After working for five years as a writer and producer on Saturday Night Live, comic John Mulaney thought he knew everything there was to know about the show.
"I was like a busboy," Mulaney says of his SNL tenure. "I was like, 'I know all the secrets, and I know all the ins and outs, and I know how to sneak out of the kitchen and I know where we get the meat delivered from.' "
Though Mulaney left SNL in 2012 to pursue other comedic projects, he returned in 2018 and again in 2019 — this time as show host. That's when he learned that stepping in front of the camera at SNL is a whole different experience from working behind the scenes.
"I was absolutely terrified," Mulaney says. "To be performing something you've written and trying to listen to the jokes while making sure you're on your mark and looking into the right camera and then being pulled around to do costume fittings — it was scary."
Mulaney had previously written for SNL cast members Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader — and he called them with a confession: "I said, 'I just want you to know, I never said this before, but I always thought we [writers] had the harder job, and I'm so sorry. I had no idea how hard this was.' "
Mulaney is an actor, with Nick Kroll, on Big Mouth, an animated Netflix series about adolescence and puberty. He recently completed a comedy tour with SNL cast member Pete Davidson. In 2018, he won an Emmy for writing for his comedy special Kid Gorgeous, which was recorded live at Radio City Music Hall.
On finding out he was hired at SNL
I was at dinner with my mom and I saw [the call] was a 212 number, and so I said, "Mom, I'm sorry. I'm going to take this outside." And it was Seth Meyers, and he said, "We want to hire you as a writer." And I was speechless, and he said, "I just want to make sure I'm clear that this would just be writing. You would not be in the cast." And I said, "Oh no, of course I would not be in the cast!"
But I believe I accepted on the spot, and I went back inside the restaurant and told my mom, and she's like, "You were 11 and you read an article about Conan O'Brien, and you said, 'I want to be a writer at The Harvard Lampoon, and then I want to be a writer on Saturday Night Live.' And you know, at the time, I was so excited, because I thought you were going to work harder to get into Harvard, but even though you didn't, now you're at Saturday Night Live!"
And the waitress came over right at that moment, and my mom said to her, "My son just got hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live." And she said, "That's how Conan O'Brien started!" So it was a little full circle.
On writing monologues for hosts
By doing the monologues, I didn't realize that you will get to spend time with the host in the most unique way, which is, in some cases, for people who haven't performed in front of a live audience, you're working with them on the thing they are the most terrified about. ...
It's not pure stand-up — often cast members join them or it's a song — but to them it's like, "I'm supposed to stand onstage alone on a comedy show and deliver a very funny speech?" And it's a very scary moment for people. And it was a very valuable and interesting and strange experience to be with many people who have excelled in many different fields and kind of working with them on the thing that was the most terrifying.
On growing up in a traditional Catholic family
I had parents that were strict sometimes, had high standards, but were incredibly loving, and I got very lucky. I joke about them a lot, but [from] 0 to 18, they instilled a lot of good stuff in all of us and also gave us kind of ... a strange, unique experience that I guess I personally have benefited from in that I write a lot about that time, and looking back on some of those memories, they are just to me extremely funny and to others very odd. We were kind of like a family in the '50s and it was the 1990s, and so just being out of step a little, even if I found it suffocating sometimes back then, it really has paid off in retrospect.
On the sex education he got in Catholic grammar school
We had sex education much more so than you might think at a Catholic school ... It was not a formal abstinence-only program and yet it was. We would go to a place — a health center — that was outside of school, and we would have these lectures starting at about age 11 about how if you have sex, you will definitely get pregnant. I was told that condoms, I believe the term they used was "sweat," that they are "porous," and they don't work, which is not true. ...
Then we were scared about what would happen if we had a baby. I remember a woman at this health center said to my friend, she said, "Stand up!" She said, "How much money do you have in your pockets?" And he had like two dollars, because he was 12, which is pretty impressive actually. And she said, "How are you going to raise a baby on two dollars? How are you going to buy diapers on two dollars?" I remember thinking at the time like, "Well, he wouldn't just use what's in his pockets. And also I assume some adult might kick in a little."
