Sometime between wrapping a Broadway show and heading off on his Kid Gorgeous tour, John Mulaney learned to walk again. That’s not a metaphor for the stand-up comic and former Saturday Night Live writer scratching his way back to the top. After all, that Broadway show was the highly successful Oh, Hello, and Mulaney already staged his triumphant Comeback from sitcom cancellation in 2015. No, the comedian, who recently returned to Studio 8H as the host of SNL, thinks he was injured after holding his character George St. Geegland’s sprawling stance for weeks at a time. He sought treatment from the same physical therapist who looks after the American Ballet Theater and learned he’d been walking “wrong” his entire life.
Again, that isn’t just a figure of speech, and certainly not one that applies to Mulaney’s trajectory. His short-lived sitcom, Mulaney, was a rare misstep; the genial comedian kills when he’s live onstage, his bright-eyed expression and “carnival barker” voice gradually heightening the absurdity of his observations. And during this year’s Kid Gorgeous tour, Mulaney managed to sell out a seven-night run at Radio City Hall in his adopted hometown.
That’s the setting for his new Netflix special, John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous At Radio City. Ahead of its May 1 premiere, Mulaney spoke with The A.V. Club by phone about loving the path he’s on, singing lobsters, and what he has in common with prima ballerinas.
The A.V. Club: How far into the Kid Gorgeous tour did you decide to make it into a special?
John Mulaney: Oh, right away. When I go on tour, I know. When I feel we have the hour, we’ll book a place to film it. I normally do assume that at the end of a tour, I’ll film it as a special. With this one, I dragged out the tour as much as possible, because I was just enjoying doing that many dates. But I always thought when I had the hour where I wanted, I’d make sure we were ready to film.
AVC: You now have a multi-special deal with Netflix. Do you expect that to change how you approach touring and making specials? Will it push you to consider different kinds of projects?
JM: No, it won’t change how I tour or how I approach specials. I’m really happy about it because there used to be a pressure to do something else other than stand-up. You know, Mitch Hedberg has the best joke on that—if you became a really good cook, and then they said, “Oh, you’re a really good cook. Can you farm?” I think Mitch’s joke sums it up. This was an agreement to keep working together and keep making what are my favorite things, which are specials and albums. So, more than anything, it made me more excited about the path I wanted to be on.
AVC: There’s a more overtly political bent to comedy these days. How do you take that into consideration in your own stand-up?
JM: I think for any comic, you don’t want to act like you’re Rip Van Winkle and you just woke up and you haven’t heard the news. And then it’s just a variety of people’s preferences of how much they want to talk about politics. Or specifically, the constantly changing politics. I mean, I think Patton Oswalt had the best joke about it in his last special [Annihilation]—I’m paraphrasing—just about how the second you write a joke, the president has gone and done something even worse. His joke is much funnier—I just didn’t want to try to do his material poorly.
Then it’s just a personal preference of how much you want to go into it. I know some comedians who are like, “I’m not mentioning him at all. Why would I? I don’t want to talk about the president.” I think most people find a balance. And I would say it permeates all comedy in terms of some of the sort of delightful anger and some of the chaos and some of the fear we see in people’s eyes, because it’s just a very chaotic time. Even if you’re not mentioning the game-show host president.
AVC: In the teaser for your new special, there’s a joke about you injuring yourself. Is that real? What happened?
JM: It is. I think it happened on Broadway, because I was standing with a very wide gait as George St. Geegland [in Oh, Hello] every night. And I saw a Broadway physical therapist, who also works with the ABT—the American Ballet Theater—and he said to me, “I’ve seen this type of injury among the great prima ballerinas, but never from someone who just stands there and talks,” which I really appreciated. But in doing physical therapy, I found it might have happened with my hip, because I walk wrong.
AVC: How so?
JM: I think I lead with my—I don’t lead with my feet, I lead with my torso, and I drag my feet, apparently. I never knew you were supposed to push off of your feet when you walked. And I tried it, and I walked much faster.
AVC: You really do like to make your way around the stage when you perform.
