John Mulaney on His New Netflix Special, ‘Documentary Now,’ and Why He’s So Into Judaism

While the title of John Mulaney’s The Comeback Kid refers to Bill Clinton — specifically hip, ’90s-era ladies’ man Bill Clinton — and not Mulaney himself, that hasn’t stopped the media from pointing out that it’s a fitting name for the special.

The Comeback Kid, out on Netflix this Friday, is Mulaney’s first high-profile release since the cancellation of his eponymous Fox sitcom after just 13 episodes. Since then, he’s written for his former SNL coworkers Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s series Documentary Now and performed across the country, refining material that he finally recorded this May at the Chicago Theatre.

Touching on marriage, Back to the Future, and legalizing marijuana, the hour is a reminder of Mulaney’s status as one of the funniest stand-ups working today, period. (The comedian hasn’t released a full-length special since 2012’s New in Town, also available to stream on Netflix.) In anticipation of the special’s release, Flavorwire spoke to Mulaney about returning to stand-up, his interest in Judaism, and the upcoming Off-Broadway adaptation of hit Kroll Show sketch series “Oh, Hello.”

Flavorwire: I just watched your special! It was so nice to see Bill Clinton get some credit as the pre-Obama cool president.

John Mulaney: He was the first that I ever saw in my lifetime. He seemed like the first ever when I was a kid.

Not to be the billionth interviewer to ask about the fallout from your show this week, but you were obviously a stand-up before Mulaney, and a successful one. Was it any different going out on the road after headlining a network show?

Well, different how?

I was thinking in terms of how it changed your reputation. You’re more of a public face than someone who’s just known as a stand-up.

Did more people come out to see me because I’d been on a network show? It wasn’t exactly the biggest network show. I was never sure. I’d done a stand-up special in 2012 for Comedy Central, and after that I’d been working at Saturday Night Live for two more years, and I’d been working on this sitcom for two years across two networks. So I wasn’t out on the road, really.

But the albums I had put out and the specials I had put out were circulated some on Pandora and Sirius Radio. I’d start to hear people say “I’ve heard your stand-up” more and more, even though I wasn’t actively putting anything out. Then, when I went out on tour, there were just a ton of people. I hadn’t been to so many cities in several years. It seemed like maybe there were a lot of people who’d been following it. I’m sure some people were introduced to me through the Fox show, but it also felt like the albums I had put out had been working for me.

How about for you personally? Was it different dispositionally?

Whatever’s going on in your life when you go do stand-up, it might be in the back of your mind. You might have to put it aside when you walk onstage. I think that’s true with a lot of life stress. I had some stress from professional things when I went out on the road, but I wasn’t mentally torn about what to do. I was so relieved to be back onstage.

You open the special by mentioning that you haven’t been to Chicago in a long time, and that it’s your hometown. What was the logic behind filming the special there?

Some of it was timing. I wanted to do a huge show in Chicago, and I knew I wanted to tape a special, and I wanted to tape the special as late into the spring as I could so I could keep working on the jokes and stuff. Carnegie Hall and different big venues, they were earlier in the year. I thought, “Well, this is awesome, but I don’t know if I want to tape this right now.” It just all came together that the Chicago show, at the Chicago Theater, could happen at the end of May. I thought, “That’s perfect. Let’s just do it there.”

In addition to touring, you also co-wrote a great episode of Documentary Now parodying The Thin Blue Line. The whole premise of the series is this obsessive fandom of documentaries, but are you also a documentary guy?

Oh yeah, completely. I get so into them I really can’t watch a narrative film sometimes. And I can watch documentaries on anything, too. I really appreciate someone who did a lot of research on something. No matter what it is, I can get into it, and I’m happy to watch a deep dive.

Do you have any all-time favorites?

Paris Is Burning is one of my favorites. So many! Why am I now blanking?

The War Room is one of my favorites. Classics like Gimme Shelter and stuff. Fog of War I’m pretty fascinated by; I loved Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. All show business documentaries. All crime documentaries. There’s this documentary, My Architect, that I think about a lot. Have you seen that one?

No, I haven’t.

A guy whose father was Louis I. Kahn, who was one great architects of the 20th century — he was sort of an estranged father to this kid, and now the adult is learning about his dad by tracking down his buildings. It’s a very interesting film that I think about a lot.

Did you get a chance to check out the Act of Killing sequel that came out this year, The Look of Silence?

I did. It was insane. Sorry – that’s an understatement.  

Was it hard at all to parody something that’s pretty somber subject matter, including police murder and wrongful conviction?

It is, and I take that stuff very seriously. But I also watch and consume so much of it that when you’re just very familiar with true crime, your brain can make jokes about it faster. Thin Blue Line was so iconic to all of us that it was less making fun of a wrongful conviction or a murder and more taking on and putting a spin on one of the most famous documentaries ever. And as soon as you thought, “Oh, what if you didn’t root for the innocent guy?” it was just very funny. That Fred voice was like, yeah, everything became clear very quickly.

I wanted to talk a bit about “Oh, Hello.” Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing with the Off-Broadway show that you couldn’t in sketches or even previous live performances, like the one you guys did at 92Y?

I love the idea of the schedule. It’s similar to the stand-up thing, and it’s similar to what I saw as show business when I watched I Love Lucy as a kid, which is that Ricky would go to the club at night and do his show and he had all day free. That’s just, like, the best life ever. As a stand-up, it’s more about the theater life being so desirable to me. [laughs] It just seems great to go do your show at night and then leave in a scarf.

Between some of your material about your wife and “Oh, Hello,” you might talk more about Judaism than any Gentile comic around. Is there something that’s thematically interesting about Judaism to you?

Yes. I was a theology minor in college — I’ll hold for applause.

I took a lot of classes on Judaism. I grew up Catholic; I really gravitate towards Judaism theologically as well. I just like the perseverance of it, and the sort of real-world perseverance. It’s very much about how to live, and the idea of fixing the world, and also a lot of ambiguity about spiritual things. Sort of, “Who the hell are we to ask that question or know that?” and I feel that way. And also I love Mel Brooks and have since I was a little kid.

You put a three-year-old in front of Mel Brooks and he’s gonna like the way that sounds. That rhythm has been my favorite rhythm forever.

 

Just so you know, I think watching the video of the 92Y event is the last time I actually cried laughing. It’s so funny.

I laughed so hard on stage. That was so fun.

Out of curiosity, how much of it was improvised? All of it?

Yeah! Like, 90% of it. In the first two minutes we had a few jokes, and that’s what we’d written. That’s all we had, too! We did not write stuff for most of the questions of the Q&A. It was so weird.