Here was [what] we were taught: You will get pregnant definitely if you have sex. Getting pregnant means that you will then have a baby. You cannot take care of a baby; ergo never have sex. That was basically it. Now we were anatomically informed about the changes in our body and puberty, but when it got to actually what to do with all those anatomical parts, I would say the message was: Do nothing.
On singing in the Bodega Bathroom sketch on SNL
You can hear [in the sketch] both the pathetic midrange of my voice in that moment, but I believe you can also hear the absolute joy I have in being able to sing in a musical, even if it's for 15 seconds. I really wish I could sing. I cannot. My wife told me I was tone-deaf, and I thought I might be tone-deaf for a while, and then a friend of mine who is a trained opera singer ... said, "OK, sing any melody." And [I sang] the McDonald's theme, which is the first melody that came to me. And she said, "OK, you're not tone-deaf, because you can follow a melody." She said, "What you are is a terrible singer."
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic, writer and actor John Mulaney. He spent five years as a writer on "Saturday Night Live," starting in 2008. He and Bill Hader co-created the character Stefon. Mulaney returned to "Saturday Night Live" twice in the past year to host the show. He won an Emmy for writing his 2018 comedy special "Kid Gorgeous," which was recorded live at Radio City Music Hall and is streaming on Netflix. In the animated series "Big Mouth," about adolescence and puberty, Mulaney voices the character Andrew. He's had a long-term comedy partnership with Nick Kroll, one of the creators and stars of "Big Mouth."
Recently, Mulaney has been doing a series of Sunday comedy performances, sharing the bill with "Saturday Night Live" cast member Pete Davidson. I can't play you an excerpt of those performances, but we do have a clip from the edition of "Weekend Update" that Mulaney and Davidson appeared on together in January. The premise was they were reviewing the Clint Eastwood movie "The Mule."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
JOHN MULANEY: Michael, Colin, hi. So you guys are talking about "The Mule?"
COLIN JOST: No. Basically never, no.
JOST: I didn't actually realize that you guys hung out together.
MULANEY: Yeah, we do. But a lot of times, it looks like I'm Pete's lawyer.
PETE DAVIDSON: Yeah.
DAVIDSON: People usually think he's, like, an NBA coach and I'm, like, the controversial rookie.
MULANEY: But for real, I've been spending time with Pete to try to show him that you can have a life in comedy that is not insane - a sober, domestic life.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. And after observing John's life, I publicly threatened suicide.
DAVIDSON: I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't make that joke.
DAVIDSON: But it is funny.
MULANEY: Pete, look at me. Look me in the eye. You are loved by many.
DAVIDSON: Oh, thank you, John.
MULANEY: And we are glad you are OK.
MULANEY: Now back to "The Mule."
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. That's Pete Davidson and John Mulaney in "Weekend Update."
John Mulaney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I just have to ask you, what's it like hearing a friend make jokes about suicide when you know it's a real thing for him?
MULANEY: I found that Update we did together, one, extremely fun because I got to do it with someone whose comedy I love and who I, you know, love as a friend. And I found it - not to speak for him - but very cathartic. And I do like when things are addressed directly, even if they are a little bald and might be a little shocking. Our intention was to mention it, and I guess my intention was also to try to get Pete to look me in the eye - which was hard on air...
MULANEY: ...And just say how everyone - how myself and many others felt about him and it. Not addressing it would have felt strange. And it was not - well, it's always hard to phrase this - but not a joke about that he did it, more kind of a joke that it happened, but here he is. And I always think when it's the person themselves saying it implicitly to the audience, it's saying, I'm looking at them now and they're doing better. So I thought it was kind of a cool moment.
GROSS: I loved it. I thought it was both very funny and kind of great to acknowledge - yeah, you're all thinking that. It happened. And I'm going to make a joke about it 'cause that's what I do.
