Interview: ‘Mulaney’ creator-star John Mulaney on his FOX comedy’s learning curve

It can't be ignored that “Mulaney” premiered last Sunday night on FOX and the ratings weren't especially good.

I got on the phone with creator-star John Mulaney on Thursday and made a promise up-front: I'd lead with quick ratings discussion and then never return to the topic and we stuck to it.

The bottom line on that subject: FOX is 100 percent behind “Mulaney” and the network knows things will turn around. And what else would anyone say after one week?

Mostly, we discussed the learning process on “Mulaney,” which was originally developed at NBC, moved over to FOX and which is already far deeper into production than most freshman shows. 

This week, in fact, found “Mulaney” working on its 13th episode, while Mulaney was also, at least according to Twitter, parlaying with old chum Bill Hader in advance of Hader's “SNL” hosting stint, so it's impressive both that he found time to chat all, but also that he politely apologized because production lunch break was delayed by seven minutes, making him late to call.

Instead of talking about ratings or following in the NY Times footsteps to talk about reviews, Mulaney and I discussed the transition from stand-up to sitcom structuring, the need to sometimes adjust his material to network commercial considerations and, in an amusing moment, the strengths and weaknesses of Mulaney's leading man.

Click through for the full Q&A…

HitFix: Okay, so I want to lead with ratings and then we'll never need to talk about them again, okay? [He laughs.] Talk to me about the conversations that were had on Monday morning, who talked to you and what they said.

John Mulaney: You mean about…?

HitFix: About the ratings from Sunday.

John Mulaney: Oh, well, you know, the best-case scenario is everything goes perfect and smooth, but we're also a new and weird show. So all my conversations were, “Hey last night didn't go perfect but we kind of know what we've got in store for everybody episode-wise.” And the best part of it was, me being like brand-new to this, was talking to everyone at FOX and just hearing that they are 100 percent behind the show and know that these things turn around. And that was really cool to hear.

HitFix: Did you do the neurotic thing where you were waiting to get the ratings at 7:00 AM/8:00 AM whatever or did you just not pay attention and someone contacted you?

John Mulaney: No, no, I didn't check in them. I didn't check them, I also had to go to Whole Foods to get things for my dog and just waited to be contacted by someone. I knew I'd be contacted by someone.

HitFix: So you were just doing other things trying to keep normal?

John Mulaney: I was trying not to hit a car in the Whole Foods parking lot on Fairfax and Santa Monica because that is a terribly tight parking lot.

HitFix: I understand that. OK. So changing topics. This Sunday you guys are airing “The Doula,” which I thought was the best of the five episodes you sent out, but which was not the second episode in production. Sort of a talk about the strategy to the episode order as you guys are presenting episodes now.

John Mulaney: Well, I don't know if there's a strategy really so much as, like I learned doing standup and had to learn fast, you always just try to give your favorite, strongest stuff as early as possible and you start with what you like the most. And “The Doula” was and is a very, very special episode to me because I think it's very funny and very weird and it also is 100 percent based on my life, in that I fainted three times during Sex Ed in real life the three different years. And in this episode I am dating a doula and cannot handle the fact that all she talks about is childbirth, because it was the “Miracle of Life” video that I fainted during. And I had a moment when we were on the floor and this moment that I think people enjoy very much was getting a ton of laughs and I thought to myself, “Oh I wish I could go tell 12-year-old me like I don't worry that you just fainted in front of all the girls, one day you'll be able to make this into an episode of TV.”

HitFix: What lessons can you learn from why this episode works particularly well, because it was my favorite, if it's an episode that seems like it stands out for you as well, what makes this episode one that you would like to use as a template, I guess, to some degree?

John Mulaney: Oh, I don't know if there's a lesson learned so much as, like all the episodes aim to be, they are very personal to me and my life and stories I have and then we blow them out into a more surreal place. And this is just one that I thought was the most fun.

HitFix: What episode are you guys currently working on, what number?

John Mulaney: We are working on our 13th episode, thought they write 113 on all production things. I did not know that and I was very confused when I started that we were making our 101st episode.

HitFix: See, you're learning all of the Hollywood codes. What other Hollywood codes have you learned?

John Mulaney: Yeah, I was in a studio apartment with my fiancé and a sick French bulldog about a year ago and now I'm making a TV show in Los Angeles. So there's been a lot of learning curve.

HitFix: When you look back maybe to the NBC pilot you did and then certainly to the FOX pilot you did and compare that to what you guys are doing at 13, how are you sort of feeling like you've settled into this as a thing you can do?

