Stand-up John Mulaney and I were born two days apart, and I have always assumed this is why his polite, reference-dense humor lands so perfectly for me. But if three nearly sold-out Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall shows are any indication, I’m completely wrong and you don’t need to have experienced the 1992 presidential election through the eyes of a 10-year-old to appreciate Mulaney’s wry “sweet idiot” take on life.
“If you were a kid when Bill Clinton was first released, it was the most exciting thing ever,” says Mulaney on his Netflix special The Comeback Kid. “We’d never seen a cool politician before. He would go on MTV and have cool answers to kids’ questions, like, ‘Governor, what’s your favorite food?’ And he’d be like, ‘I don’t know, fries?’ And we’d be like, ‘Yay! We eat fries!’” Mulaney continues into this long-form joke, which lasts 12 minutes, explaining that he learned the piano chords to Clinton’s campaign song “Don’t Stop,” “by Fleetwood Mac from Rumors—an album written by and for people cheating on one another.” “He let us know who he was right away,” he adds with good-natured skepticism.
A writer for Saturday Night Live for six seasons, Mulaney created the popular Weekend Update club kid character Stefon along with Bill Hader. Hader played Stefon, and Mulaney gained a reputation for adding last-minute changes to the Stefon cue cards in an attempt to make Hader laugh on live TV—which he usually did. Mulaney’s joke descriptions of the pop-up clubs were ultra-specific and sometimes took a little time to unlock. In a 2013 interview with Graham Chittenden, Mulaney said, “The rule with Stefon things was like anything you might have seen once. You’d be like, ‘a Hawaiian cleaning lady that looks like Smokey Robinson.’ That’s crazy but I do sort of know what that would look like.”
That same year, Mulaney left SNL to create a sitcom bearing his own name and starring both himself and human firework Martin Short. The show unfortunately tanked, but Mulaney continued to write and perform on his own, and in that mode he’s been able to tease out his dense humor and give it room to breathe. I remember—after a harrowing, stoned viewing of Synecdoche, New York—turning on Comeback Kid just to regain my emotional equilibrium and faith in humanity. Let John Mulaney spool his weird good-natured yarn around you. It feels good.