MULANEY: Yes, he does. And he is utterly transparent about his life, which I respect very, very much, and - especially in the face of it sometimes gathering a lot of press attention. So I admire his guts in talking about that. And it was just, then, fun to go back to "The Mule." As worried as I was or other people were, it was nice to just get back to making fun of a movie we saw.
GROSS: How did you start touring together?
MULANEY: Pete had very much wanted to do stand-up on a consistent basis, which can be hard with the "Saturday Night Live" schedule. I was looking to get back out and do longer sets than, say, at a comedy club. It came together that we both kind of wanted to go out and do 35, 40 minutes each, and also the notion of being able to hang out with him every weekend was incredibly appealing to me. So it came together as these, you know, Sundays in the park with Pete and John. Well, we're not in a park, but Sundays in the theater with Pete and John.
GROSS: Thanks for getting a Sondheim reference in there (laughter).
MULANEY: Yes. Well, yes, that's right (laughter).
GROSS: That's your job (laughter) and I appreciate it.
MULANEY: That was unintentional, but yes, indeed.
GROSS: So you used to be a writer on "Saturday Night Live." So since we're talking about you and Pete Davidson and a bit you just did on "SNL," let's just go there. How did you get to audition for "Saturday Night Live?"
MULANEY: Well, I was very surprised I got to audition. I had been pretty much a pure stand-up, not a sketch comedy or improv actor, though I had done a little of that. I auditioned August 7, 2008, and I was informed I would be auditioning on August 5, 2008. And I think that Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler had seen me a few times at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater doing the monologue portion of the "Asssscat" show, the long-form improv show they would do on Sunday nights. I got to be the guest that did monologues a couple times. So I, whilst I would have loved to audition, did not see it coming and had two days to get it together, which in retrospect is a perfect amount of time because had it been any longer, I would have overthought it to a great degree. And then I went in that day, August 7, and I went in and thought, I am not going to get this. There is no way I'll get in the cast. They had a plethora of Caucasian males with brown hair who were far, far better actors and sketch performers than I. But I thought, this will be a great memory, to audition for Lorne Michaels. And I'll just do the stand-up I have that I think would go the best. And it was a really thrilling experience.
GROSS: What did you do in your audition?
MULANEY: I tried to do jokes that I had that had, like, slight characters in them. You know, not full one-man show immersion in characters, but I had some jokes back then about "Law & Order" and the different types of people you see on every episode of "Law & Order," such as the guy the police interview who's always stacking crates and won't stop even as they're questioning him who's like, Tony Ramirez? Yeah, I remember him - good guy, you know, worked on Tuesdays. And the bartender who's shown a photo of the missing person and immediately recognizes her and everything about her, like, despite being a bartender in Midtown who sees thousands of people every night - like, yeah, blue shirt lady, nice lady, sat at the end of the bar. Why? Did something happen to her? It's like, yes, that's why the homicide detectives are speaking to you. So as you just heard, my voice did not change that much, but I tried to throw in some slight character touches to it.
GROSS: So were you surprised that you weren't going to be a performer? Was that, like, a relief or an insult?
MULANEY: It was some - I wouldn't say a relief. I absolutely did not think I would be hired as a performer and had written for a couple sketch shows on Comedy Central and done a little writing work otherwise. So it certainly was something I already liked doing. I was so happy after that audition that I was going to get to be part of that world, you know, even for a little bit longer.
GROSS: Well, you've hosted "Saturday Night Live" twice in the past year or so. Did you write your own opening monologues after having written them for so many people?
MULANEY: I did. Yeah. I wrote them, and a large part of them were pieces of stand-up I was doing at the time, both this year and last year. And it was very fun to do after writing so many monologues. I wrote a monologue for, I think, every host for about three years, along with the wonderful writer Simon Rich, who, my second show, approached me at the after-party. We really liked each other right away, and we're already working together, and he said, you and I are going to write a monologue every week because no one wants to write the monologue. So there'll always be an open spot for the monologue.
