Riding High – Comedian John Mulaney is Hot
John Mulaney is in his West Village apartment, wiped out at 1 p.m. His dog Petunia is splayed on the wood floor in the next room. The air conditioner is cranked. You’d think they had just completed a half-marathon. Farthest thing from it. What happened that morning may very well find its way into Mulaney’s stand-up routine one day. The Emmy Award–winning comedian is cooled off enough now to talk about that and other things—like developing a new special, maturing beyond his baby-faced appearance, and coming to the Berkshires to headline the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center annual gala on August 10.
What’s been going on today? It’s very hot and the barricades for the Pride parade are already up. A lot of the traffic is already being rerouted. This morning, I got up at eight to take Petunia to the vet. She’s totally fine. She just needed some stomach medication. It was not a problem getting her in an Uber. I told the driver I have a dog, and you gotta take her. It’s so hot. I have a stroller for the dog, but I can’t push her 40 blocks. So I get in the car and she’s panting, and they kept looking back. I was, like, this is a six-year-old, house-broken dog who might not be perfectly seated the entire time. In the back of my mind, I was thinking my dog might throw up because it’s bumper-to-bumper-traffic. I brought some cash in my pocket in case it happened, and I would just go, here, I’m sorry, I’ll help you clean it. That felt like running a half-marathon. I think a good stressful half hour can wipe me out for the equivalent of a 13-mile run.
You are preparing for something new? I’m working on a project that will have me and a group of other people. It’s not like a stand-up special, but more of an eclectic special. I’m not meaning to be vague, like the idea will get spoiled. I just don’t want to mislabel it. But it’s myself and some other people and some children that we were casting, and it’s been very, very fun. This is for Netflix. I’ve done a couple of stand-up specials for them.
You performed in 2010 at Solid Sound. What do you think of the Berkshires? There’s a stretch of drive in California on Highway One from Big Sur to San Simeon. It’s all beautiful, this unbroken, two-lane road. I remember thinking, if the Berkshires were closer to me in New York City, I would just commute. It really felt like Big Sur.
Your comedy appeals to a wide age range. Why do you think that is? It’s extremely great and exciting to tour and see parents with their teen or kid and they both seem to enjoy the show a lot. I really love that. I would never for a second try to analyze why it’s working, if it’s working. I’d say it’s been a really lucky couple of years. I really love doing stand-up more than anything. I hope that comes across.
Do you think you will ever look older? Yes! It just happened. I did a show with Tan France from “Queer Eye.” He guessed my age. He asked how old I am. I said I’m 36. My whole career, I’ve said how old I am. You know, whatever age I am—28, 27, 33, 34—people always go six years earlier. He said, “I thought you were closer to 40.” I stopped dead in my tracks. I was, like, what? I told my wife about it, and she said, yes, you look your age, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Do you like looking your age? I didn’t have any particular interest in looking young. Not in any way was it important to me, however, that’s easy to say when you’re young, or younger. I have a tear in my hip and it causes back problems and such, so it’s been interesting to have something not that serious slow me down a little. But it all suits my moods that I’ve had since I was about four or five years old, which is I’m an adult man, get out of my way.
Is that why you wear suits onstage? I started wearing suits in 2012, for the special “New in Town.” I wanted to wear a suit, but would I be able to move my arms? So I wore it the night before in Philadelphia. I was doing shows, and I would wear a plaid shirt and jeans and New Balance sneakers and everyone in the audience would be my age, and they’d be wearing a plaid shirt and jeans and New Balance sneakers. I remember I was onstage one night in Atlanta, and I thought, there’s no reason I should have the microphone and not them. There’s no separation. So I started wearing a suit to say, I’m in charge here. Sometimes I still would wear a shirt, possibly a jacket, and occasionally a tie if I’m going on a trip where there are multiple flights. I have found if you approach the airline counter in your pajamas with a neck
pillow, they take you less seriously.
In 2018, you won a Primetime Emmy for writing Kid Gorgeous, recorded live at Radio City Music Hall. How does it feel to perform in a historic theater such as the Mahaiwe? My favorite thing about touring is playing these theaters. There are a lot of theaters called the Orpheum, and a lot of Keith Albees. I would notice that, and go, oh, this is called the Orpheum, too. I love them because the country is filled with these 2,000-, 3000-seat theaters, built very often right before the crash, which is kind of funny. There was so much artistry going into theaters back then, that they are just incredible. The acoustics are rarely bad. People weren’t even mic’ed. Tony Bennett still does a song, I think to close his set. When he did it at Radio City, he didn’t use a microphone. There’s 6,600 people, and I’ve heard it’s the highlight of the set. These places are built so well. I really love them, and I really am interesting in the preservation of them.
Do you think about who has performed in those theaters? I played at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. On the stage they have a cutout. You can tell it’s a different piece of wood from the rest of the stage, like a rectangle. I said, “What is that?” And they said, “Oh that was a trap door from when Houdini performed here.” That stuff makes me so happy. A final note as to how much I love old theaters is that they are all haunted. I can sort of feel it in the first half hour, and you just go and find the stage manager or the stage hand who looks like he has been there the longest and you go, “Place haunted?” And they’ll go, “Yeah, yeah.” They can tell you who it is. The Midland Theatre in Kansas City, they say an anarchist set off a bomb in the early 20th century and it killed a janitor, and his ghost can still be seen in the lobby sometimes. And I said, “What does he do?” And they said, “Well, he’s sweeping up,” and I thought, well, that is a shame that’s he’s still sweeping, on duty as a ghost.
How did you land the Mahaiwe gala? I was asked by Erica Jaffe, whose family is deeply involved with the Mahaiwe, especially her grandmother Lola Jaffe. I really love her and the Jaffe family. I met Erica the first day of college, we lived across the hall from each other at Georgetown, and I saw her two nights ago. So we have stayed incredibly close since we were 18. I’ve always heard about Lola’s love for the Mahaiwe and her love of theater in general. So I’ve always really just admired them and have been interested in how their family has done so much for the Mahaiwe and theater arts in general. Erica asked me, and I thought, go to the Berkshires in August? Yes, absolutely. It was a very easy decision.
Are you constantly looking for material in daily life? I normally realize a story is funny much later. I’m pretty in the moment. My mind wanders a lot, but let’s say Petunia and the Uber became a stand-up story. I was not happy. There have been plenty of things that I didn’t realize at the moment, like that chain of events was very ridiculous, and I prefer that, because I think then I would be looking too much and forcing it.
What would you like to do in the future? I did an off-Broadway and Broadway play with Nick Kroll called Oh, Hello on Broadway, and I enjoyed that experience so much that I would love to do another play off Broadway, on Broadway, or wherever on the planet. I really liked how long it takes to get to the show that it is. I had done five years of “Saturday Night Live,” where you write the show on Tuesday and perform it on Saturday. So the idea that we can write a show for an entire year, then do it off-Broadway, then do rehearsals and workshops and rewriting, and then when we did it on Broadway. You’d say, well, we worked on this for two years. That’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.
How do you prepare to go onstage? I’m always pretty nervous. I try to get dressed as late as possible. In the minutes before I walk out, I am doing my tie, and that distracts me.
Do you like to write about the political situation in our country—like your analogy of a horse (Donald Trump) in a hospital? I don’t like to write about politics. I like to write about phenomenons. Everyone was and is talking about the same topic all day every day, and that behavior was what got the joke, rather than looking at political events as a political event. Kind of going, “Well, everyone’s very mad,” and trying to predict what will happen, and we should remember that we have no idea.