At this point in his career, John Mulaney might be better known in comedy circles than to the general public.
But this is about to change.
The Chicago-born stand-up, who joined the “Saturday Night Live” writing staff in 2008 and quickly gained recognition for creating characters like Stefon, the garish nightlife correspondent portrayed by Bill Hader in frequent “Weekend Update” appearances, recently had his Lorne Michaels-produced comedy pilot picked up by NBC.
It’s the highest profile success yet for the 30-year-old Mulaney, who also has a pair of comedy albums to his name (“The Top Part” and last year’s “New in Town”) and a new stand-up tour that swings by the Barrymore Theatre on Friday, March 1.
At first glance, Mulaney might seem like an unlikely comic. Both of his parents have careers in law (his dad is an attorney and his mom is a law professor), and he received his degree in English literature from Georgetown University. Even so, he remained intent on pursuing a career in comedy, saying, “I wanted to be a comedian from an early age because I wanted to be paid in cash and to have a damaged psyche.”
In a recent interview, Mulaney discussed the NBC pilot, his ongoing thirst for the spotlight and the first time he can remember earning the laughter of an audience.
Congrats on getting your pilot picked up by NBC.
Thanks. It’s very exciting and very scary. So far it hasn’t been too stressful. I’ve already been able to work with some cool people putting together the director and the crew and all that. It’s been fun so far.
Can you tell me anything about the concept?
Well, uh, I’m bad at describing it. I do have another project I want to do, which is a winter game show called “What Time Is It?” where you look out the window and try to guess what time it is and you’re like, “Oh, it’s probably midnight,” but it’s always 5 p.m. That’s really my passion project right now. And then the sitcom is just kind of about my life. It’s multi-camera in front of a studio audience, so it’s very original for 1987.
How much control do you have in shaping the voice and tone of the show? Obviously someone like Louis C.K. has complete control, but when I interviewed Dan Harmon he talked about liking the system of checks-and-balances he had in place with “Community.”
Well, Louis also directs and edits, and I would not want to do that. I’m very happy we have a great director on board. The four-camera sitcom is a medium that I, one, grew up on and, two, have a little experience with staging from my time on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s a whole different thing, however, so there are people who have done a lot of great sitcoms helping out, which I am all for. In terms of how Louis directs, I could never be behind the camera because the tops of peoples’ heads would be cut off. I can barely Instagram things.
How do you think the time you spent in the “SNL” writing room prepared you for the world of sitcom television?
We’ll see if it did. We’re about to find out. You know, “SNL” was great for many reasons. I think the biggest thing I got from it was just the sheer amount of work you do every day and the amount of jokes you churn out and the amount of rewriting you do. At “Saturday Night Live” you’d have to change things on Thursday and on Friday and on Saturday, and it was good to learn to not be too precious about things.
How personally did you take it when people would criticize the show? “It’s nothing like the glory days” is kind of a running attack when it comes to “SNL.”
How personally? It depends. Normally I had a good amount of perspective, and I have a wonderful girlfriend who can tell me to shut up if I’m complaining about online reviews. Occasionally I’d be awake for like 72 hours and Sunday afternoon there’d be some review of it that would tick me off. But the thing is people review the show because they love the show. The fact people even write these reviews means that they watch the show and they care about it. That really is significant. It’s the same thing when people ask about stand-up and hecklers. The worst thing is being ignored. I don’t mind people chiming in as much as people just tuning out.
Are you debuting new material on this stand-up tour?
Yeah, there’s nothing from the last special.
Do you enjoy the process of crafting new material?
I love doing new stuff, but I wouldn’t say it’s enjoyable. I’ve never been like, “I love the rush of walking out there with nothing!” It stinks. Occasionally I’ll have jokes I’ll do off either of my two albums that I just kind of miss doing because they were fun, but otherwise it does feel very good once you’ve written a new hour and can work on it.
You got your start doing improv comedy. Did you find any of those skills translated to stand-up?
Yeah. One way long-form improv is done is one person in the group steps forward and does a monologue and then you go off that. I started to realize I really liked doing the monologues, and I also started realizing I would hog the scenes a lot (laughs). I thought, “Oh, maybe you just want to be out there alone, you insufferable little jerk.” At the same time, I came to New York for a summer and stand-up became more available.
You became close with Mike Birbiglia and Nick Kroll while doing improv at Georgetown University. How would you describe the relationship between the three of you? Is it a friendly rivalry?
Nick Kroll was a senior when I was a freshman, and I just wandered in one day to audition for the improv group and he was the director. But rivalry? No, not at all. Those guys helped me a lot. I slept on Nick’s couch for a summer doing open mikes, and I opened for Birbiglia on a college tour when I was like 23. We just did 30 days straight on the road, which was really invaluable because I got paid enough each night to keep paying rent in Brooklyn.
In his 2012 movie “Sleepwalk with Me,” Mike detailed how he found his comedic voice. What was that process like for you?
I was a natural right away and I got standing ovations my first time onstage. I don’t know why Mike had such trouble.
I was talking to a local comic about that process, and he said he’d go to an open mike and someone would have a Taco Bell joke that was slightly different from his Taco Bell joke, and that forced him to dig deeper, like, “No one will have stories about my dad.”
Of course. That’s the real trick. People always say, “Why do you get so personal?” And it’s because if I just made jokes about “Saved by the Bell,” someone else is going to have jokes about “Saved by the Bell,” and we’re inevitably going to go up right after each other. Somehow the universe loves to put people right after each other who have the same bit.
Was it a challenge for you to invite audiences into your life in that way?
No, which I realize is a gross answer (laughs). I should be more uncomfortable with it. I’m not shy onstage. I might play it close to the vest more in regular life, but I find it very funny to unload on people onstage.
When did you first realize you had a knack for making people laugh?
I know I had a joke when I was 3 or 4. Let’s say 4, because I wasn’t that gifted. When I was 4 I had on a shirt, and I was at a birthday party and someone said, “That’s a sharp shirt.” I guess I said, “Yeah, I use it instead if scissors.”
Did you consider yourself the class clown?
Yeah. There were three of us who were best friends and we were all pretty funny in different ways. Then there were also the wild, destructive funny kids who were like the Gallaghers, which I wasn’t really. But I would kind of write for them. I would be like, “You should go throw that out the window.” It was like, “That kid is a loose cannon and he has a rough home life, so, yeah, he’s probably going to do it.”