And he said, and guess what? They can't cut the monologue. So that was our sneaky 20 - he was 23 and I was 25, and that was our sneaky way of trying to always have a spot in the show. I, by doing the monologues, didn't realize that you will get to spend time with the host in the most unique way, which is - in some cases, for people who haven't performed in front of a live audience, you're working with them on the thing they are the most terrified about, which is...
GROSS: I never thought of it that way.
MULANEY: ...Walking out and and doing - it's not pure stand-up. Often, cast members join them or it's a song. But to them, it's like, I'm supposed to stand on stage alone on a comedy show and, you know, deliver a very funny speech. And it's a very scary moment for people. And it was a very valuable and interesting and strange experience to be with many people who have excelled in many different fields and, you know, kind of working with them on the thing that was the most terrifying.
GROSS: So when you hosted for the first time, were you nervous about it?
MULANEY: I was terrified.
MULANEY: I was absolutely terrified. I mean, it was everything from, like, the feeling I had when I would have to play basketball in front of my family.
MULANEY: It was like, these people know me. And, you know, it's not that people who know you don't love you. But they know you. And so, like - you know, they can't possibly think that I should be here. They have known me since I was, you know, 25 and just standing in the hallway like an idiot, drinking Dr. Pepper. And I'm a fraud - which is a common feeling among all people, I think.
And the other part of it was that I went in - you know, I had been there for five years, and I was a writer and a producer. And I thought I knew everything about the place, you know. I was like a busboy. I was like, I know all the secrets and I know all the ins and outs. And I know how to sneak out of the kitchen. And I know where we get the meat delivered from. And then they were like, we need you to be the maitre d'. And I was like, great. And then I went, oh, my gosh. I have never known what it's like to have to be the maitre d'.
You know, as much as I had written and worked behind the scenes, I had not had to step in front of the camera and deal with that. And to be rehearsing things, as a performer, that I'd written on that show and dealing with camera blocking - all things I'd done countless times on the other side of it - was so jarring. I had no idea how hard this was, to be performing something you've written and wanting - you know, trying to listen to the jokes while making sure you're on your mark and looking into the right camera and then being, you know, pulled around to do costume fittings. And it was a - an absolute - it was scary. It was a very good education and - as to what it was like for the other side of it, for all the people that I made, you know, wear wires and fly through the air and put on any costume.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's hear some of your stand-up on your most recent appearance hosting "Saturday Night Live." So this is from last February. And you're talking about being married.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MULANEY: I'm very happily married now. I'm very happily married. My wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic, which you could all tell from the moment I walked out.
MULANEY: That's not a big deal, getting married if you're Jewish and Catholic. Only a couple people asked about it, and they were my parents.
MULANEY: Before we got married, my mother asked me if my wife was going to convert to Catholicism.
MULANEY: You're right to laugh.
MULANEY: It's a stupid question. Oh, I don't know, Mom. Let me go ask. Let me go see if a 29-year-old Jewish woman who doesn't like any of my suggestions...
MULANEY: ...Would convert to - what was it again? - Roman Catholicism. How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you're like, hey, honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not-new organization? Don't Google us.
MULANEY: You know that strange look of - you know that strange look of shame and unhappiness I have in my eyes at all times, especially after sex, and it was all forced on me at birth? What if you voluntarily signed up for it?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's John Mulaney hosting "Saturday Night Live" last February. That's hilarious. Was religion an actual issue for you when you got married or was it kind of irrelevant?
MULANEY: Oh, it was not irrelevant. My mom called me after that show in March. And, you know, we were talking about the show, and she loved it. And she said, I never asked if she was going to convert to Catholicism. And I said, I believe you did. I said, maybe you said, are you going to get married in a Catholic church? She's - but I think you directly asked. And she said, I did not directly ask if she was going to convert. And I said, did you want to ask? And she said, oh, yes. I definitely wanted to ask.
