Despite talented cast, 'Mulaney' just isn't funny

FOX

By Hailey Middlebrook, For The Daily
Published October 14, 2014

John Mulaney could very well be the brightest comedian in America right now — though the man himself, with his tidy combed-back hair, tightly buttoned shirt, rail-thin physique and overall dweebish presence would probably disagree. When Mulaney first auditioned for “Saturday Night Live” in 2008, his looks had nothing new to offer among the other gangly, white male characters like Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis. What did catch the eye of Seth Meyers, the head writer at the time, was Mulaney’s extraordinary wit. Meyers called him back after the audition, not offering an acting gig, but rather a writing position on the show. When The Chicago Tribune asked Meyers about working with Mulaney, he said, “I used to tell people he brought me stuff on his first day and, by the second, I was bringing stuff to him, to make it better.”

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So when Mulaney left the sketch series to build his own comedic empire in sitcom television — following in the footsteps of former staff members Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) and Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) — with “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels as well as a live studio audience, many believed that his show had the makings of a “Seinfeld”-esque masterpiece. Along with Mulaney, the cast includes famous funny-people Nasim Pedrad and Martin Short, both previous “SNL” cast members, as well as Sam Seaton, a newcomer to the comedy scene who’s had success in the TV series “Comedy Up Late.”

The first episode follows Mulaney, playing a more amateur version of himself, as he interviews to be a joke-writer for fast-talking game show host Lou Cannon (played by Short). Meanwhile, his friend and roommate Motif (Seaton), also an aspiring comedian, is trying to make his trademark “Problem Bitch” joke go viral. Motif’s punchline: “if you don’t know a Problem Bitch, that’s ‘cause you are the Problem Bitch!”

Mulaney’s other friend Jane (Pedrad) is recently single and enjoys hacking into her ex-boyfriend’s e-mails to his new girlfriend, which has earned her the name “psycho lady.” As a personal trainer, Jane is competitive and will not give up her obsession with getting closure from the failed relationship. By the end of the episode, she finally succeeds by reading an argument via e-mail between her ex and his new girlfriend, in which he accuses his the girl of being a “Problem Bitch” and admits that while Jane is crazy, “crazy calms down but a Problem Bitch lasts forever.”

So everyone wins: Mulaney gets his dream job, and after some tug-of-war with Lou Cannon, his jokes are finally on-air, Jane gets her “closure” because her ex-boyfriend appreciates her madness and Motif’s “Problem Bitch” joke catches on.

So what’s the show’s catch? “Mulaney,” with its brilliant cast and belly-busting potential, is just not that funny. But how can this be? How can the genius behind the flamboyant, bar-hopping character of Stefon on “SNL” not make people laugh?

It’s not that John Mulaney isn’t funny. It’s that he's a writer and a stand-up comedian, not an actor. The episode opens with Mulaney in his natural habitat: under a spotlight, mic in hand, reeling off jokes to an audience. In this setting, Mulaney’s quick wit and somewhat awkward, flat speech is appropriate. When he leaves the stage and enters the sitcom set, however, things get weird; Mulaney seems excruciatingly self-aware, addressing his friends and Lou Cannon with a formality that’s clipped and uncomfortable. While his sarcastic, flat monotone works in his stand-up acts, it gets old very fast in the sitcom sphere — a place equal parts comedy, and situation.