One Question Quiz
John Mulaney in his comedy special Kid Gorgeous.
John Mulaney in his comedy special Kid Gorgeous.

Pop CultureJanuary 27, 2020

Wholesome, witty and woke: The unproblematic comedy of John Mulaney

John Mulaney in his comedy special Kid Gorgeous.
John Mulaney in his comedy special Kid Gorgeous.

Jean Sergent writes about her comedy crush John Mulaney, and what makes his brand of wholesome yet sharp comedy so special.

Who is John Mulaney and why do people love him so dang much? John Mulaney is a white, middle class, American stand up comedian. He’s a former Saturday Night Live writer, voice actor (Into the Spider-Verse, Big Mouth), and the living embodiment of a child’s drawing of a man. So what’s there to love? Truly a question for our times. And yet, dear reader, when it comes to John Mulaney, I ask you: what’s not to love?

I asked some close personal friends of mine why they also dig Mulaney. Here are some of their responses:

“He’s gentle. Also smart but kind I reckon!”

“I really love Oh, Hello!

“I love how we both have things for goodwill in the boot of the car and how much we love our wives.”

“He is so pure also a little bit old-timey but not in the problematic way. He is smart and clever and his delivery is so wry.”

What to do with all these lovely, heartwarming data points? Well, I’ll engage my master’s degree in sociology and do a coded analysis of course. Let’s break these passionate words down into cold, clinical themes.

Theme One: Good At Comedy 

John Mulaney doesn’t trade in hot takes. He has an old-timey joke style that relies on rhythm and insight rather than pithy observation. His storytelling style always punches up not down, or else he’s the butt of his own jokes. Smooth, glorious, unproblematic.

He has an openness and vulnerability that – in a slight paraphrasing of his own words – makes you think you could pour soup into his lap and he’d probably apologise to you. He doesn’t rely on brash masculinity and pushiness (think Jim Gaffigan or Anthony Jeselnik) in his joke delivery because he doesn’t need to show you that he’s funny. He has the science of comedy – rules, rhythms, and devices – ingrained in his DNA, and his artistry comes from the very cliched and yet so often unattainable principle of just being yourself. Too Old To Be A Duckling is the sweetest, funniest, most innocent and unproblematic joke imaginable, but John Mulaney imagined it and now you can enjoy it.

Theme Two: Wholesomeness and Purity

John Mulaney loves his wife, he donates things to goodwill, and he literally and very much on purpose made a children’s comedy special about death and anxiety. He was an alcoholic druggie scumbag in his twenties and is now a fountain of angelic gentlemanliness in his thirties, which should truly give us all a life lesson in the power of positive manifestation.

But back to the first point: John Mulaney loves his wife. Like, he really loves his wife. Comedians don’t usually love their wives! It’s usually ‘my wife this my wife that’ in a way that probably satisfies some heterosexual men who genuinely hate women but spend time with them anyway. This gross, 90s, three-camera sitcom trope is tired and old, but it’s part of stand up comedy’s evolution, from vaudeville routines through to sexist British pub comics like Bernard Manning into the confessional therapy comedy of someone like Marc Maron. The wife ‘bit’ is so much a part of the framework of stand up that subverting it is the only possible evolution. John Mulaney pulled off that switcheroo, and gifted the world with an iconic routine:

Theme Three: General Weirdness

One of the most delightful things about John Mulaney is that he is definitely a lot weirder than he seems on face value. One way to sniff out the true weirdness of a comedian is to look at the characters and alter egos they construct. Think about the way Borat or Ali G give Sacha Baron Cohen the license to behave in otherwise entirely unacceptable ways. Mr Bean shows a completely different side to Rowan Atkinson, while Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson are vehicles for the inner lives of Barry Humphries. 

John Mulaney’s id is on full display in one of my favourite cultural creations, Oh, Hello, which centres on two elderly men from the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Gil Faizon (played by Nick Kroll) and George St Geegland (Mulaney). Legend has it that the characters were inspired by two men Kroll and Mulaney saw in a bookshop buying themselves individual copies of Alan Alda’s autobiography. Gil and George are sort of Alan Alda/Bernie Sanders types – leftist and eccentric, yet so much darker, funnier, and more disgusting than either of those pillars of white humanity. They’re misinformed, old, harmless creeps whose close friends include an abortionist called Doctor Wong. They evolved from stage personas to podcast guests to sketch show characters (with a prank show called Too Much Tuna) to Broadway stars. If they are for you, then they are absolutely for you.

Theme Four: Existential Kindness

Now listen, John Mulaney has so much material you could do a deep dive into Netflix, YouTube or Spotify and come out so much richer for it. But may I remind you of a point I made earlier – he made a children’s comedy musical special. Released on Christmas Eve, John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is an hour-long variety show of songs, chat, and sketches that lift the soul and soothe the heart.

The core company of children are wickedly talented and fabulous performers, and the guest cast – including David Byrne for goodness sake – are generous performers who expose their tenderness with artistry and aplomb. It’s a magical concoction. Since I first watched it on Christmas Eve and in the three viewings I’ve had since, I can’t stop thinking about a) Girl Talk with Richard Kind, b) the song I Saw A White Lady Standing In The Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once A Week), and c) at what age will the two children who do sketches with David Byrne suddenly have a lightning bolt of realisation that they sang and did sketches with David Byrne?

Ultimately, John Mulaney is out there in the world doing the most to entertain and delight us. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, then please help yourself to the smattering of clips provided for you by me, your kind and generous cultural guide. These key qualities that delight and entrance viewers are what differentiate Mulaney from some of your more abrasive and problematic comedians.

You don’t need Louis CK, if you ever liked him to begin with. Razor-edged brutality doesn’t need to be bogged down in misanthropy and misogyny. Comedy can be just as devastating when it’s kind, not just when it’s cruel, crass, or crude. John Mulaney is whip-smart, lightning-fast, and intoxicatingly funny. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest Netflix account and inhale Kid Gorgeous, Oh, Hello on Broadway, and John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch at your earliest convenience. 

All of John Mulaney’s content, including his most recent special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, is available on Netflix.

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