or disingenuous, a comedian who suggests that his time is over even as many say he is the smartest person in comedy — the Chicago answer to Seinfeld, and with more range. When David Letterman announced his retirement, Twitter lit up with hopes that Mulaney would fill his shoes; when Seth Meyers left Weekend Update at "SNL," Mulaney was assumed to be the replacement. Mulaney, however, who had left "SNL" in 2012, was already building his mainstream vehicle.

Short told me: "I haven't done anything like (a sitcom) in a long time, but then ("Mulaney" executive producer and "SNL" founder) Lorne Michaels says John Mulaney is the guy you need to know, so you pay attention."

Even Kroll, after describing Mulaney as constitutionally geriatric, added: "He's also weirdly right now. Hang out with him and Seth and Bill Hader and Andy Samberg — everyone's looking to John for the best joke. He's the future."

September 2008, and Mulaney was alone on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, writing by himself for his first few days (and nights) at "SNL." His ascent had been sure-footed: At Georgetown University, Mulaney joined a comedy troupe with Kroll and Mike Birbiglia (also an acclaimed comic now); after graduation, he moved to New York, interned at Comedy Central, developed his stand-up act and auditioned to be a performer on "SNL." He was certain nothing would come of it: "SNL" was "good with lanky white dudes" (Hader, Meyers, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis). Plus, competition was brutal. He auditioned the same day as Kroll, Donald Glover ("Community"), Ellie Kemper ("The Office") and T.J. Miller ("Silicon Valley"). But Meyers, then head writer, called to offer a writing job. Mulaney was eating with his mother at Sapori Trattoria in Lincoln Park. He took the call, "returned to the table, didn't finish dinner or eat again for two months."

The show, which found its muse that fall in Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, was in a golden period, but Mulaney "was paralyzed by how intimidated I felt." He wrote a commercial parody about a service that delivers a live elephant for your room, should you need to avoid awkward situations.

"I asked Seth if we could get a real elephant, and he said, 'Mmm, maybe we could.' I got on the subway that night and felt so embarrassed."

Hader and Meyers remember it differently:

"There is a learning curve with any new writer at 'SNL,'" Meyers said, "and John, it wasn't just the quality right away, but how quickly, even at the last minute right before Weekend Update, that quality came. ... I used to tell people he brought me stuff on his first day and, by his second, I was bringing stuff to him, to make it better."

"John arrived more fully formed than anyone else there," Hader said. "There were performers who could write things only they could perform, there were people who did conceptual well, people who were joke writers. John was all of it."

Hader said he spent his first years on the show floating along until Mulaney arrived; they would later create Stefon, the show's best-loved character in ages.

"That season, I remember Seth and I brought John a Vincent Price sketch we were working on: 'Let's get the new guy, see what he can do with it.' Fred Armisen was Liberace in the sketch and says something to Vincent Price, who needed a comeback. So John, hunched over, writing the whole time, looks up: 'What if Price says, "Save your sassy asides for your windowless bars!" We were like, holy (expletive). Off the top of his head. A perfectly structured line. It had economy, painted a picture. ... You began to feel with John you were on 'Your Show of Shows' or somewhere and Woody Allen or Carl Reiner was next to you. You knew you had a finite amount of time before someone tapped him on the shoulder and went, 'Hey, man, what are you doing in this place?'"

August 2014, and the sunlight in Studio City was so bright that I wondered if this neighborhood existed before a live studio audience. Driving onto the CBS lot — "Mulaney" is shot at CBS, made partly by a production wing of NBCUniversal and shown on Fox — I spotted a jack-o'-lantern Halloween bucket on the sidewalk. Which, this being August, reminded me of a Mulaney stand-up bit about seeing a wheelchair by the side of the road, hoping that a miracle had occurred, but guessing not. He puts you in a mildly paradoxical frame of mind: Even the offices of his show, which shares its space with the production company for "Parks and Recreation," seemed perversely upbeat and pleasant at 8 o'clock in the morning, especially considering the failure rate of new TV series.

Walking with Mulaney through the building, I detected no pressure to perform, no gathering clouds. Instead, I suspected a sitcom had broken out around us. A blond male assistant in a bright polo shirt asked if Mulaney wanted to watch the bris scene they'd shot. "Nope!" he said. Gould clasped his hands warmly on Mulaney's shoulders and continued on. Mulaney chuckled. A crew member held an elevator door and asked: "How you feeling this morning?" The day before, they'd shot a scene in which Mulaney fell headfirst into a pool. Take after take. Mulaney told me he was getting a cold. To the guy, he just said: "Pretty good!"

Somehow it all fit.

As next-gen as Mulaney himself may be, "Mulaney" the series — initially developed by Michaels' Broadway Video for NBC — eschews the mock-doc deadpan ("Parks"), pinwheeling anarchy ("30 Rock") or lo-fi austerity ("Louie") often associated now with smart TV comedy for an old-school artificiality. And so, not unlike the patriarchal figure on a traditional studio-audience sitcom, Mulaney the man — who told me he's forever trying to be a version of the men he watched on TV as a kid — generates a tender, ingratiating ease.

