Stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live scribe John Mulaney makes plenty of pop culture references in his one-hour Comedy Central special New in Town: Among other jokes, there’s a well-delivered line about Ratatouille and even a pitch-perfect Def Comedy Jam take on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But Mulaney, who has an affinity for all things television (“I don’t daydream, I just think about things I saw on TV. I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll be staring off and I’ll just be thinking about a commercial I saw when I was 10, or when they lip-synched Ray Charles on The Cosby Show,” he jokes to EW), assures us there’s one thing he won’t go near in his act: Friday Night Lights.
“The biggest new show in my life has been Friday Night Lights, which I watched on DVD,” Mulaney tells EW. “So I was thinking about new jokes and brainstorming and I was thinking, ‘Well why don’t you talk about how much you like Friday Night Lights?’ and another part of my brain was like, ‘No. You will not cheapen Friday Night Lights in your stand-up!’ Also, I took the show so seriously, I don’t even know if I have any funny take on it other than it being great and I want to be Coach Taylor. I did talk like Coach Taylor a little after I watched the series. I would talked in clip sentences like [in a convincing Coach Taylor accent] ‘You get your priorities straight.’”
While Mulaney may not take any potshots at the good people of Dillon, Texas, he has no qualms about making fun of himself in his routine. “Most of the jokes are just making fun of me and what a dumb idiot I am and how bad I am at being a person. Then I tangentially will go talk about Ice-T,” the 29-year-old says about his first hour-long special. But much like Kyle Chandler’s iconic and beloved character, Mulaney certainly does take pride in his work, particularly New in Town – filmed at New York City’s Skirball Center – which he spent months cultivating.
Mulaney, who honed in on his craft of equal parts relatable observational comedy and deft storytelling by performing at New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and touring with the likes of fellow polished acts like Mike Birbiglia (“There’s no dead air when you listen to Mike tell a story. Every detail is funny. Everything is a joke,” he said of the accomplished Sleepwalk With Me star), admitted he had looked forward to meeting the challenge of transitioning from the arguably more intimate club environment to a theater.
“A club is awesome … but you gotta be fast and loud and hold their attention,” Mulaney explains. “A theater is everyone in a chair, facing you, no distractions. So even though it’s a little more overwhelming sometimes, you can be a little more relaxed in a theater. You get a little more time to just breathe, because everyone is there watching a performance in a slightly more focused way.”
Mulaney previously had a half-hour Comedy Central Presents episode and an album called The Top Part, but became inspired to perform in a theater setting after seeing Jim Gaffigan’s Beyond the Pale special. But he had another inspiration for his own material: himself. In addition to all those pop culture references in New in Town, the comic touches on more personal anecdotes, like an embarrassing medical incident (which he wisely closes the show with) and an explanation as to why he doesn’t drink. (“A lot of comedians don’t drink. You’d be surprised. You’d imagine they all drink all day long because they have their days free. But you realize because of that you have a lot of freedom and you don’t have a day job and maybe you shouldn’t drink,” he says.)
Of course, in between doing shows at UCB and touring in preparation for the special, Mulaney actually did go to his day job: The comedian works as a writer for SNL, a gig he’s had since 2008. “We have a nice schedule at Saturday Night Live in that we focus on it like crazy when we’re there and then we have off weeks where we can do what we want,” says Mulaney, who helped create the already-iconic Weekend Update character Stefon with Bill Hader.
“[SNL] is a great environment, even when you’re not working on something else. Working with people everyday and writing jokes will just help you stay sharp [as a comedian.] The sketches I write on SNL are very different then what I do in stand-up but, you know, same muscle,” Mulaney says, adding, “I take that back. There are no muscles involved. I’ve never used a muscle in my life.” Now what would Coach Taylor have to say about that?
John Mulaney: New in Town premieres Saturday night at 10 p.m. EST on Comedy Central. The CD and DVD will be available on Tuesday, Jan. 31.