MULANEY PREMIERE: ‘Mediocre at best’ but ‘deserves a shot’

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By David Kramer

When I first got word of John Mulaney getting his own sitcom, I was thrilled. He is one of my favorite stand-up comedians, and his writing on “Saturday Night Live” (he co-created Bill Hader’s character Stefon) promised a series that at least deserves a shot.

It was a long road for “Mulaney” to even get that shot. The pilot was initially turned down by NBC, and it had to be re-worked (including a cast change that left talented comedian Griffin Newman out of the equation) to get picked up by FOX.

The cast of “Mulaney,” photo courtesy http://www.hulu.com

The series has a lot of great ingredients. Lorne Michaels is the executive producer, it has a talented group of writers and a cast that includes Nasim Pedrad and the great Martin Short. It should be funny. And it still can be. But the first episode was mediocre at best.

Those familiar with John Mulaney’s stand-up material will be very familiar with the first half of the episode. It opens with Mulaney and his roommate Motif in a doctor’s waiting room, as Mulaney tries to get Xanax for his anxiety. The interaction with the doctor goes awry, as it does in his routine. Much of the dialogue is taken directly (or close to it) from his act. While the jokes are funny, the delivery is clunky and awkward, often feeling forced. It is always difficult to transfer jokes across platforms, especially from a monologue to dialogue. One positive instance of the stand-up material is the callback to the colonoscopy in the latter half of the episode.

The pilot did do a solid job in introducing most of the main characters. Mulaney’s roommates are Motif (Seaton Smith) and Jane (Pedrad). Motif is another struggling stand-up comedian, who somehow strikes gold with a half-joke about “problem bitches.” Jane is a stereotypical “crazy ex-girlfriend,” and spends the episode hacking into her ex-boyfriend’s e-mail account. It’s disappointing that the pilot hinges so much on sexism in both of these instances. The characters will develop further as the series progresses–at least I hope so. It would be a huge waste to use Pedrad only as a sexist cliche, especially since she is for some reason the only female cast member.

Other characters include Andre (Zack Pearlman), the annoying hipster drug-dealer, and Lou Cannon (Short), the wacky game-show host for whom Mulaney works. We also get a late-in-the-episode glimpse at Oscar (Elliott Gould), Mulaney’s quirky neighbor. I think Gould could be a valuable asset to the show with some more screen time.

A large amount of criticism “Mulaney” has received, even before the episode aired, is due to the multi-camera style of shooting and the laugh-track. It seems a throwback to the ‘90s, especially “Seinfeld” (many obvious parallels here). I have to say that I don’t mind the multi-cam at all. The laugh track is predictably annoying, though, and detracts from the plot at one point (it is difficult to tell if a joke told by Motif was getting laughs from the studio audience or the fictional audience).

There are certainly some kinks that “Mulaney” needs to work out. It is not a particularly innovative show, and will likely not break any new ground, at least in the first handful of episodes. However there are a lot of talented people working on it, and John Mulaney is extremely charismatic and likeable as a protagonist. While the first episode is lacking, it is worth another shot, and I am curious to see in what direction they take the show.

Side Notes:

-Comedian Julie Klausner has a voice-only cameo as Donna, Lou’s assistant. She is another writer on the show.

-Mulaney’s “Hello, Donna” is delivered with just the right inflection to continue “Seinfeld” comparisons.

-My favorite line is during Mulaney and Cannon’s first meeting. “And you write all of those mean things below?” “No, those are my fans.”

-Recognize the voice telling you that the show is recorded with a live studio audience? That’s Ice-T, the subject of a great Mulaney stand-up bit.

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