Pilot Talk: Why FOX’s Mulaney Failed To Meet Expectations

Last weekend, FOX premiered the first episode of it’s highly anticipated comedy Mulaney. The show was created by and stars comedian John Mulaney. I had really high hopes for the show, but based on what audiences saw Sunday night Mulaney failed to reach viewer’s expectations. I will now spend a strangely long time trying to figure out why. Let’s do this!

The pilot starts with a stand up routine, taken straight out of Mulaney’s fantastic stand up special New In Town (Which is available on Netflix, if you haven’t seen it).  I don’t know how the joke would’ve landed if I hadn’t heard it already, but for me it felt recycled and stale. In fact, a lot of the jokes from the premiere episode are similar to Mulaney’s stand up. I understand the impulse to stick to what works, but it feels kind of lazy to re-hash old material during the first episode of the show.

Mulaney stand up stagesMore importantly though, it’s also the start of the strangeness that is Mulaney’s staging. The comedy routine is delivered in front of the actual show’s sets, instead of a comedy club like Seinfeld and Louie. The reason the format works better there is because the stand up feels like it’s a part of the narrative of the show, here it just looks like Mulaney is his own warm up act.

It also immediately takes the audience out of the world of the show, because its clear that the whole thing is a production. Great multi-camera comedies like Cheers may have been performed for a live studio audience, but no one ever directly addressed them, well at least not in the first scene of the first episode. It also makes Mulaney feel more like an extended SNL skit rather than an episode of a sitcom, which kind of makes sense.

John Mulaney got his start writing for Saturday Night Live, (He famously co-authored the Stefon skits with Bill Hader) his co-stars Martin Short and Nasim Pedrad are also SNL alums, and the show is produced by SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels. That’s the best reason I could think of as to why the whole show feels more like a live skit more than a episode of a TV show. I’ll explain what I mean:

Look at the staging for the SNL skits below. The actors are all pretty much facing forward and looking more towards the audience than each other, even when someone is talking, they don’t really have to be looking at the person they’re talking to. SNL can get away with this because it’s a sketch comedy show, no one needs to have much investment in the emotional arc of The Californians or Drunk Uncle.

For a sitcom though, you need the audience to connect with your characters. How I Met Your Mother, for example, built it’s success on the audience’s relationship to their characters. If no one cared about Ted Mosby or Barney Stinson, the show wouldn’t have been hit.

Mulaney’s characters, with the exception of Martin Short’s talk show host, feel more like stand ins to deliver punch lines rather than fully realized characters.

Part of this comes from the staging of the show. Look at an established multi-cam comedy side by side with Mulaney and it’s easy to spot the differences. (Yeah, I know the Hulu screenshots are terrible, it doesn’t take away from the point)

Sitting in a waiting room:

Or sitting on a couch:

Mulaney’s characters are facing forward toward the audience, and barely look at each other while they’re talking, just like SNL. The staging keeps the audience from investing in the show, at least not on the level a show like Mulaney needs to be a success. It’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just boring. On top of all that, the characters don’t move that often either, instead they just kind of sit and talk to each other until the scenes over. Again not wrong, but certainly not interesting to watch either. If the show’s writing was incredible, this wouldn’t be that big of an issue, but Mulaney’s script leaves a lot to be desired.

All the characters surrounding Mulaney’s straight man are very lazily introduced TV show stereotypes: the crazy boss (“Do people call you John? Cause they shouldn’t.”), the funny, hip, black friend (“This hoodie vest is tight”), the ex-obsessed girl (“He should really change his email password”), the over-loving neighbor/advice giver (“It’s like he’s trying to torture me and be my best friend”), the friend nobody likes (“I got bad news guys, it’s Andre” *every other character groans*), you get the point.

Part of me feels like there’s a joke here I’m not getting, that Mulaney is actually in some ways a parody of the stereotypical sitcom, and that’s why the whole show feels slightly off. This isn’t likely, no one involved in the show has said anything about it being a form of satire. But even if that is the case, the joke isn’t played up enough for it to be an excuse for the pilot’s mistakes.

To it’s credit, Mulaney gets marginally better as it goes along: Martin Short elevates the whole show whenever he’s on screen, and Mulaney’s character’s failed introduction at the concert and ensuing confusion was pretty funny. But that wasn’t enough to keep Mulaney from disappointing most of it’s audience.

I really wanted Mulaney to be good, but the pilot was just so underwhelming. For a show that was supposedly the next Seinfeld, Mulaney just feels bland. It’s a shame though, because John Mulaney is an incredibly funny comedian. I hope his show finds it’s footing quickly, or he gets back to doing what he does best, which is playing What’s New Pussycat on repeat in diners… (If you didn’t get that reference watch the video *hint hint*)



One thought on “Pilot Talk: Why FOX’s Mulaney Failed To Meet Expectations

  1. Pingback: How HBO’s Silicon Valley Became TV’s Best Comedy | ME + TV

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