Gould, whom Michaels recruited, said: "I'm not coquettish when I say that John is so sensitive to strangers he has found himself with a large staff very much aligned to him." Pedrad is a former "SNL" cast member; she created her Arianna Huffington with Mulaney. She left partly to join Mulaney's show. She cuts to the chase: "John has a calming energy. At 'SNL,' even in a panic, he was never a trash-can kicker."

Time for a comedy break with Mulaney's parents.

Swirling skyline shot, brassy band ...

High above Chicago's Loop!

It's the "Chip and Ellen Mulaney Show!" Brought to you from the offices of Chip's workplace, the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom! And that's Ellen Mulaney, Northwestern University law professor. And with the city below as the backdrop ...

Ellen: "John was a showman as a child."

Chip: "The kid was a ham."

Ellen: "John was an old soul. One time, we gave him a membership to the Chicago Historical Society. He was 8, and I think their youngest member. And then he started getting fundraising calls ..."

Chip: "He said to me, 'Dad, dad! I'm in trouble! The Chicago Historical Society needs $1,000!' For his 10th birthday, he asked to see Sinatra's farewell tour, and I said, 'John, I was an usher for Sinatra's farewell tour at the International Amphitheatre on South Halsted. The man has been doing farewell tours for a long time.'"

Ellen: "Do you know our son carried a photo of JFK with him on sleepovers?"

Chip: "We weren't worried — pop culture would loosen him up."

The thing I heard from nearly every person I interviewed for this story was that Mulaney always seemed born to comedy, engineered for the art form the way some tennis pros began volleying balls as preschoolers and famous ballerinas started training the moment they first teetered. As I walked though the set of "Mulaney" during rehearsals, I overheard a crew member ask where the star himself was, and someone replied: "Mulaney's here, he's always here, he was meant to be here." A second later, Mulaney passed through a forest of director's chairs to the stage, which held a sitcom apartment so familiar — kitchen counter, stools, curated clutter — it could have been a museum piece.

The other thing I often heard was that Mulaney was a throwback himself, an obsessive student of comedy history, a young man with an old soul.

Short told me: "John randomly asked, 'You did Carson. What was that like?' Not out of politeness. Out of genuine curiosity."

Mulaney describes long car rides with his father, absorbing old radio shows of Red Skelton and Abbott and Costello, developing a love for "good lazy comedy, for mainstream comics who could set up elaborate premises then torpedo them in weirdo ways." At St. Clement, he and two friends once hosted a concert as George Burns, Gene Kelly and Dean Martin.

John O'Brien (one of those friends) remembers taking city buses with Mulaney to the Museum of Broadcast Communications to watch "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" episodes: "At some point John, would go, 'Do you want to listen to old radio shows?' I'd say, 'Not especially ...' I liked comedy, but John was hard-core."

This was the early '90s.

Mulaney was about 10 then and, as he said, just as taken with contemporary comedy, Conan O'Brien, "The Simpsons," "Mr. Show." Growing up in Lincoln Park, Mulaney took comedy classes at Victory Gardens Theater and the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. He found himself tracing the spots where the history of funny people overlapped with emerging edgier comedians. He was becoming a comedy genealogist, and not above the low-brow stuff: O'Brien told me a story (which has found its way into Mulaney's act) about how they once took a lot of spare change to the old Salt & Pepper Diner on Lincoln Avenue and set the jukebox to play Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?" 20 times, throwing in a solitary curveball: Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual."

Now the punch line:

The Mulaney family is not geared naturally toward showbiz. His father, Chip, is from Oak Park and is in his second term as chairman of Chicago's Catholic Charities. His mother, Ellen, is from suburban Boston and sits on the board of the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness. They were classmates with Bill Clinton at Georgetown. Aside from John and Claire (who went from Chicago's improv scene to "SNL"), they have a daughter in human resources at Chicago City Hall and a son who works as an assistant United States attorney in Georgia. Chip and Ellen Mulaney are not stage parents. Indeed, John said: "Friends would come for dinner and tell me my family were from the 1950s. I would hear we were very uptight. It wasn't true: We just leaned toward politeness. We were suppressed perhaps, not repressed.

"But my family, they were also comedy fans. We went to church every Sunday, and we would watch 'Annie Hall' as a family. We saw Bill Cosby at Ravinia. It was so completely disgustingly normal that I feel I have had too many breaks. In late-night conversations with groups of people, after someone tells the story about how their unhinged mother chased them with a baseball bat? I have nothing to contribute. I drank a lot as a teenager, and I quit. I bombed in Tennessee once. That's all I got."

In high school, Mulaney worked one summer as a runner for the Chicago Board of Trade; year-round, he worked in the office of St. Teresa of Avila church on Armitage Avenue. But the way some teenagers keep football trades and indie bands at the front of their minds, Mulaney kept TV comedy. College didn't shake it.

