If you listened closely this weekend, you might just have heard John Mulaney fans breathe a collective sigh of relief. The 33-year-old Lincoln Park native, who made his name writing SNL favorites such as Stefon, released his second standup special Friday night on Netflix, his first since his eponymous sitcom was panned and canceled earlier this year. Aptly titled The Comeback Kid, the special is Mulaney at his finest: perky, warmhearted, observationally neurotic, and above all bright. Chicago called Mulaney to discuss his road back to standup.
The special is called The Comeback Kid. That’s pulled from the end of the show, from your story of meeting Bill Clinton, but is it also a nod to your sitcom getting canceled?
A small nod, yes. I thought it would be a silly, on-the-nose thing that happened to really work with that Clinton story, and then my wife thought it was funny to go from New In Town [Mulaney’s first special] to The Comeback Kid, ’cause there’s the inherent joke of, well, what the hell happened in between?
How did getting canceled affect the way you approached new material?
I always knew I could do whatever I wanted in standup, and that that freedom isn’t afforded to comedy outlets like TV. Even cable TV has different checks and balances and parameters that make it hard to get exactly what you want out. So I more went on tour with this attitude of, ‘Well, I can now do whatever I want,’ and that informed the special.
Is that why you went back to standup as opposed to TV writing, like you did on SNL?
To me, I’ve always been a standup comedian that gets interrupted doing other things. Each of those things was amazing, but I was about to go on the road for a year in 2008 and I got hired at Saturday Night Live, [and] ever since then I’ve been like, “I’ve got to get back to that tour." So this was picking up where I left off.
I know you toured on this material for a while. How did you edit it, and how did the set change before you filmed?
It’s pretty easy. Performing in different theaters every night, in different cities, certain jokes feel alive every single night, and certain jokes fall by the wayside. Something will be really funny for three weeks, and then I’m like, “You know, I don’t care enough about that joke to have it be shot forever.”
I had a long run about how there’s two Rios and three Madagascars and five Ice Ages and how you don’t even need to make sequels for little kids. That was all funny to me; I just thought that over time it sounded cranky. I didn’t need for it to be on film for all time.
You grew up in Lincoln Park, then went to college and moved to New York, so you didn’t necessarily do the Chicago comedy circuit…
No. I came back and I would do Chicago Underground and Zanies and the Lakeshore Theater, but I was never coming up here the way a lot of my friends who I met later were, like Pete Holmes and Kumail and TJ Miller and Hannibal. I met them visiting, and then back in New York.
Why did you decide to film the special here?
Well, it’s still where I’m from. And in terms of old vaudeville houses throughout America, the Chicago Theatre is just about the best looking theater in the country.
You mine your own parents and marriage and childhood a lot in this special. How do you approach using stories about people you’re so close to?
For starters, I’m just comfortable doing it—I don’t know why. In real life, I don’t open up all that much, and for some reason, I’ve really enjoyed being super personal onstage. And I’ve found that if you tell a genuinely funny story about someone that’s not from an angry place, they’ll be happy with it.
Also, that’s a good reason to be on tour for a year: You work out tons of stories over tons of nights and see what resonates with people. I’m not trying to do, “This is my life, look how weird it is." Because it’s not that weird. It’s just things that resonate with people. Maybe their dad didn’t pull over just to get a coffee at a McDonald’s, but something like that has happened. The hyper-specific is often what works with a large audience.
The distant future comes up a lot, too—there’s the bit with your dog Petunia telling you you’ll die in 2037, and another about paying your mortgage through 2029. What has you so fixated on that right now?
I’m not fixated on it. I’ve learned to think maybe three or four months into the future and no further. Having five- and ten-year plans seems absurd. Ten years ago, I was 23 and I got drunk every night. If you told me I’d be married with a dog, never drinking, and trying to eat healthy, I’d be like, ”What?” So to be like, “Sure, I know what I’ll be doing in ten years…" Boy, I don’t even know what I’ll be doing in one year.
A lot of the special focuses on that middle ground between youth and adulthood. What’s so comically rich about that?
No one ever feels like they clicked and became an adult. Everyone has a bit of a feeling like they’re a fraud. So in terms of it being a rich area, I think, am I grown up? Am I not? As generic and not funny as that sounds, there are so many experiences within that that work as jokes.
Also, things creep up on you. I don’t actually feel that young anymore, and that happened quickly. To many people I might appear young, but… working a lot, getting married, getting a house, all these things happen and you’re like, “Oh, I’m exhausted and don’t feel youthful at all." Other people tell you you have your whole life ahead of you,’ and you’re like, “No I don’t, it’s over." That might play into your question about the future, too. It’s like, I can’t imagine living anymore. Knock on wood, if everything goes all right, there’ll be many more years.
At this point you’ve written for SNL, done a sitcom, and recorded a few specials. What’s your white whale?
I’d like to write one—one—very good movie. One would do it. Other than that, do another standup hour. To me, I want to prove to myself I can do it again. Even though I’ve done [two TV specials and one comedy album], I’ve never had that kind of turnaround, and my friends and contemporaries have—where they burn an hour and go right back out. That is enormously challenging, and enormously rewarding.
Do you think you’ll get back into acting onscreen?
It depends. To what end? I bet I will, but I’m not sure in what capacity. There’s nothing more genuine or freeing than doing standup, so I’m not someone who feels straightjacketed by not acting.
I know you’re taking your sketch show with Nick Kroll, Oh Hello, off-Broadway. Any chance you’ll tour with it in Chicago?
Oh yeah, I’d be open to any of that. Or having a touring company where they play us.