JM: I do. I like to pace onstage. It also feels good when, with the hip problem, how tight one side of my body would get, it also felt good moving around onstage. And also, I’m just a bland white guy in a suit, so I felt I had to move a lot to keep people interested.
AVC: I’m sorry, I don’t know how we ended up talking about your hip so much.
JM: Oh, I’ll answer any questions about my hip.
AVC: I think it’s a Midwestern thing, to immediately ask how someone’s doing when you find out they’re hurt or sick. But speaking of where you’re from, your comedy isn’t rooted in regional humor, but you’ve cited lots of local characters in the past as influences. What does the term “Midwestern nice” mean to you?
JM: It’s not just the way it’s portrayed in movies. I think it’s a welcomeness, and an enthusiasm for all people, and an assumption that all people just want to come out of their shells. This is more from having interacted with more East Coast introverts and Midwestern people together. That’s what I’ve noticed. It’s a loud kind of “Hi!” But Midwestern people also love to gossip and talk shit just as much as anyone else.
AVC: Fargo (the movie and the TV series) really helped get that into the public consciousness. You have people talking out of the sides of their mouths.
JM: Oh, sure, and they’re saying things privately. Always being there for people, but then at the catering for a wake or something, you might say something about someone. You know the saying “forgive but never forget?” There it’s like “forgive… and love… and accept… and invite to a barbecue… but never forget.”
AVC: You returned to Saturday Night Live recently, but as the host. What was that like? How did your previous experience on the show affect your return?
JM: It made everything more surreal. I didn’t think I could appreciate that place more, but hosting gave me an even deeper appreciation for what goes into the show. Because [as a writer] I had been basically a dairy farmer. I thought, “Ah, I’m doing the work.” As writers, you think, “We’re the ones that are up all night. We’re milking the cows.” And then they were like, “You want to be one of the cows?” And I thought, “Oh, you think I’m pretty enough to be a cow?” But then I was like, “Wait a second, I remember what we did to the cows.”
But so much goes into it. It was like, oh, not only am I writing and trying to listen to the jokes while we rehearse, but I also have to work with the cameramen on our blocking. I’m truly there to rehearse as an actor and the host. And when you think you have a second to rewrite a line or two, you’re pulled into a costume fitting. I texted Bill Hader and Fred [Armisen] and Andy Samberg Friday night, and I just said, “I had no idea what you guys went through. I know we all truly worked hard, but I had no idea what it was like to be writing and performing on that show.”
AVC: The “Lobster Diner” sketch was definitely one of the highlights of the episode, but it’s something that, after the episode aired, you mentioned you wrote years ago. How did that first come together?
JM: Back in 2010, Colin Jost and I wrote a sketch about Hugh Jackman doing both action movies and musical theater, and Andy Samberg played Hugh Jackman, and he kept yelling, “Two sides!” And we were in the rewrite, and we assumed the sketch was called “Two Sides.” And [Andy] kept saying, “Two sides,” and, “Best of both worlds,” and we didn’t know—someone at one point was like, “What is this sketch called, by the way.” And we were like, “I think it’s called Two Sides?” Or “Best Of Both Worlds?” And it was actually called “Both Sides Now.”
AVC: So it all started with a Hugh Jackman sketch?
JM: With a couple exceptions, it was almost to the letter. The songs, spelling “Clawsette” that way—all of that and the singing was written in 2010.
AVC: Who did you originally envision as the lobster king?
JM: The host would have played the lobster in the original version. Looking back, that was a huge mistake on our part. We should have picked Kenan [Thompson].
AVC: Your Netflix deal is obviously going to keep you busy, but do you have any plans to revive Oh, Hello?
JM: Nick [Kroll] and I have talked about it, and George and Gil definitely have plans to revive Oh, Hello.
AVC: On the same scale as before?
JM: Well, they would like a bigger scale. We’re trying to explain to them that relevance goes in and out, and that perhaps two crotchety older white men are not in vogue right now, but George and Gil feel there are no waters they can’t wade into.