It’s thrilling when you watch someone perform what they were born to do, like when Michael Phelps dives into a pool or when Beyonce steps on a stage. On a smaller scale, I get that feeling watching John Mulaney do stand-up. It’s just clear his talents and appearance are made for that environment, and this has never been more clear than in his latest Netflix special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City.
In his fourth comedy special, Mulaney refines his act and plays to his strengths. His two previous specials, New in Town and The Comeback Kid, revealed him as a kind of heir to Jerry Seinfeld’s brand of observational humor, but he also flashed his experience as a writer on SNL by creating memorable characters and spinning an engaging yarn (his Bill Clinton story from The Comeback Kid remains one of his best moments).
Mulaney, his short-lived 2014 Fox sitcom failed because it hewed a little too closely to his influences, most obviously Seinfeld. It’s not totally surprising a multi-cam sitcom about a New York City comedian didn’t succeed, because it’s been done before. Still, you have to admire Mulaney sticking with something so old-fashioned in this era of single-cam, laugh track-less comedies. For some reason, I watched all 13 episodes of Mulaney’s only season and found that although it lacked originality, there was something comforting and lovable about the format and the performances.
Similarly, that’s probably also how you can describe Mulaney’s stand-up: lovably old-fashioned. He dresses in a full suit for his act, in contrast to the simple T-shirt-and-jeans casual wear of most modern comics. Physically, he looks like a clean comic, or maybe a choirboy, with his neatly combed hair and tidy appearance, but in his act he carefully picks his spots to unleash profanity and vulgarity. He’s very good at physical comedy, due to his cartoonish beanpole build and practiced choreography.
This all makes good Kid Gorgeous bits even better. His tales of writing SNL skits with Mick Jagger land well because he nails Jagger’s mannerisms and voice and he makes an amusing observation that when you’re a rock star that has played in front of 20,000 people for 50 years, you don’t go around politely asking, “Excuse me, does anyone have a laptop charger?”
Mulaney is only in his 30s but he has the “35 going on 70” routine down pat at this point. In Kid Gorgeous, he muses about the old days when you’d fill time by waving at ships and bemoans that all modern music is “about tonight, and how we only have tonight.” Instead, he wants to make a song called “Tonight’s No Good, How About Wednesday? Oh, You’re In Dallas On Wednesday?” Jokes like this are why Mulaney’s stand-up should be well-suited for when he actually becomes a cranky 49-year-old.
However, some of Mulaney’s best bits are about childhood. He’s especially adept at pointing out the absurdity of life as a kid. For my money, Kid Gorgeous’ funniest stretch is about J.J. Bittenbinder, the ridiculous Chicago detective that led terrifying talks on stranger danger (“street smarts!”) at Mulaney’s grade school. The way Mulaney depicts Bittenbinder’s look and technique makes him seem slightly made-up. But, as the Internet has proven, he is oh-so-real, which makes Mulaney’s bit even more hilarious.
Of course, working as a comic in 2018 means current events are expected to feature in your act. Mulaney is far from a political comedian, so his discomfort is evident when he brings it up (he awkwardly swings his mic cord around as he broaches the topic in Kid Gorgeous). It’s honestly refreshing to see a comic in the Trump era that doesn’t feel the need to make grand commentary about our current political climate. Even so, his Trump bit is one of the special’s highlights. Mulaney compares our president to a “horse loose in a hospital” in Kid Gorgeous, giving the audience a preposterous visual while he riffs on the metaphor.
“I wanted to do [the sitcom] to become a bigger stand-up comic,” says Mulaney in The Ringer’s profile of him. This is the reverse of the conventional path for a comedian. Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Amy Schumer, and many more used stand-up as launching pad for bigger career moves. Mulaney may go on to do more TV or movies someday, but for now, it seems like he was born to be one of the best stand-up comics in the game.