MULANEY: She said, you have a better memory than me, so I'll trust you. But it was discussed. An issue might imply that something was going to be resolved, but it was discussed. And my mom trusts my memory. So I will reconfirm.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and writer and actor John Mulaney. And if you want to see one of his comedy specials, let me recommend his most recent one, which is called "Kid Gorgeous Live At Radio City." And it's from last year. Nothing in it will sound dated to you. And it's on Netflix. So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "ROLL (BURBANK FUNK)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and writer John Mulaney. And he was a writer for "Saturday Night Live" for about five years. He's hosted twice in about the past year. He's also one of the voices on the animated series "Big Mouth." And he's very, very funny.
So if I asked you if you had a happy childhood - and I mention your childhood 'cause so much of your comedy is about your childhood, and "Big Mouth," the animated series that you're in, is also about childhood. So if I asked you if you had a happy childhood, would you be able to even answer that?
MULANEY: Yes, I think I could.
GROSS: And your answer would be?
MULANEY: Yes, I did. I did. I had a lot of rage that I look back on with amusement. It was normally - it was normally only momentary. And I was extremely lucky. I had parents that were strict sometimes, had high standards but were incredibly loving. And I got very lucky.
I - you know, I joke about them a lot. But 0 to 18, they instilled a lot of good stuff in all of us and also gave us kind of a - just a strange, unique experience that I guess I personally have benefited from in that I write a lot about that time. And looking back on some of those memories, they are just, to me, extremely funny and to others, very odd. You know, we were kind of like a family in the '50s, and it was the 1990s. And so just being out of step a little, even if I found it suffocating sometimes back then - it really has paid off, in retrospect.
GROSS: So what was 1950-ish and what was strange and unique (laughter) about growing up in your family?
MULANEY: We had dinner together. My dad worked a lot. I mean, he'd be traveling for work a lot. But any...
GROSS: He was a lawyer, right?
MULANEY: Yeah, he's - he is a lawyer.
GROSS: He is a lawyer.
MULANEY: And so...
GROSS: And your mother, too.
MULANEY: Yeah. My mother is an - a law professor...
GROSS: Law professor.
MULANEY: ...Now at Northwestern Law. And so we would have dinner at - all six of us - most any night that we were all together. And you know, it was sort of like a sit-up-straight, no-elbows-on-the-table dinner. And there were debates at dinner. My dad was a debate champion in high school. And obviously, both of my parents went to law school where that type of open argument is practiced and honed. Yes, we talked political and ethical and moral issues and were also quizzed on classical music.
But yes, it was a - it was an sometimes intimidating debate at the table. You know, you could be asked about your day. I think I've - I joked about this, where I said that someone was pushed off a seesaw, and my dad questioned me about what I did in the face of seeing this. And I said, nothing. And he eventually walked me to the question of, so how are you better than a Nazi? (Laughter) I said what - what? And he goes, well, no, how are you better than someone in Germany who saw what the Nazis were doing and did nothing? And I said, I - because I just - I didn't know - I didn't - I was on the bench. And you know, my mom would go, Chip - you know, and he'd calm it down a little. But yes, it was the height of debater forensic championships at our dinner table.
GROSS: My guest is comic, writer and actor John Mulaney. His latest comedy special, "Kid Gorgeous," is streaming on Netflix. After we take a short break, we'll talk about being raised Catholic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRYL HARPER'S "BLUES FOR JERRY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer and actor John Mulaney. He spent five years as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" starting in 2008. He returned to SNL twice in the past year to host the show. He won an Emmy for writing his 2018 comedy special, "Kid Gorgeous," which was recorded live at Radio City Music Hall and is streaming on Netflix. In the animated series "Big Mouth" about adolescence and puberty, Mulaney voices the character Andrew. In Mulaney's stand-up comedy, he draws a lot on his childhood and teen years.
You went to Catholic school. Was it an all-boys school?
MULANEY: No, I went to a coed Catholic grammar school and a coed Jesuit Catholic high school, and I went to a Jesuit college as well. So I guess I only went to Catholic school.
GROSS: So did you have a uniform in your early years?
