Pop Culture Spin

The First Peek at “Mulaney”: A Study in Disappointment

John Mulaney, a name you probably have never heard of if you’re not an avid stand-up fan, should be considered one of the funniest comedians in American. You might not know his name, but you certainly know his most famous character creation: Bill Hader’s Stefon. When Bill Hader broke character during his Stefon portions of Weekend Update, those are points when John Mulaney changed the teleprompter on the fly to find the funniest possible joke. His hour special New In Town was arguably the best hour special of 2013, and Mulaney left SNL in late November at the top of his game. Though many speculated (and in my case, hoped fervently) that Mulaney would be the top choice to replace Seth Meyers as the Weekend Update anchor, fans were delighted to hear that Mulaney’s reason for leaving Saturday Night Live was to write, produce, and star in his own sitcom!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLkkYcVVYsQ

Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs when NBC, a network with which Mulaney had a great relationship, turned down his pilot before it was eventually picked up by Fox. But when, after months of anticipation, Fox released the first Mulaney trailer… the air of expectation quickly turned to one of disappointment. Let’s break down this trailer moment by moment:

0:00-0:32. Apparently this show works Seinfeld style, where Mulaney will do stand-up as sort of the framework of the show. Fine, it’s a tried-and-true style. Mulaney recycles some of his old work from deleted scenes of his special, except in this setting it comes off slightly awkward and stand-offish. But still, no big red flags yet.
0:38. The voiceover immediately introduces “Emmy Award-Winner” John Mulaney. Um, he won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyics for being one of the writers of Dick In A Box. I’m a fan of Mulaney, but introducing him like James Gandolfini is misleading to say the least.

0:46. Your first real joke of the promo is Martin Short putting an Emmy in the mirror to make it look like two Emmys? Uh oh. The premise here is starting to grow fishy.

0:50. Here we’re introduced to Andre, also known as 2014 Newman. Ho ho, a repulsively short and chubby character who thinks he’s ladies’ man? Mulaney, always on the cutting edge of comedy.

1:03. Again we have Martin Short put up for laughs as the eccentric boss of John Mulaney. The Fox promo is trying to convince us that the third Amigo is a big get for this sitcom—don’t buy it. Martin Short has made a career of riding of the coattails of more talented and successful comrades. The problem with Short isn’t that he’s an unfunny actor, it’s simply that he’s offputtingly earnest. It’s hard to handle more than a small dose of Martin Short at any time because it’s so painfully evident how much effort he is putting in. It’s the kind of desperation that you might find in that guy at work who always is trying to force himself out of the “work friend” sphere and into the “weekend friend” sphere. This makes him a great actor for three or four episode stints on a sitcom, but to put stock in him as a lead for a show is a low-reward, high-risk investment.

1:11. The funniest non-stand up joke of the trailer is in this moment, and yet, it’s one that’s almost too dark to be funny. Mulaney suggesting that Nasim Pedrad might shoot herself over her love life for laughs? I winced at that punchline more than I laughed.

1:13. Here we’re presented Seaton Smith as he has a spot of trouble with a lady. His introductory line is “I love you, but I’m not in love with you. And also I don’t love you.” Beyond the cliché and over-cooked nature of this scene, what kind of line is that to introduce this character? He comes off as a manipulative, lying jerk. I can’t think of one person who would hear that line and think, “Man, I want to see more of this person’s escapades and root for them in the future.” In a different context, that very line could come out of the mouth of any douchy 90’s frat boy/popular kid antagonist.

Also, who the hell is Seaton Smith? The woman sitting across from him (and hopefull about to slap him) is played by Natasha Leggero, a talented stand-up comic whose credits in 2014 are longer than Seaton Smith’s entire resume. Fox may as well has introduced Seaton Smith as “Jay Pharoah Wouldn’t Split Time Between SNL and This Sitcom”.

1:28. I feel bad for Nasim Pedrad, who I can only imagine took this role as a desparate leap. Pedrad is the oldest female cast member of Saturday Night Live right now, and unlike the men of SNL, who seem to be able to incubate as long as they would like before jettisoning off to a career or lack thereof, the women of SNL have much shorter tenures on the show before catapulting into movies, sitcoms and/or obscurity. Whether this comes from a double standard demand for younger and fresher women in comedy, I can’t say, but Pedrad has never really flourished into the comedienne she could be on SNL. The first part of her career there she was overshadowed by Kristen Wiig and Abby Elliot, and then upon Wiig’s departure was outshined by bright upstarts like Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong. Pedrad knows she doesn’t have the stage time to make the jump to movies or her own 30 Rock or Parks & Rec, so I assume Mulaney threw her a lifeline and she took the first thing that came along. It’s a real shame… it could kill her post-SNL career before it even starts.

1:29. Oh good, skinny jeans jokes. I was worried that this show wouldn’t feel hackneyed and out of touch.

1:37. At this point, we get a montage of an odd assortment of images, thrown together so fast that they’re supposed to fool us into thinking they’re funny. Starting with…

1:39. A SKATEBOARDING RASTA-DOG? Wow, can’t see that for free on YouTube! Sorry, you can? You can. You can see that on YouTube. It’s here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8XAlSp838Y).

1:40. You might not be able to tell, but Short and Mulaney are wearing the same fedora hat in this scene. What a clever mix-up. No doubt one of them feels foolish.

1:42. The shot of Mulaney on the bed isn’t him crying for help from some hilarious situation, he just saw the future ratings of this show. ZING.

1:43. Wait, Elliot Gould is in this? Bring him in here! Get rid of this Martin Short nonsense! I need more Jack Geller in my life!

1:49. The arm flex joke… that one was pretty okay. I’ve done that.

1:53-2:26. The trailer inexplicably also ends with Mulaney stand up, as if saying, “We’re so sorry for making you sit through that, but here’s your reward! Watch in September!”

Look, I don’t want to bash this show before I’ve even seen it, but Mulaney currently has so much working against it. The multi-camera sitcom with full laugh track can still work in 2014, as we saw with How I Met Your Mother and (commercially, if not exactly intellectually) Big Bang Theory. But what Mulaney lacks is a fresh take, a perspective that hasn’t been done before. To do a “my friends and I hang out at my apartment and our collective bar/coffee shop/deli” show, you need to make sure that you have a clear idea of what you are trying to say and what makes your voice different, and I fear that without that, Mulaney is nothing more than recanned jokes with newer and more diverse faces. Right now, this show feels like Seinfeld accidently knocked up 2 Broke Girls, and their baby is ripe for cancellation. A show like Mulaney looks so bad, it could take a comedic genius like John Mulaney to clean up this mess.

Featured image courtesy of Matt Kleinschmidt/Flickr.

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