John Mulaney: Well, what I knew from the pilot was that this is a show with sort of me at the center but that this ensemble, this amazing cast we have is just unstoppable, especially when we're together and there was such like awesome chemistry with me and Seaton Smith and Nasim Pedrad that I think for everything going forward I was like, “All of us together have such a strength to it” that that definitely informed future episodes we made. And with the pilot, there's stuff to set up, there's so much stuff to set up, and yet I still wanted it to be loose. I didn't want it to be hard premise where I'm a merman and I finally come out of the sea and meet a human woman and can't tell her the truth.

HitFix: That's a great idea by the way.

John Mulaney: And if you want to pitch it with me I'd be happy to. It was “Here's the show and we need to introduce you to this world but also keep it loose.”

HitFix: And is there a sort of drawback to that? Can it be to loose?

John Mulaney: Can it be too loose? Well I don't know. All I mean is we wanted to set this up but celebrate the jokes and the characters.

HitFix: But when it comes to actually structuring episodes, is there too much structure? Can things be sort of too high concept, too sort of big storyline? Do things work better when everyone's sitting around in a room talking? What have you found sort of works in terms of 22-minute a week storytelling?

John Mulaney: Oh, well can there be too much structure? I have no idea. Structure is always very important just for the writing process. But I really set out to do this traditional looking and traditional sounding multi-cam sitcom, but then make the world as elastic as an animated show could be. Make the world as surreal as we wanted it to be. So storylines have a certain freedom that's really cool and we can take them to different places and don't ever feel confined by anything. And in terms of how to… Did you ask how to set things up with this?

HitFix: Just what you found works in terms of too much structure, not enough, too much story, not enough?

John Mulaney: I've always believed that you often need less. You don't need to hear why people are friends, you don't need to hear why people are roommates, you don't need to hear why someone would help a friend to do something. I think there's worlds where just basic emotional things that audiences are always ahead of and always understand get set up with some line or exposition. And I think the thing that I'm so grateful for is that the cast is so good when they're together it's like, “Oh yeah, we're on board just because we want to watch these people do this together.”

HitFix: So, now as creator and producer of “Mulaney,” talk a bit about your leading man and his strengths and weaknesses.

John Mulaney: My leading man? You mean Martin Short?

HitFix: I mean John Mulaney but, you know…

John Mulaney: The real person or the character?

HitFix: The thespian who you're also writing for.

John Mulaney: Oh, what I did there, Dan, was I was new to acting on a stage in a narrative as opposed to acting on a stage as a stand-up. And like everything else it's just like comfort level. The first time I did stand-up I was at a place called the B3 in New York on Third and Avenue B and I not only didn't take the mic out of the stand, but I clutched the stand of the entire time. And afterwards when I walked off, luckily the audience didn't see, but like my shirt on the back was just soaked with sweat. And comfort is everything. You start doing something and you want it to be perfect right away, but most babies are born ugly and then they shake it out and you get beautiful toddlers.

HitFix: So, after 13 episodes is John Mulaney the actor a beautiful toddler yet or not?

John Mulaney: I definitely look like a toddler. I feel comfortable and I have a lot of fun out there. And if I were to be extremely egotistical, I'd say I got a tiny bit better. But what I did Dan was I also had Elliot Gould and Martin Short and Nasim Pedrad — let alone Zack Pearlman who is going to be a huge star, as is Seaton Smith — out there and I love writing for them and just sitting back and watching them be excellent. And when you are sitting across from Elliott Gould sharing a scene it just raises your game.

[More on Page 2 including the necessity to maybe not alienate high profile brands.]

HitFix: Talking about the ensemble, you say the scenes with you and Nasim and Seaton have a certain chemistry, do scenes work best when you can get everyone in the room together? Have you gotten the whole cast in the room for a scene at the same time?

John Mulaney: Yeah. An episode that is near and dear to my heart is the entire cast in one room for the night because we get bed bugs in our apartment building so we have to stay with Martin Short.

HitFix: Have you realized that you can take those bigger risks? You talked about sort of the surrealism that you want to make sure, and I don't know if you literally mean surrealism or if you figuratively mean surrealism but sort of how big leaps do you think this show can take?

John Mulaney: We keep taking them and then seeing how it feels. So when we're at episode 100, I don't know, we might be on the moon.  What was interesting, just in the early episodes, was that I wanted — My standup persona is like I'll heighten things, but I'm observing the world as it is in sort of a heightened emotional state — I wanted things to start in real dilemmas, in real things people like me have hang-ups about and then go off into a surreal place. And so I was just trying to blend the standup that I do almost with like the visual sketch stuff that I did on “Saturday Night Live.” And so in terms of how elastic in the world is, we'll see what we can get away with.