His father, still sounding surprised, told me: "My son loved Milton! Studied English at Georgetown! Then one day (after graduation), he came to our house on Lake Geneva. We took a sail. John said he was going to pursue comedy. I tried being subtle: 'John, I don't understand this world. Is there someone who does this who has a life you regard as fulfilling?' He looked at me: 'Dad, would you feel better if I traded bonds for 30 years?' A friend of mine said: "Do you like your kid? Do you trust his values?' I said yes and yes. 'OK, so let him go.'"

Within a few years, Mulaney had developed an evocative stand-up voice: "I started absurdist, less personal. I did characters. But the first times I told longer stories about actual things that happened to me, stuff I was thinking about, I liked it more. I could see it sustaining something. Comics say you are trying to be the person onstage that you are off stage, and that is very true."

So, he told jokes about finance: "I read that the Dow dropped 929 points, and I can't tell you how depressing that is ... to not know what that means."

He slipped in his interior world: "Traveling can get kinda lonely. Not traveling. What's the word? Life. Life can get kinda lonely."

Within a decade, he was so prolific at "SNL," said Simon Rich, one of Mulaney's writing partners on the show, "every week, for years, whatever was the best sketch that week, or the best jokes in other sketches, inevitably came from John." Applying himself to political riffs and monologues — "I don't know if it was selling out, but I liked adapting to whatever" — Mulaney wrote often and broadly, in an old-fashioned sense. Stefon, existential game shows, Armisen's trash-talking New York Gov. David Paterson: His material was strange, unpredictable yet relatable.

"At some point Lorne went to John and asked about his being on camera, off camera, his career agenda," said David Miner, an executive producer on "Mulaney" and "30 Rock." "People were approaching (him) to act, to host talk shows. Like any comedian who's lived enough to have something to say, John went: 'Wait. If they gave me a show, what would I do with it?'"

An hour or so before Mulaney and Co. began taping the seventh episode of "Mulaney," the soundstage filled with producers and Fox executives and cast and crew members, patting each other's backs: "Have a good show." Then the audience arrived and was shown the pilot; when the first laugh erupted, an assistant leaned into director Andy Ackerman: "Still funny, that's good." Then Mulaney introduced himself to the audience, and the show began taping. Within a few moments, it was clear what Mulaney would do with his own TV show: He would create a comfortable space, a familiar TV universe.

He told me he likes the limitations of classic sitcoms. "The limitations of the form are fine. 'SNL' had tons of limitations. Stand-up has the most. And yet you paint a picture. A lot of comedians I knew were going for single-camera shows, stripped-down indie looks, and I was picturing other TV shows I loved. I like the image of people in an apartment or a house just talking." And he is partly paying homage; indeed, episodes will have nods to "Friends," and a Penny Marshall cameo.

Then there's Mulaney's elephant in the room. On a backstage bulletin board, I spotted a photo of Jerry Seinfeld signed (not by Seinfeld): "You're the next me, Jerry." It was a prop; in an episode, a girlfriend shouts at Mulaney: "I defend you when people say you're a Seinfeld rip-off!" It's also something of an inside joke.

Since its inception, "Mulaney" has been dogged with "Seinfeld" comparisons. Both focus on the prosaic, both star stand-ups playing New York comics, both feature Ackerman, who directed a lot of "Seinfeld." Suzanna Makkos, Fox's executive vice president of comedy programming and development, said the network anticipated gripes, but "we all pay a little homage to 'Seinfeld' in a way."

Producer Jon Pollock agreed: "Between 'Seinfeld' and 'The Simpsons,' so much ground is covered, you wonder if you can do anything."

Mulaney himself said: "For a while, there was an idea that I wouldn't be a character who did stand-up. Because I knew it would paint a bull's-eye on me, but I wanted to be a comedian. I didn't want to shy away from that. I liked the image of Jack Benny or George Burns greeting the audience. It was sweet. So I thought, let's take the hit."

By September, the early critical word on the show had seeped into the cultural ether: "Mulaney" was just another "Seinfeld."

That August night, though, the whines were still mostly distant, and Mulaney, always in writing mode, used every lull in the taping to hunch over the script, sitting at the kitchen island and furiously writing new lines and reworking others, hoping to keep the audience still energized as the taping dragged toward the sixth hour.

A couple of hours into the shoot, his wife of three months, makeup artist Annamarie Tendler, appeared in the wings. Mulaney ran over delighted and kissed her, and she said, exasperated, that their French bulldog — which the couple call Edith Piaf because, as Tendler explained, "the dog is all drama" — swallowed plastic and is costing them thousands.

Mulaney held her face.

Tendler's eyes brightened and she relaxed and smiled, and Mulaney bounded back to the set, the most reassuring man alive, perhaps not the future of the sitcom, but the future of comedy.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
41°