In a sitcom climate that favors single cameras and mockumentary formats, Mulaney is something of a throwback. It’s a multi-camera show about creator and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney’s life and friends, filmed in front of a laughing, live studio audience. It even has snippets of the star dressed in a suit jacket and tie, doing his stand-up act under a spotlight.
If this sounds like Seinfeld, Mulaney has already beaten you to the comparison. There are many similarities between the two shows, including the fact that both Jerry Seinfeld and John Mulaney use their own first and last names as their character names. In the first few episodes, he references Seinfeld — and other ‘90s sitcom touchstones, like Friends — several times. And he’s not the only one. One of his friends reports, “I defend you when people say you’re a Seinfeld rip-off.”
The comparison is unfortunate, since Seinfeld turned into one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, but the first few episodes of Mulaney feel less like television episodes and more like stand-up chopped up into dialogue. (The show even includes some direct references to past Mulaney stand-up performances, including one Ice-T voiceover that only makes sense if you’ve seen John Mulaney: New in Town special.) The plots of the first episodes have none of the labyrinthine structure of classic Seinfeld episodes; they feel more like vehicles for prewritten bits. They’re funny, but they don’t sound like regular people talking.
This artificial sensibility is exacerbated by various performances. At present, Mulaney is a better comedian than he is an actor. So is one of his costars, fellow comedian Seaton Smith, who plays Mulaney’s best friend Motif. When they talk, their deliveries sound like they’re trading amusing jokes more than engaging in conversations. The humor emerges from what they’re saying, not their characters or situations. (Expect the opposite of Mulaney’s most famous Saturday Night Live character, the out-there crazy Stefon.) The first episode also includes some physical comedy, and Mulaney’s skills here are limited.
Luckily, Mulaney knows enough to feature a ringer or two, beginning with Martin Short, who plays his loopy comedian and game-show-host boss, Lou Cannon. Short is a tremendous physical comedian, and he can sell the gags that Mulaney can’t quite pull off. Thankfully, the show makes great use of Short’s talents. Not only does he careen around the set, he has ingenious comic timing. Cannon tells Mulaney that he likes “fast setups and slow punch-lines,” which seems to apply to Short himself, though there are times when his fast setups are followed by rapid-fire punch-lines, too.
Though his role isn’t as showy as Short’s, Elliott Gould gives a refreshingly effortless performance as Oscar, the older hippie who lives across the hall from Mulaney. He’s not antic like Short, and he doesn’t seem to struggle with timing and delivery like Mulaney and Smith. He just enters a scene and the laughs seem to come easily.
Not every character is so well served by the material. Mulaney and Motif’s third roommate, Jane (Nasim Pedrad), is especially problematic. Though Pedrad doesn’t sound like a stand-up, Jane is obviously underdeveloped, and thrown into subplots that focus on typical — if not offensive — female storylines and stereotypes.
The first episode, for example, finds Jane acting “crazy” concerning an ex-boyfriend in the wake of a breakup. A later one has her projecting her relationship issues onto her cat. “Having a cat is so much better than having a relationship,” is something she actually says, as if it’s a fresh, new thought and not a shopworn trope about single ladies. She’s basically portrayed as a psychotic ex-girlfriend and a crazy cat lady rolled into one.
The offense only gets worse when you realize that she’s the only one of the three roommates who, after the first few episodes, doesn’t have a clear profession. (Motif and Mulaney are both, predictably, comedians.) She’s another female character on TV who’s defined by her relationships with men, whether it’s her platonic friendship with Mulaney or her train-wreck romances. If Mulaney really seeks to emulate Seinfeld, it should seek to turn Jane into as vibrant and singular a character as Elaine Benes.
It’s possible that Mulaney can improve. Most comedian-turned-actors get better over time: Tina Fey had performance issues in the first few episodes of 30 Rock, too. And comedy casts always take a while to gel. Leslie Knope, for example, was portrayed as a bit dumb at the beginning of Parks and Recreation, before the show’s creators figured out they shouldn’t conflate her unbridled enthusiasm with stupidity. Whether or not Mulaney comes to such revelations, for now, you’ll just have to wait through the boring or annoying parts, knowing that eventually Martin Short shows up to save the episode.