HitFix: When it comes to picking from your stand-up, certainly the pilot has a both the actual standup that begins it but also sort of acted out moments from your stand-up. Have you sort of gotten the feeling from what works best and in what format, which things are better just done you at a microphone and which things are better done within scenes?

John Mulaney: Oh, that's interesting. It depends kind of case-by-case. With the first episode I tell a story that happened to me accidentally chasing a woman down the subway. And then we tell the other true story of what happened to me when I went to a walk-in clinic, let's see what year was it, I think 2007 and try to get a Xanax prescription by lying. So since my stand-up is always autobiographical stories, they do blend well into the show. But then there's jokes that I have in standup that I wouldn't try to put in, I would try to have someone just speak extemporaneously in the middle of a scene about an episode of “Law and Order” or something.

HitFix: But do you think, for example, that you can have your character within the show reenact the running after the woman and would that maybe look too creepy if you did it in that way and it may be plays differently when we're only hearing you tell the story?

John Mulaney: Oh yeah. Where's a thing that Bill Hader and I learned when we were writing Stefon the first time he was on Weekend Update as a correspondent, and the character came out and was describing all these things. And we were building photos, Photoshopping things that would be over his shoulder that would show you all of the things he's describing. And as soon as we started we realized, “No, this is something that you want the audience to visualize.” Like that expression you have to meet the audience halfway, but you can only meet them halfway because they want to picture what they want to picture. And so I found it that with standup stories some of them so lend themselves to just being a monologue that we put them at the top of the show.

HitFix: And I noticed also in a couple of the episodes that there are slight tweaks in some of the established stand-up bits. I'm thinking about the somewhat more oblique mention of Delta Airlines in the “Life is a Nightmare” stand-up a bit. How do you feel about doing that to your stand-up and sort of going away from insulting brand names in particular?

John Mulaney: Well, I did say “Belta.”

HitFix: It wasn't like I couldn't figure out who you were talking about. But I still did have to go back and go, “Wait, I thought he actually said the name in the original bit.”

John Mulaney: Well, I set out to bring what I do to this big platform. And so I knew going in that I wanted to see how it would work in that platform. And so sometimes you say “Belta.”

HitFix: But was that actually a conversation or did you know in advance that you would want to or have to make that switch?

John Mulaney: [He laughs. And pauses.] No, no, no, everyone's very relaxed about brand names in television.

HitFix: I think I see your point there. Now, talking about the audience a little bit, one of the sort of secrets of multi-cam is that you have to be entertaining on two levels: You have to sort of be entertaining the people you're actually there in front of and then you have to make the audience at home feel like they're amused as well. And if it becomes too much that the audience is enjoying it and maybe the people at home aren't, it becomes alienating I guess? Does it feel like this is a balance that you're constantly trying to strike?

John Mulaney: I understand the balance you're talking about, but having done stand-up on television and in stand-up specials for like Comedy Central, you learn quickly that for that type of performance you're playing to the camera. If I was at the Comedy Cellar at midnight you yelled at the back of the room. But you, for television, play it to the camera because yes you're communicating to the people at home using the studio audience that's right in front of you as a guide for that. So you get to do both. And that was an interesting thing I learned I think the first time I did a late night show or something. It was like, “Oh, this is for the camera and a performance that you're giving to the people at home.” 

HitFix: Well, but on that note, like can you have sort of moments where you're in front of the audience where you know you've landed the punchline you want to land but maybe the audience isn't laughing as much as you hoped but you're like, “Okay I know I did that the way I wanted to, I know it's going to play even if they didn't play in this room”?

John Mulaney: Oh yeah, if I love the joke I don't change it. I have tons of jokes with moments in them over the years in stand-up that don't get a laugh but I love them so they stay. And occasionally you get that one person that says “I really like that one part of this joke” and you go, “Oh thank you that's my favorite part too.” But no, in order for it to be authentic hopefully you have jokes that everyone can just get on board with and then you have a few things for yourself.

[I get the “Last Question…” warning and decide to throw a bone to Sepinwall.]

HitFix: Honestly I have a colleague who isn't going to let me get away with not asking you this: So you have a “Friends”-related subplot in one of the early episodes and you have Elliott Gould who was on “Friends,” as a regular in your cast. How do you not bring those things together in some way in the episode?

John Mulaney: Well, I have a bigger idea to reference Elliott's work so I wanted to save it for that.

HitFix: You can't just reference a different iconic Elliott Gould work every week?

John Mulaney: I would if I could.

HitFix: But it was something where you had to stop and think “Okay I don't want to necessarily nod in that way”?

John Mulaney: Oh, yeah I thought about it, but an ideal down the line seemed the best place to bring up the amazing body of work of Elliott Gould.

“Mulaney” airs Sunday nights at 9:30 on FOX.