MULANEY: Yeah, navy blue pants and a light-blue short-sleeve or long-sleeve shirt, which oddly enough, I still wear almost every day because it's very easy.
GROSS: (Laughter). So...
MULANEY: I dress kind of like the guy that owns Garfield. I have the same thing on (laughter) every day.
GROSS: So how was sex education and an understanding of the changes young people were going through during puberty - how was that handled, if at all, in school?
MULANEY: I would say it was not handled well. We had sex education much more so than you might think at a Catholic school. But it was the '90s, and you know, we're in a city like Chicago where it's a little more cosmopolitan. But it was - it was not a formal, you know, abstinence-only program, and yet it was.
We would go to a place - a health center that was outside of school - and we would have these lectures starting at about age 11 about how if you have sex, you will definitely get pregnant. I was told that condoms - I believe the term they used was sweat, that they are porous and they don't work, which is not true, young people listening. It is good to practice safe sex with condoms, and they are not porous. I believe there aren't any brands that advertise as porous.
And then we were scared about what would happen if we had a baby. I remember a woman at this health center said to my friend - she said, stand up. She said, how much money do you have in your pockets? And he had, like, $2 because he was 12, which is pretty impressive, actually. And she said, how are you going to raise a baby on $2?
MULANEY: How are you going to buy diapers on $2? And I remember thinking at the time, like, well, he'd use - I mean, you know, he wouldn't just use what's in his pockets. And also I must - I assume some adult might kick in a little. But it was - here was what we were taught. You will get pregnant definitely if you have sex. Getting pregnant means that you will then have a baby. You cannot take care of a baby. Ergo, never have sex.
GROSS: Did that message stick with you? Was it hard to...
GROSS: ...Overcome that?
MULANEY: Yes. Yeah. I was so afraid of getting someone pregnant. For many, many years, I thought - yeah. They did their work, and they did it well. I don't know when I found out that condoms are normally extremely preventative and that people use birth control and that it's - you don't have to raise a baby on $2.
But even if I had that information, it takes a while to get that stuff out of the back of your brain. It's all stuff that they put in your brain as a young person right before the garage door closes. And once the garage door closes, it's never not in there. So I would say it lasted a long time.
GROSS: You know, it's kind of funny the way adults always tell you, don't get pregnant. It will ruin your life. Don't get pregnant. A baby's just going to make your future impossible. But then after a certain age, it's like, you need to get married. You need to have a baby. (Laughter). It's just...
GROSS: It's kind of confusing.
MULANEY: That's all they want from me now is to have a baby.
GROSS: (Laughter) So how are you processing that?
MULANEY: Well, in a lot of different ways. My wife and I are - we don't have children, and we don't have plans to have children. And we're so lucky to have a very nice life and extremely just happy to be with each other. I'm not saying a child would ruin our life, but my parents (laughter) and many others are just - you know, they push on you the idea that you have to have one of these. And I recall them saying that it would destroy everything.
It's a little odd right now. I'm 36, and people - now that you bring it up - more often than not ask when are you going to have kids. It seems like a personal question that people really don't have a problem asking.
GROSS: OK. So you said you had an unusual upbringing, and so I want to play an excerpt from your stand-up from the "Kid Gorgeous" stand-up special last year at Radio City Music Hall. And this is you talking about your father and how he gave you the facts-of-life kind of talk.
MULANEY: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: OK, here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "KID GORGEOUS")
MULANEY: My dad's a very weird and formal guy. A lot of people ask me if he gave me a sex talk. Yes, I think.
MULANEY: I was, like, 12 years old. And my dad walked up to me, and he said, hello.
MULANEY: Hello, I'm Chip Mulaney. I'm your father.
MULANEY: And then he said the following. You know, Leonard Bernstein was one of the great composers and conductors of the 20th century, but sometimes, he would be gay.
MULANEY: And according to a biography I read of him, when he was holding back the gay part, he did some of his best work.
MULANEY: We don't have time to unpack all of that.
