John Mulaney Climbs the Comedy Ladder
by jennifer demeritt
“I want to do the best set possible,” says comedian John Mulaney or his upcoming New York Comedy festival performance.
“I like the idea of playing someone who’s just got off the bus in New York,” says John Mulaney, one of the star performers at this year’s New York Comedy Festival, the week-long laugh-a-thon that begins on November 6. Mulaney’s faux-naïf performing style, coupled with the wry, knowing intelligence behind his observational humor, makes him one of the most distinctive and likable young comics performing today. His “New in Town” special earned him raves when it debuted last year on Comedy Central, an MTV-owned cable channel, and astutely showcased the wide-eyed persona he projects as a stand-up.
Mulaney was raised in a decidedly unartistic family (“My mom’s a law professor, and my dad’s in corporate law,” he says), but he did sketch comedy as a teenager and as a college student at Georgetown University. When he moved to New York after graduating, he quickly finagled his way into the epicenter of the city’s comedy scene, getting an internship at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and a day job as an assistant at Comedy Central. After a road tour with Mike Birbiglia, who performed with him at Georgetown, he went on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Best Week Ever. By 2008 he had a full calendar of stand-up gigs and was pitching a movie with Tracy Morgan.
“In the midst of that I got a call on a Tuesday [telling me] I was going to audition for Saturday Night Live on Thursday,” Mulaney recalls. “I thought this would be great because I could say I got to audition. What a cool story. I’m not going to get it, I knew that,” he says. But the audition went well, and he was offered a job as a writer. Asked if writing for others after performing his own material was a letdown, Mulaney says, “To write for Elton John and Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake—I never thought, hmm, am I too big for this? I never felt anything but grateful to be there.” He performed occasionally on SNL’s “Weekend Update,” and was best-known for helping to create the character Stefon, the adorably addled, awake-for-three-nights club kid played by Bill Hader.
All the while, he continued doing stand-up. “What really put him over the top was his Comedy Central special [‘New in Town’],” says Caroline Hirsch, founder and owner of comedy club Carolines on Broadway and the New York Comedy Festival. “There’s just an honesty about him.”
Last year Mulaney left SNL, and he’s been busy ever since; he performed at the Just for Laughs festival this summer in Montreal and is working on a TV pilot for Fox. As to his upcoming festival performance at The Town Hall, a historic theater, he says, “I want to do the best set possible. However, it’s also a weirdly intimate venue. It doesn’t feel like a barn. It’s fun to be a little loose in those settings.” John Mulaney will perform at New York Comedy Festival November 9 at 7 pm at The Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., 212-997-1003
photography by seth olenick; grooming by annamarie tendler; shot on location at carolines on broadway