Stand-up guy: John Mulaney gets big laughs in ‘Kid Gorgeous’

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

Even if you don’t know John Mulaney, you’ve probably seen his work.

From 2008 to 2013, he was a writer on “Saturday Night Live” where, among his many contributions, he co-created the Stefan character with Bill Hader.

For three seasons, he played elderly New Yorker George St. Geegland opposite Nick Kroll’s Gil Faizon on Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show,” The two later adapted the sketch into the Broadway show “Oh, Hello” in 2016.

He created and starred in the charming but short-lived 2014 sitcom “Mulaney” on Fox. The show, which was Mulaney’s attempt at a traditional three-camera sitcom in the vein of “Seinfeld,” never clicked despite a strong cast that included Elliott Gould, Martin Short and Nasim Pedrad.

He’s been a writer on shows like IFC’s documentary parody show “Documentary Now!,” and various awards shows, including the Golden Globes and the Emmy’s. He won an Emmy for the latter in 2011.

He also co-wrote Seth Meyers’ monologue for the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner; the one where Myers’ roasting of Donald Trump, in part, compelled the then-reality star and Obama birther to run for president (not so funny in hindsight).

Mulaney is a prolific comedian, with an old-timey Vaudevillian sensibility; one of his first credits was a parody of “I love the ‘80s” called “I Love the ‘30s” for Comedy Central. Influences of Conan O’Brien and early seasons of “The Simpsons,” especially the John Swartzwelder episodes, are apparent in Mulaney’s work. (The title of his new Netflix standup special is a deep-cut “Simpsons” reference.)

As a standup, Mulaney’s onstage presence is that of a lanky, self-deprecating carnival barker, who draws the audience into each joke with showy setups, as if to say, “Now, gather ‘round, folks, and listen good. You’re in for a real treat!”

His latest special, “Kid Gorgeous,” is, indeed, a real treat. The special, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month, is a comedic home run that showcases Mulaney at the top of his game. Set against the grand backdrop of Radio City Music Hall’s appropriately gorgeous stage, Mulaney glides effortlessly between topics ranging from childhood memories to married life to politics to religion. Each transition is executed smoothly, and every joke lands with confidence and ease.

Being roughly the same age as Mulaney, his observations have a ring of familiarity to me. It’s not nostalgia, or making references as a shortcut for jokes; rather, it’s a recognition of shared experiences and points of reference, such as riding Huffy bikes, or saying he “lived like a g-damn Ninja Turtle,” in college.

An extended bit about elementary school assemblies featuring grizzled cops talking about stranger danger was immediately relatable. The story was elevated by Mulaney’s masterful storytelling abilities, which brought real-life Chicago detective J.J. Bittenbinder to life in vivid and hilarious detail.

Another segment about all the time and money he wasted at an overpriced college — he attended Georgetown University — rings true for any millennial currently buried in debt and stuck with a useless degree. That he, too, was an English major hit especially close to home. “I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen, and then I didn’t,” he quips. (Me, too, man. Me, too.)

Mulaney, who typically avoids politics in his act, leans into it in “Kid Gorgeous.” “I’ve never really cared about politics,” he says. “But then last November, the strangest thing happened.”

Without once saying Donald Trump’s name, Mulaney deftly captures the chaos and insanity of the Trump presidency by using an extended metaphor about a horse lose in a hospital.

“No one knows what the horse is gonna do next, least of all the horse,” he says. “He’s never been in a hospital before. He’s as confused as you are.”

It’s not the most trenchant takedown of Trump you’ll find, but it’s an imaginative and absurd premise that gets big laughs.

John Mulaney is a comedian I’ve enjoyed and admired for some time now. As his career has progressed, I’ve rooted for him and hoped he would eventually receive the recognition he so deserves. With “Kid Gorgeous,” he irrefutably proves his comedic brilliance and makes his case for becoming one of the greats of his generation of comedians — no small feat considering the high caliber of his peers.

CHECK IT OUT

“John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” as well as Mulaney’s previous specials “New in Town” and “The Comeback Kid,” are now streaming on Netflix. Also on Netflix: “Oh, Hello on Broadway” and seasons one and two of “Documentary Now!.”

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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