John Mulaney has a joke about crossing the street to avoid teenagers because their put-downs are not only the meanest, but also the most accurate. They have a knack, he explains, for zeroing in on what you don’t like about yourself. He then quotes one mocking his “womanly hips.” Mulaney pretends to be offended, but he’s actually impressed at how precise the kids are.
If there’s a topic near and dear to John Mulaney, it’s making fun of John Mulaney. “When people make fun of me, I deserve it,” he says. “If you’re ever on the highway behind me, I hear you honking, and I also don’t want me to be doing what I’m doing,” he admits. “I don’t like that I’m in that lane either.”
Mulaney so loves making fun of himself that he even invited comedian friends Dan Mintz and Anthony Jeselink to record a commentary track relentlessly mocking his dated references to Home Alone 2. As much as his awkward demeanor, nervous energy and overall feebleness make it hard for him to get by, one senses that Mulaney is happy he’s so hapless. It gives him more to work with. And Mulaney has a sizeable comedic arsenal for the war he wages on himself.
Most obviously, there’s his distinctive voice and speaking pattern; he talks in a clipped, staccato rhythm with a heavy emphasis on the end of phrases. It naturally gives his set a forceful momentum and provides even his most rambling moments a sense of build. He can get a full head of steam going with a manic build-up (an out-of-control party he attended) and then stop hard on the punchline (how drinking a bottle of perfume was a sign he needed to quit drinking); the resulting 60-to-0 crunch gives the material a strange, offbeat feel that makes it even funnier. He also imitates Ice-T and a homeless gay man better than you would think and has a predilection for old-timey references, channeling 1930s-era gangsters or punctuating a joke about his airhead behavior with a Little Orphan Annie voice.
One of Mulaney’s primary conceits is that he likes to point out unspeakably mundane things with zero notice, which is not funny in and of itself, but his process makes it more hilarious than it probably should be. He will stop at an odd moment in a sentence and pivot away, raising his voice to signify a robust conviction in the rightness of his vision, usually centered on a pedestrian observation. It helps reinforce the feeling that Mulaney was born without the tool kit most people have and has had to work at understanding how the world functions, and thus he sometimes gets too excited—or at least acts that way—when he makes connections others take for granted. (Many actually feel this way; that Mulaney is able to tap into this private emotion so well goes a long way in explaining his success.) Which is all a high-faulting way of explaining why he’ll say, “So I lied…like a liar!” or point out that a 13-year-old is just a slightly older child, and it will kill.
Mulaney spends much of New in Town explaining why he is the way he is, from his high-strung parents (his mom told him about the death of Princess Diana in a distraught tone that led him to believe she thought he might be responsible), childhood mockery (I won’t ruin his best joke, but the part with the gong really makes you feel bad for him) and low self-esteem (“Before I had a girlfriend, I had no standard for how I should be treated as a human being. You could do anything to me. I was like a young Motown singer. I was just shiny and dumb and easy to trick.”). To his credit, he rarely overplays the sympathy card, though sometimes his I’m-so-feeble gestures read as “Aren’t I so cute?,” a tic of which he should be wary.
As a joke writer, he’s smart enough to layer in the underlying theme of his exasperation with himself throughout the set, but Mulaney drifts away from it enough to keep Town from becoming one-note. Riffing on how stupid pop culture can be is Joke Writing 101, but Mulaney zeroes in on details most would ignore for his critiques. He also tends to pick targets that are absurdly past their sell-by dates (Home Alone 2, Def Comedy Jam) or so middlebrow as to rarely attract much satire. Even people who don’t watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will agree that after 11 years on the job, Ice-T shouldn’t be surprised by the things perverts do, nor should he require a lengthy explanation of sex addiction.
Mulaney ultimately mocks himself so thoroughly that he seems simultaneously both egoless and self-inflating. Perhaps it’s hard to be humble when you’re such prime subject material.