John Mulaney has had a bit of a rough year. His long-awaited, much-anticipated sitcom, Mulaney, made its Fox debut a little over 13 months ago, and it wasn’t much of a hit. If anything, it was the opposite, ultimately getting shuffled around the network’s available time slots and harshly panned by most TV critics, most of whom had probably wanted to like it. The show’s de facto cancellation left Mulaney in a bit of a lurch, but he started filling his time with stand-up, going on tour and eventually recording a new special, John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid, which premieres on Netflix this Friday, November 13. Wry, smart, and beautifully shot, The Comeback Kid marks Mulaney’s return to the format that made him (relatively) famous, though he’s not without the loss of some of his youthful luster. He’s better in other ways, though—happier, more settled, and plotting Oh, Hello’s Off-Broadway debut later this year. With all that in mind and with a keen eye toward both the future and the past, The A.V. Club talked to Mulaney about his special, his sitcom, and his internet famous dog.
The A.V. Club: You talk a lot about your dad in The Comeback Kid, and he comes off as hilariously hardcore. For instance, you mention a time when, with three kids in the back of the car, he drove through McDonald’s and ordered just a single black coffee. Was any of that characterization an exaggeration?
John Mulaney: He’s softened a lot now, as many dads do. He’s a grandfather now. He is very sweet and wonderful, he’s a bit more sentimental, and a bit more affectionate, but everything in the special, that is 100 percent how I viewed him as a kid. He was just like, raised eyebrow, always in a suit, super imposing, looked like a news anchor and spoke like one. He loved talking to us, though, and it was cool. I’m glad he did it. He talked to us like an adult. He would debate with us like we were on Firing Line.
AVC: About what?
JM: Oh, little things that would then get blown up into larger philosophical things. Like, “A kid got teased. Did you defend him?” And I was like, “No, I don’t really know him.” And he was like, “So you saw something happening, and you did nothing.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know, I mean, it was some of my friends that were picking on him…” And he would be like, “So, in what way are you better than the people that let the Nazis do what they did? Explain to me how you’re better than them.” It would get to a very historical and argumentative level, quick. It was great.
AVC: That sounds very lawyer-like, which makes sense considering he’s a lawyer.
JM: It was very lawyer-y. It was very, like, “Okay, I’m going to let you make your case, and then I’m going to tear it apart.”
AVC: Do you think you’ve become more like your parents as you’ve gotten older?
JM: In a fun way, I see a lot of my dad in me now. I realize that there are a lot of things I do and say where friends or my wife will be like, “Why were you being a dick to that guy?” And I’m like, “Oh, I thought I was being funny.” Or like, “Why were you so rude to the Jet Ski rental guy?” And like, “Oh, I thought that was a funny way to talk.” My dad is and was very funny and had a really dry sense of humor, which as a kid seemed un-fun. But in retrospect it’s kind of hilarious.
AVC: Do your parents support your stand-up? Were they at the tapings?
JM: Yeah, they were at the taping. They enjoy it. I am aware they don’t love it if I’m dirty at all, but they thoroughly enjoyed the show. It’s very fun. I think they really have a good time.
AVC: You talk about how in love your mom was with Bill Clinton in the special, as well. What did she think of that?
JM: You know, it’s funny and also trivial in retrospect, but many, many people were super done with him by the end of the ’90s. Good Democrats were like, “This guy’s the worst.” So my mom was like disgusted by him, like, “He’s disgusting, what he’s doing!” All that stuff. But I think for a lot of people there’s still a tiny flicker of affection for him.
I remember the head of the Democratic National Committee, this guy Ron Brown, passed away in a plane crash, and Bill Clinton did a press conference about it and his eyes were all red. I asked my mom, “What’s wrong with his eyes?” And she was like, “He was crying.” And then she paused, and then she said, “because he does really care. He really cares.” And I was like, “Oh, part of you still holds out hope for the good side of Clinton.”
