Here's an unfortunate interview scenario: You, the interviewer (in this case, me) and your interviewee (comedian John Mulaney) both have colds. Mulaney, on the road somewhere near Kansas City, had just stopped at Whole Foods to stock up on vitamins and other healing elixirs. I was dosed up on plenty of Sudafed.
Despite our various maladies, we made it through a long conversation about Mulaney's endeavors, past and present. He wrote for Saturday Night Live for several seasons before leaving to create his now-canceled sitcom on FOX, Mulaney. And because Mulaney is a Chicago native, he's got plenty of Midwest standup stories, including one about Crackers' very own Ruth-Anne Herber-Bunting.
NUVO: What's brought you to Indianapolis in the past?
John Mulaney: As a kid, I don't recall going to Indianapolis much. When I started doing comedy, though, I emceed at Crackers a couple of times, and then would be the feature act there. That was really fun.
My most memorable thing was at, I think, the Broad Ripple Crackers. It's run by a wonderful woman named Ruth-Anne, who likes to prank comics. She made me help her prank Greg Warren by giving everyone in the audience toy flutes, because he had this joke — it isn't called Flute Man, but that's part of it. So I had to coordinate this whole thing where, in the middle of his act, people were going to pull out toy flutes and start playing. Which I knew was cool, but I also knew was going to ruin the middle of his set.
It was funny to be an emcee, because you're so at the mercy of the club. You can show up for the weekend hoping to get the $400 — and get fired. I had to prank whoever they told me to prank.
NUVO: You said on Marc Maron's podcast that if your TV show was canceled, you'd just do standup and get back on the road. You're back on the road now. What's next?
Mulaney: I'll be filming a special, which I haven't been able to do for a couple of years because I've been working on other crap. So, I'm really excited to do that. I'll be on the road through July as of now. I haven't been able to do this since before Saturday Night Live.
NUVO: What's the worst idea you ever pitched in the SNL writers' room?
Mulaney: The idea that I could never get off the ground was Sherlock Holmes' Last Day On The Job. Everyone was like, "You're the greatest detective that ever lived, and by the way, Sherlock, how did you close that famous case of the stolen jewels, or whatever?" "Well, I found this small flower from the Orient, and I knew that the jewel thief must have been a well-traveled man, but that didn't lead anywhere, so I eventually just railroaded a minority." It was like Sherlock Holmes is just a dirty cop who railroaded poor people. Even I knew it was just sad.
NUVO: Was there a structure for how you chose names and things for the Stefon sketches [which Mulaney co-created with Bill Hader]?
Mulaney: There was no formula. The rule was things we had seen once, but no more than once. Not a fake thing, like a dragon on a Segway. It was always things that I thought I had seen once, like a Hawaiian cleaning woman that looks like Smokey Robinson. It was always within the realm of the familiar.
NUVO: As you transitioned from standup to sketch to sitcom, what are some lessons you learned after doing each for a while?
Mulaney: Oh my god, what a big question. I guess with all of them, pre-planning is stupid. I remember writing standup jokes without having done sets. But as soon as I did my first set, it didn't matter. Everything I thought would work didn't work. And everything I was iffy on was funny.
People always ask, "Why don't they write SNL differently?" I think you need to get into the week, be with the host, see what they're like, remember what it's like to write a show, and then write a sketch.
With a sitcom, it was like standup all over again. I was like, "I need to figure out how I like to do this." If I had months and months to just write scripts — without putting them on — it would be different. You have to get to the stage and rehearse and work with the other actors and see what it's like — and how everyone shines.
In every case, I find pre-planning noble, but not always that useful in comedy. You know comedy once you're doing it.
That was a very good answer. I'm really proud of it. I'm driving with one hand, and it was a big question, and I gave a great answer.
NUVO: Is there anything you miss about your first TV projects?
Mulaney: I sometimes miss Best Week Ever. It was good training for Saturday Night Live. I just got used to assignment writing and learning how to enjoy it. And then on Friday night, it was fun [to know] that if you bombed, or whatever was going on, that you'd be on TV at 11. It was a cool feeling, and you'd get a couple hundred dollars.
NUVO: Is now a good time to tell you I follow your dog Petunia on Instagram? And she's so cute?
Mulaney: Oh yeah? She's really, really cute. I'm really homesick right now for my wife. They're both really cute. Saying goodbye to Petunia when you're holding a suitcase is fucking tragic.