Sharp, sardonic, and with a great knack for telling a story, John Mulaney is one of America’s funniest stand-up comedians. But there’s no obvious “persona” that rises out of Mulaney’s stand-up work, which might be why the comic’s eponymous Fox sitcom takes some time to find its feet. He can’t hang his hat on anything as big, broad, and distinct as Roseanne Barr’s “domestic goddess” or Tim Allen’s grunting Men Are Pigs schtick; he doesn’t have a soft-drink campaign or a best-seller familiarizing him with unacquainted viewers. Such is the danger when some of your sharpest material is based on watching afternoon repeats of Law & Order—at the heart of his appeal, John Mulaney is everyman.
But there are some blackened, hardened veins running through that heart, and it’s this hidden wickedness that provides hope at the end of the fall season’s shakiest comedy pilot that features no internal monologue. Much like Review’s Andy Daly, Mulaney knows how to wield a milquetoast facade to unexpectedly dark ends, though the darkest it usually gets (on Mulaney and in his stand-up) can be contained within a basic-cable true-crime story. Also an up-and-coming comedian, Mulaney’s on-screen alter ego thinks a lot about death and is mistaken for a serial-killer copycat; one of the show’s stand-up framing sequences deals with the phenomenon of strangers perceiving one another as threats on the street. (“I wanted to go up to her and be like, ‘Hey, no—I’m not a man!’ But I think that would be equally creepy, if you were in a subway at 2 o’clock in the morning and I chased you down, grabbed you and said, ‘I’m not going to kill you—I’m a little boy.”) The whole world makes Mulaney the comedian nervous, and those nerves are tensing up into the stories that Mulaney the show has to tell.
But first, it has to go through the messy work of converting the star’s existing material into stories that function with an ensemble: roommates Jane (Nasim Pedrad) and Motif (Seaton Smith), boss Lou (Martin Short), wacky neighbor Oscar (Elliott Gould), and pot dealer/nuisance Andre (Zack Pearlman). With Mulaney playing himself—and occasionally reciting his own words—it falls to his co-stars to color the world of the show, done most effectively when they give the lead character reason to be nervous. In the grand tradition of Seinfeld, The Bob Newhart Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond, the guy with his name in the title lends the show his voice—it’s the supporting players who give life to the thing.
Mulaney finds his most consistent source of anxiety in Short’s character, a manic showman in the Martin Short mold who hosts a chintzy game show—and treats the rest of his life like it’s a chintzy game show he’s hosting. Motif is a working comic like Mulaney’s character, which makes for three characters in showbiz, a limiting premise at the start: John’s and Motif’s identities are tied closely to their profession, prompting storylines about a romantic interest who only dates comedians or a punchline-turned-catchphrase in need of a joke. The show opens up when the comedians who are roommates are written as roommates who happen to be comedians, a shift that’s beneficial for Pedrad’s character as well. Jane is much more enjoyable when she’s involved in the guys’ shenanigans, rather than peering in from the outside.
And when everyone gets a fair chance to play, Mulaney finds its right type of weird. The ingredients are here for a show that’s more than a showbiz satire or a four-friends-and-a-couch comedy, and that starts coming together once Andre’s hoisting heavy home furnishings all by himself and Jane is seducing her new cat into sharing a bed. For superficial reasons—John Mulaney playing a fictionalized version of himself, the New York setting, Andre as Newman to Mulaney’s Jerry—Mulaney has already garnered plenty of unflattering comparisons to Seinfeld. In addition to being premature—Seinfeld didn’t look so hot in its first handful of episodes, either—the comparison is inaccurate: In the Mulaney-Lou relationship, the live-action cartoon tendencies, and Saturday Night Live pedigree (Mulaney and Pedrad’s old SNL boss, Lorne Michaels, executive produces) the Manhattan-set comedy Mulaney most closely resembles is 30 Rock.
Now all Mulaney needs is a protagonist with an outlook as sharp and defined as Liz Lemon’s. It has the beginnings of one in Mulaney’s stand-up, and a willfully weird show can be seen forming around the comic’s observations and preoccupations. Of the three Mulaney episodes Fox made available beyond the pilot, each improves on the one that came before, an early sign of a show worth keeping an eye on. Or, at the very least, a show worth bingeing midway through the season, between the DVRed SVU reruns that might be Mulaney’s most appropriate aperitif.