AVC: Seeing what he’s done and what Jimmy Carter has done post-presidency gives you hope for people like Obama. They might not be getting a ton done now, but that’s because actually being president is incredibly taxing. They are, at their core, good people.
JM: Being president looks like the worst job in the world.
AVC: You can do a lot of amazing things, but just not in those eight years.
JM: Not without trading on some other things.
AVC: You’ve rather famously talked about Law And Order and The Jinx, and in your new special you talk about HGTV. How much TV do you actually watch?
JM: Well, The Jinx would’ve been one of the more zeitgeist-y things I did watch. I’m a lot more like, HGTV playing all the time or a Netflix documentary on sloths or something. I’ve seen most of the major, important shows, but I watch them all at once, like movies, so my TV relationships are still with shows like Law And Order: SVU, Shark Tank, and HGTV. And I watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I kind of watch garbage. A lot of people are behind on big shows, because they say they have no time. If I have the time, I’ll just choose half of a Wheel Of Fortune and The Bachelor.
AVC: How much of that did you watch before you met your wife?
JM: HGTV? None. But she’s only a recent watcher, as well. We got into Flip Or Flop, and then, once you realize all the shows are similar, it’s just a nice thing to have on.
AVC: There’s something comforting about mindless TV. You work all day, you’re always thinking, and channels like HGTV just give you something you don’t have to worry about.
JM: To me there’s consuming these great shows, and then there’s the act of watching TV, which is, to me, like smoking cigarettes or something. It’s just an activity that’s a little mindless. I still like to turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on. Nick Kroll does that a lot. He doesn’t watch important shows. He’ll just turn on a documentary on Mia Hamm and watch it for an hour. Whatever’s on, we watch.
AVC: What were you watching when you were working on Mulaney?
JM: Oh, nothing. Nothing. God, no. There was no time to do anything. I think I caught True Detective, but I didn’t get to watch the finale until weeks later. But, oh my god, no. It was just living there.
AVC: What did you learn from making Mulaney? What would it take for you to do another show?
JM: Well, that’s a big question. I learned a ton of things from making it, which will be super applicable if I ever do a TV show again, or cast something or work with a big group of people or a big crew. I feel like I learned even more things from the whole experience and aftermath, and then—did you say, “Would I ever do it again?”
AVC: What would it take for you to make another series?
JM: What type of series?
AVC: That’s up to you. Sitcom, drama… you could turn Oh, Hello into a series.
JM: That I’d do. Oh, Hello will do anything. I hope you know that. We accept all offers.
Would I want to do another TV show? It didn’t scar me on doing TV shows, but trying to do 22 episodes of a network show has maybe lost its luster for me. But there are many other types of TV shows. I would do one if I had an idea that I thought no one else was doing. I don’t have one now, but I’m not so addicted to development that I want to have some project going just to be going. But if I have an idea where I’m like, “okay, great, I know exactly what that is and I don’t think anyone else is doing it right now,” I would absolutely give it a shot.
AVC: You said you learned things from the aftermath of the show. What’s one thing you learned? That you don’t like working with networks?
JM: No, it wasn’t that. The network was really nice.
Everything I learned sounds sappy. So, I hesitate—I just mean like, I’m a very lucky guy. Going through that without my wife and all my friends would’ve been very hard. But one interesting thing, one small interesting tidbit, is that I’ve done things that were successful before and people seemed to like them, or I was associated with things that were successful, and that’s really exhilarating. I didn’t realize that a couple days of pure disaster and failure are also kind of exhilarating. I would start laughing sometimes. It was crazy. There was a kind of giddiness to how messed up things were going that was a lot of fun, and I did not expect.
AVC: And some of it had to be out of your hands. The episodes were already made, the show was on the air…
JM: Oh, it was very much out of my hands. It wasn’t like, “Here’s what we’re going to do to fix the show.” They were all in the can. It was kind of like, “Hey, Fox, I sure do love you.” And I often knew what was going to happen, so I had a couple moments where I was like, “Take a minute and appreciate how unique of an experience this is, to completely bellyflop.” It’s kind of interesting to go through.