MULANEY: And I don't know if he was discouraging me from being gay or encouraging me to be a classical composer. But that is how he thought to phrase it to a 12-year-old boy.
GROSS: Did that actually happen?
MULANEY: Oh, yes, absolutely.
MULANEY: Absolutely. And the first time my parents saw that joke when I was on tour at the Chicago Theatre - you know, I always, backstage, have a little tension of whether they'll like what is the new material about them. And I first ran into my brother, who said, oh, he said that to you, too? He said that constantly.
And my mom, I said - I hugged my mom. She said, that was so funny. I said, do you think the Leonard Bernstein thing's OK? And she said, of course it's OK. I remember him saying that.
And my dad came up, and I said, I was asking Mom if the Leonard Bernstein thing was OK. And he said, well, I never said it like that. I would have said it a little more nuanced. And my mom went, you did not say it nuanced.
GROSS: (Laughter) So what was he trying to tell you? Not to have sex or not to be gay or...
MULANEY: Well, very fair question. Look, on every level, it's a strange swing and a miss to say to a kid. Not to have sex was a given. I'm very aware that these are fluid things, if that's - if I'm still using a term that's correct.
So I don't mean to say that my brain, like all brains, was not open to lots of different thoughts. But I don't recall a moment where I thought I might be gay or was gay. I was very interested in girls from an early age.
At the same time, however, I think being a song-and-dance man from an early age might have provoked questions from my parents as well as my siblings. So maybe some surface things that don't actually mean anything could have appeared that way.
GROSS: Well, we should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Mulaney, a former writer on "Saturday Night Live," a two-time guest host. He has comedy specials, including his latest on Netflix, which is called "Kid Gorgeous," recorded live at Radio City Music Hall. He's been touring with Pete Davidson also from "Saturday Night Live," and he's a voice on "Big Mouth," the animated series about kids going through puberty. So let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY Z'S "KISS MY BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and writer John Mulaney. So you've described yourself as a song-and-dance man when you were a kid. What kind of musicals and musical movies did you love as a kid? And, you know, what did you sing and dance around the house or in school?
MULANEY: I'd make up a lot of songs. I guess - I'm told that when I was 3, I used to do an impression of Deney Terrio, who hosted the show - was it "Dance Fever?"
GROSS: Yeah, I forget what it's called, but it was one of the dance shows, yeah.
MULANEY: Yeah. Deney Terrio, right? Was that his name?
GROSS: Yes. That was his name.
MULANEY: Yes. I don't recall doing this. However, my Aunt Dottie (ph) - it was like no matter what I've done, it's still her favorite piece of work of mine. It was an impersonation I did when I was 3. We would see every musical that came to, you know, Chicago. We saw a lot of theater at Steppenwolf and places like that, and then we'd see Broadway shows that came to town. And we, you know, saw the big '90s, you know, "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Phantom" and "Les Mis." I liked "The Fantasticks" a lot. I never saw the show, but my parents had the album. And I liked "A Chorus Line." I think those were two of my favorites early on. Not the shows - I didn't, you know, know the shows. Like, with a lot of musicals, I was kind of like an album kid. I didn't actually know the story necessarily, just followed it through the music. I've actually seen some shows now mounted that I'd heard the albums of for 20 years, and during them, I'll be like, oh, so that's what's happening during that song, which is exciting.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. So since you love musicals, let's hear a musical - an excerpt of a musical you did on "Saturday Night Live." And this was also from your second appearance hosting the show. And the musical is called "Bodega Bathroom," and do you want to describe what it's about?
MULANEY: Yes. It was kind of a - not a sequel, but a spiritual cousin to a musical piece I did the previous year that I'd written with Colin Jost called "Lobster Diner" or "Diner Lobster" - I'm not sure what the official title is - about ordering lobster in a diner. And we wanted to write another musical piece about a specific New York conundrum, or a New York City taboo, which is asking to use the bathroom in a bodega. Pete Davidson asks to use the bathroom in a bodega, and it opens up a magical world of that bodega bathroom.
