A lot of very smart and funny people who work in the TV comedy business are rooting for FOX's “Mulaney” to succeed for two reasons:
1)Star and creator John Mulaney is both a terrific stand-up comic and writer (at “SNL,” he was responsible for making Bill Hader crack up at least once during every Stefon appearance); and
2)This gifted comedian and writer is concentrating his energy on making a traditional multi-camera sitcom, shot on a stage in front of a live audience – a format no one but CBS succeeds with anymore, even though many of us still have fond memories of “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “Friends” and, yes, “Seinfeld,” which is the inescapable structural model for “Mulaney.”
Comedy people want John Mulaney to succeed, and they want “Mulaney” to prove that someone other than Chuck Lorre can still make a good and popular multi-cam show. For many of the same reasons, I was rooting for the show during its long journey from development at NBC to redevelopment at FOX. It makes all the sense in the world on paper.
In practice, though, “Mulaney” (it debuts Sunday at 9:30 p.m.) is fairly dire. It's an unfortunate reminder that the multi-cam format is an unforgiving beast that can swallow you whole if you aren't constantly feeding it jokes – no matter how good or bad those jokes may be, and the jokes on “Mulaney” almost all fall into the latter category.
As in “Seinfeld,” Mulaney plays a less successful version of himself, and each episode opens with him performing a stand-up routine that will then inform the story that follows. These monologues – shot on the show's darkened main apartment set, not even bothering with the pretense that he's doing it at a club – are by far the highlight of each episode, demonstrating an agile comic mind and a level of on-camera comfort that's unfortunately not present for so much of the show that follows them.
The sitcom version of Mulaney lives with fellow comedian Motif (Seaton Smith) and longtime friend Jane (fellow “SNL” alum Nasim Pedrad), and supplements his income by working for egomaniacal game show host Lou Cannon (Martin Short, who himself spent a season at Studio 8H). The rest of the ensemble includes Elliott Gould (a classic host of a very different era of “SNL”) as flamboyant neighbor Oscar, and – because it is mandatory for every new sitcom this season to feature an obnoxious bearded friend character who is often large and/or ginger – Zack Pearlman as Mulaney's weed dealer Andre.
“Seinfeld” famously described itself as “a show about nothing,” but it had a very specific and funny point of view about the minutiae of life, and in time developed a classic structure where the episode's various storylines would converge to make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. Though Mulaney the stand-up has a clear point of view, “Mulaney” the sitcom does not. It's a show about nothing, with nothing to say about that(*). It goes through various moves because that's what's expected of it, fumbling around for a point in much the same way that Motif spends the pilot episode struggling to craft a joke to justify the punchline “Problem Bitch,” about which he has already begun to sell tie-in t-shirts(**).
(*) The NBC version of “Mulaney” actually had a premise: John wakes up after his latest alcoholic blackout and decides to give up drinking and become a better man. I haven't seen that pilot and can't speak to its quality, but the finished result is a lot like what NBC did to “Bad Judge”: it takes away a clear core idea that some executives may have been nervous about, and adds nothing in its place.
(**) This is a more general thought on modern sitcoms than on “Mulaney” itself, but one of the things we've lost as content restrictions have eased is the creative approach older comedies so often had to take to deal with raunchier subjects. I love it as much as the next guy when Susie on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” starts swearing a blue streak, or when “New Girl” gets as filthy as it gets, but I try to imagine what an episode like “The Contest” would have been like if Larry David had been allowed to use the word “masturbate,” and I suspect it wouldn't have been as much fun. “Mulaney” isn't super-coarse by 2014 sitcom standards, but both the “Problem Bitch” running gag and another one in the pilot about John getting a proctology exam tend to lean on the easiest variations of the dirty jokes provided by their respective contexts.
And whatever confidence and professional ease Mulaney has in the stand-up segments unfortunately vanishes the second he's placed in a scene with his co-stars. Jerry Seinfeld famously wasn't a good actor, and the show had fun with that at times, but when it was just him in the coffee shop with Elaine or George, he came across as a human being having a conversation with other human beings. Mulaney always looks uncomfortable, his line delivery is stilted and unnatural, and that adds to the sense that “Mulaney” is less a sitcom than a vaguely lifelike simulation of one.
Mulaney isn't helped a ton by his more experienced co-stars. Gould is, as he so often has in recent comedy appearances, just picking up a paycheck; his presence never makes sense, and especially not in an episode that has a subplot where Motif watches “Friends” for the first time. (You don't cut from a scene where a guy talks about Ross and Rachel to a scene with the guy who played Ross and Monica's dad – not unless you plan to make some kind of meta joke about it, which the episode does not.) Short, meanwhile, goes the other way, chewing into every bit of scenery surrounding his Regis-esque character, playing to the cheap seats in the studio. The writing at least plays along with that approach, treating Lou as a needy has-been who lives his whole life like a studio audience is watching and hooting along, but it's a performance so big that no one else can play off of him – least of all Mulaney.
FOX made five episodes available to critics. There's no tangible sense of improvement over the course of those five episodes, but there are occasional glimpses of a version of the show that could work down the road once Mulaney relaxes on camera and he and the other writers sharpen their approach. In the most successfully “Seinfeld”ian episode, John dates a doula – always referred to as “the doula” by other characters, in the clear hope that this will turn into a catchphrase – and she winds up being helpful in a circumstance that unexpectedly parallels what she does at work. In another, John and Jane discuss the fact that they've never gotten involved romantically, and Jane elaborately – and, based on John's horrified reaction, accurately – speculates on what it would be like to have sex with him. It's a smart, sustained bit of comic writing, delivered well by Pedrad, and then the show goes right back to stupid, silly jokes about Lou trying to squeeze into skinny jeans or Oscar having lit his kitchen on fire.
Of course, “Seinfeld” debuted 25 years ago, in a very different TV environment. It traveled a circuitous path to success, in an era when its network could afford to be patient for the audience to find it – and for the show to find itself creatively, which took nearly three years (albeit within fewer episodes that are produced in a typical network season). “Mulaney” arrives in a time where patience is a fantasy, on a network that has struggled mightily of late, and it was ordered by a network president who's no longer there, and which is now run by two executives who also oversee the company's TV studio – which does not happen to be the studio of origin for “Mulaney.” As with many of his peers in the comedy business, I like Mulaney's other work and I like the idea of “Mulaney” as a show. In an ideal world, I'd come back later in this season to see if the series had worked through some of its issues. In the world in which “Mulaney” exists, I fear there won't be an opportunity for that to happen.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org