Continuing my focus, borderline obsession, on a thing I do not want to be, even if I were a successful one. (Biographical Note: I have, on occasion, been a successful comedian. But I only perform when I feel like it. You know what they call comedians who only perform when they feel like it? Amateurs.)
I am not talking about styles of comedy.
The “One-Line Comedian”:
“My wife wanted me to take her someplace she’d never been before. So I took her to the kitchen.”
The “Insult Comedian”:
“Hey, Jewish Guy. Do my taxes!”
“The Amy Schumer-Type Comedian”:
“Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”
I’m not talking about that.
I am talking about a distinct and distinctive comedic approach.
I marvel at the way comedians think differently. Material’s material. It’s stuff you notice. All comedians notice stuff. Sometimes, it’s exactly the same stuff. Watching Netflix comedy specials, I heard two bits about urologists.
(Bonus Inclusion: Common denominator about comedians: Terrible childhoods. And a steely determination onstage. Whether pushy or low-key, you could not dislodge them with a wrecking ball.)
Okay, where was I? Oh yeah.
What distinguishes comedians after noticing things is the “Then what?”
What do they do with the stuff that they notice?
Which brings me to comedian John Mulaney, whose Netflix specials – I watched three of them – I sought out after enjoying him on an episode of Crashing, and I wondered, “What’s he about?”
John Mulaney, a mid-thirties comedian, is about this, in his dark but effective comedic approach.
If Jerry Seinfeld’s world is congenitally sunny, for John Mulaney,
It’s raining frogs.
In a Netflix special performed at the comedy club where he started, Seinfeld reprised what he called from his early days as a comedian, “My one joke that worked.”
“I’m left-handed. Left-handed people do not like that the word “Left” is so often associated with negative things. ‘Two left feet.’ ‘Left-handed compliment.’ ‘What are we having for dinner?’ ‘Leftovers.’ You go to a party, nobody’s there. ‘Where’d they go?’ ‘They left.’”
Prototypical Seinfeld. Wordplay and harmlessness.
John Mulaney is different.
By which I mean dangerous.
Whippet-like body. Button eyes. Affectless face. Prowling the stage, searching for meaning in the world, and finding very little to commend its existence.
I shall focus on one bit.
It begins innocuously… forget how it begins. Though even that part tickles my fancy.
A bizarre factoid Mulaney gleaned visiting Connecticut, “doing ‘White Guy’ stuff.”
There was a plaque on a gazebo, indicating it was erected in 1863.
I immediately associated with that date. And to my delighted excitement, so did John Mulaney.
His observation was a dart to the heart of the irony.
“That gazebo was built in the middle of the Civil War.”
That’s right. Midway through the Civil War, with thousands of people falling in battle, in the midst of that carnage, a Connecticut town…
decides to build a gazebo.
Because we both saw the same thing and found it hilarious, for one brief, shining moment, John Mulaney and I were bonding “Brothers in Comedy.”
And then we weren’t, as he shot by me, like a racecar passing a bicycle.
“Building a gazebo during the Civil War”, he went on. “That would be like doing standup comedy now.”
A gasp. (Evident under the laughter and applause.)
Why a gasp?
Because it’s true.
How can you possibly do comedy today?
(And yet, like building a gazebo during the Civil War, we do.)
In a startling segue, John Mulaney’s suddenly talking about the president.
Not in a rage of righteous indignation, as others – mentioning no names – might do, being not at all funny in the process.
Instead, John Mulaney says, in part, about our daily condition living under the current president:
“This guy being the president… it’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. No one knows what the horse is going to do in the hospital, least of all the horse. He’s never been in a hospital before. He’s as confused and you are.”
Listening to that, I am a blend of enrapturement, awe, squealing elation… and a soupcon of envy.
I do not know what torturous trauma tempered this sharp and original turn of mind. But whatever it was, as an audience member who paid no price whatsoever for the torment John Mulaney endured to become who he is, I sincerely appreciate it.
I am sure it was terrible.
But “a horse in a hospital”?
It was totally worth it.