John Mulaney at the University of Maryland
Disillusioned observationalist John Mulaney (COL ‘04) has succeeded largely to his ability to juxtapose today’s young-adult existentialism with zestful humor. He is adored by audiences for his acute turns of phrase, quite becoming of an English major, and his ability to represent young adults’ frustrations with society and childhood. This 35-year-old failed sitcom creator is also, in his own words, “unhappy,” and young people seem to love him for it. But when Mulaney made a rare ap- pearance at the University of Maryland-College Park (UMD) for the school’s annual Homecoming performance event on Oct. 30, I left feeling relieved to have seen him live on stage before I die, but, simultaneously, a little let down.
Actual sets and prepared material comprised only about 30% of Mulaney’s content. The other 70% was improvised crowdwork, which focused on UMD-themed riffs and long-form running gags with student audience members. Mulaney brought a copy of the UMD newspaper to the stage and, for about 15 minutes, flipped through it, while commenting on the headlines. In short, Mulaney’s show relied on the fact that there, on the stage, stood John Mulaney, and he apparently considered this enough to entertain audiences for 90 minutes. The UMD student-dominated audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but it seemed that laughter did seem to dwindle in strength throughout the 90-minute mark. This being said, a crowd’s reaction does not necessarily indicate the actual quality of performance.
One gag at the start of the performance carried on for the entire duration of the performance: every time Mulaney reached for the glass of water on his stool, the crowd of undergraduates screamed, “DRINK THE WATER!” Mulaney played along, crying out, “This is bullying,” and, “What you are doing is so cultish.” Mulaney’s prim-and-proper reactions to rowdy, overeager teenage hecklers were certainly entertaining, but he allowed the joke to continue even after it had lost its novelty. Considering that the audience of students continued to initiate these interactions, perhaps Mulaney should be excused, as the audience appeared to enjoy the back and forth.
In many cases, crowdwork is only entertaining for the one lucky enough to interact with the performer. With the exception of a phone call to a lawyer who had placed an ad in the UMD newspaper that Mulaney found amusing, none of the other audience interactions were particularly original or memorable on their own comedic merits.
In a way, the premise of the show did not indicate that Mulaney’s performance would be any different. This event was not a scheduled touring event for Mulaney; it was a Homecoming comedy show for undergraduates. Mulaney could have easily stuck his popular brand of stand-up on stage in front of thousands of screaming college students. Instead, the show relied on the sheer presence of the performer on stage. When he did employ prepared sets, they landed well and resembled his trademark style and shtick. Ultimately, the performance was comprised of “more of the same” and felt barely sufficient.
Mulaney’s distinctive “No-Word-Uncapitalized” delivery was present, but great delivery is only one part of a performance. Even if Mulaney’s voice is distinctive and beloved enough to get his fans in the door, it is not enough to lean on.
Even I, a genuine Mulaney fan, got a little restless about half- way through my hero’s performance. It hurts me deeply to admit it, but I was more consistently entertained by the headliner who preceded Mulaney, comedian Seaton Smith. I subscribe to Roger Ebert’s standard for whether or not a performance is any good: he once said, “If a [performance] is really working, you forget... your social security number and where your car is parked.” I think Mulaney himself felt the drag. When he seemed to run into the comedic shallows of his performance, he made the dreaded one-off comment that an audience never wants: “Everyone, I really hope I’m living up to your standards.”
Again, this isn’t to say that Mulaney’s performance was completely lacking in one-liners—I managed to write down five notebook pages’ worth of notable jokes. When telling his story—which he debuted last year on Late Night with Seth Meyers—about his run-in with a grandmother and her grandson who thought he was Grant Gustin, he said, “The Flash runs, so his arch-nemesis would be the elliptical.” He expressed frustration with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney for daring to “add a V to my name, although that’s the least of his crimes.” He pointed at two empty seats in the front row, saying that “College Park wants to keep me humble, just to mock me.” If the whole show were like this, I would have been more than satisfied, but using the school newspaper to force-generate unengaging witticisms isn’t effective comedy. Mulaney should have felt right at home among his self-selecting Mulan-iac audience without having to lean on a set of pre-listed abnormalities in a newspaper to come up with content live.
While I’m miffed that Mulaney opted to perform at a venue so close and yet so far from his own alma mater, that’s not my paramount complaint. Rather, I’m primarily upset that I didn’t seem to get the preview of the Untitled Fourth John Mulaney Special I had hoped for, though perhaps these hopes were unfounded. Regardless, any good comedy show is made up of good jokes, and Mulaney’s performance simply didn’t have enough of them.
Photo Credit: Netflix