Questions for John Mulaney
The Saturday Night Live writer talks about his stand-up special, New in Town.
Slate: I saw you tell a story about your parents knowing Bill Clinton in law school. Your dad was very skeptical about Bill’s intentions with your mom. I thought it was terrific—was there a reason it didn’t end up in the Comedy Central special?
Mulaney: You’re talking about the story I told onstage at Eugene Mirman’s show that I tested out there and just wanted to try. Sometimes it’s fun to tell personal stories at shows like that where even though there’s a couple hundred people, it’s not being shot and going out on TV or anything. And I’ve definitely told stories about myself or others that I then go, “Okay, I would not do that on television necessarily.” By the way, for anyone reading this, it’s not an incriminating story. It was something I was working on after the special.
Slate: When you’re testing out material at small venues, do you ever worry about it being taken out of context and put online in some way?
Mulaney: There’s a vibe in a room when you’re doing stand-up, that if you quoted something a stand-up said in print, without the context of how playful they were trying to be or what the vibe in the room was like, it could seem really dirty or offensive and you can’t quite capture what it was like in that moment. That’s the most I’ve ever used the word “vibe,” by the way. But I don’t worry too much about it. It is interesting to see how stand-up comedy shows are being tweeted about and discussed. It might not be a bad thing.
Slate: Another recurring theme in your stand-up, besides the anxiety, is Law and Order. Do you just watch the new episodes of SVU on TV or do you watch the reruns of the other shows?
Mulaney: I not only watch it when it’s on TV but for a long time my girlfriend and I would watch SVU on Hulu Plus. And we’d already seen every episode. It was a bummer to find that out. We would just scroll through them and read the episode titles, like, “Have we seen ‘Bound’?” “Yes.” “Have we seen ‘Double Jeopardy’?” “Yeah.” And she remembers them much better, so she can tell from like the Hulu thumbnail that we’ve seen it.
Slate: What do you like so much about those series?
Mulaney: It’s the structure. If they have arrested somebody before the half-hour, that is not the person, because they can’t prosecute someone for 45 minutes; they can only prosecute them for a half-hour. If they’ve arrested someone at the half-hour, it’s probably the person. But if they arrest someone early and go to trial, there’s a major twist coming, maybe that person is taking the rap for their dad who actually did the murder, or maybe vice versa, they’re taking the rap for their kid. That happens a lot.
Slate: This is such a hacky job interview question but do you have a five-year plan?
Mulaney: Well, I want to do another hour special. I want to work on the next hour of stand-up. And no, actually, I don’t like five-year plans. You don’t know the future, so I don’t know why people go, “If I don’t make partner by the time I’m 32 …” Well, you could be in jail, what do you know? You could be framed for murder.
This interview has been condensed and edited.