AVC: This is a hard question, but did you see problems with the show going in? Did you recognize what people would later rail against?
JM: That’s a slightly tricky question. There’s a lot of potential for me to embarrass myself here. But because I think I’ve said this before, I’ll happily say it again. I made the show, I made the decisions, and I was trying to hit a mark that was very specific. I thought I was close enough that people would give me a little grace period, but no.
I thought people would like it, for sure. Maybe my brain pulled a little hat trick on me so that I could do all the work, but I was not sitting there going, “this is not funny” or “this is not good.” We taped for an audience, and you could argue a TV audience is not the greatest litmus test, but… no.
I will say, at the risk of embarrassing myself, that I thought and still think it’s a funny show, but I did not expect that level [of hatred]. I was like, “No one knows who I am. Why would anyone—you wouldn’t set your phasers on this show. It’s just a small show; no one knows who I am.” So when it was sort of widely panned, I was like, “Oh wow, everyone paid attention to this, I thought no one was going to.”
AVC: I don’t want to say that’s flattering, but I suppose there’s some silver lining to knowing that more people know who you are or care about what you’re doing than you thought.
JM: It took a while for me to realize that stuff, but I did realize that later. My mom was like, “All the reviews say you’re a good stand-up.” And I was like, “I don’t care!” It took me a couple weeks to be like, “Oh, people having expectations maybe means they’ve enjoyed what I’ve done.” So that was good.
AVC: Moving on, you and Nick Kroll are turning Oh, Hello into an Off-Broadway show. Why did you decide to go that direction?
JM: When my TV show was canceled, I had to do some interview, and they said, “What are you going to do next?” And I said, “Oh, Hello on Broadway,” with no plans to do that. And then I thought, “That sounds really cool.” So I investigated, with Nick, a two-week run on Broadway, and one person in the meeting we had said, “Let’s face it: Oh, Hello on Broadway will hemorrhage money.” So we were like, “Okay, let’s try it Off-Broadway.” And Off-Broadway is more conducive to those dudes.
AVC: It gives them a lot more to complain about.
JM: And they’re of that Eric Bogosian, Spaulding Gray, Wooster Group era. They’re wannabes, but they’re kind of from that ’80s theater scene, so it made sense to me that they’re down there.
AVC: You have a French bulldog, Petunia, that both appears in the special and is something you talk about. This is a bit of a sappy question, but how has owning a dog made a difference in your life?
JM: It has made a huge difference. I do not say this to my friends who have children, but it is the same as having a child. I will go on record saying that. It’s totally changed everything. And at the same time, I met someone I fell in love with and wanted to marry, so the number of things that I want to get home to used to be zero, and now it’s two. There’s a strong pull, you know? I used to just go on the road and do whatever I wanted, and worked at SNL and didn’t really—I don’t think I was a shitty person but I never really thought about anything other than myself. But I was on the road when Petunia had a hernia, and I was in a hotel, crying, because I was so sad that I had to leave when she was sick. It’s crazy. For someone who has kept a lot of people at arm’s length throughout life, for a dog to get to my emotions that strongly is very funny and very sweet.
It’s also made me get up at like 6 or 7. I go to bed at like 10 or 11 and get up at 7. They need to get up. They need to go out. So, it’s affected our lives so much.
AVC: I’m from a similar situation where I met my husband, and then we got this dog, and now we’re this family. We’re a little gang, and I never had that before.
JM: Oh, yeah. And when my wife and I have to leave her somewhere, we actively miss her and it feels like three without one.
We are obsessive dog owners, though. I’m not saying everyone who gets a dog will have this experience, but yeah. Oh, man.
AVC: You guys have an Instagram account for your dog, which is a step above and beyond most dog owners.
JM: Yes, we do. The notion that I would have that—if you told me 10 years ago, “You will not drink and do drugs and you will have a French bulldog and you will have an Instagram account for that French bulldog,” I don’t know what I wouldn’t believe more.