GROSS: Which is - it's just a hideous, filthy bathroom in every way you can imagine.
MULANEY: Have you ever gone to the bathroom in, like, a grocery store or a convenience store?
GROSS: Oh, I really try not to do that.
MULANEY: Oh, well, I mean, yeah. Everyone tries not to, but you know, adult life is adult life, and you sometimes have to. And you get led back to this place, you know, where they're like - they store things, and there's occasionally, like, a family photo that - you're really like, wow. I wonder if that's that guy's parents. And yes, they do try to dissuade you as much as possible, but if you give them that look, there's really nothing you can say. It's just that look in your eye of, you know - sir, I have no options (laughter). You either let me behind the soda fridge or something very bad is about to happen. I didn't plan this. I left - I tried to leave the - you know, I didn't plan this, but there was coffee and my SSRIs have kicked in and a lot of things are going on.
GROSS: OK. Here's my guest, John Mulaney, singing "The Bodega Man" from "Bodega Bathroom: The Musical."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
CHRIS REDD: (As character) What kind of creep would let a bathroom get like this?
MULANEY: (As character) I did. (Singing) Who can sell you condoms and Arizona iced tea, loosie cigarettes and plantain chips?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) The bodega man can, the bodega man can.
MULANEY: (As character, singing) The bodega man can 'cause he mixes lots of pills and calls them tiger sex pills.
GROSS: Did you ever want to sing, like, for real?
MULANEY: Oh, oh, of course, yes (laughter). I mean, you can hear both the pathetic mid-range of my voice in that moment, but I believe you can also hear the absolute joy I have in being able to sing in a musical, even if it's for 15 seconds. I really wish I could sing. I cannot. My wife told me I was tone deaf, and I thought I might be tone deaf for a while. And then a friend of mine, who is a trained opera singer - I said, I think I'm tone deaf. And she said, OK, sing any melody. And I went (singing) ba da ba ba ba, which is the McDonald's theme, which was the first melody that came to me. And she said, OK, you're not tone deaf because you can follow a melody. She said what you are is a terrible singer.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you played yourself in what turned out to be the final episode of Pete Holmes' HBO series, "Crashing." You play, like, a well-known comic, yourself, John Mulaney. And your assistant tells Pete Holmes that you want Pete Holmes to open for you. And he's just, like, amazed. Like, he's just left the Christian circuit. Now he's got this opportunity. And he shows up at the club only to be told by you - it's like - what? - I didn't ask for you. I asked for, like, Ben Holmes from Chicago, Holmes from Chicago. I don't even know who you are. But then you have the assistant call all these other comics who you'd like to work with, and none of them are available because the show's just in a few minutes. So you tell...
MULANEY: Yes. And it's at Town Hall, I believe.
GROSS: It's at Town Hall, right, which...
MULANEY: Yeah, Town Hall's sort of a big, you know...
GROSS: ...Is a prestige place to play. So you finally tell Pete Holmes, OK, you're going to open for me. But then moments before he walks on stage - because he's already really, like, unnerved by this whole experience - moments before he walks on stage, you give him this advice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRASHING")
MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) God, I hate doing stand-up. I hate doing stand-up comedy so much. I only wanted to be a comedian my whole life. And the thing I hate the most is stand-up comedy. Hey. Are you clean?
PETE HOLMES: (As Pete) Yeah, I'm clean.
MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) No. You've got to be dirty. That way, my parents will hate you, and when I walk out, I seem clean. I'm not a clean comic. People think I am. But I say [expletive] and ass and cocaine and all this stuff.
HOLMES: (As Pete) OK. I'll be dirty.
MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Yeah. Be dirty.
HOLMES: (As Pete) I'll be a little dirty.
MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Also, don't mention marriage. Don't mention adolescence.
HOLMES: (As Pete) A lot of it is about adolescence.
MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Well, then you don't do that. You do something else. Or you just say welcome. I'm the venue owner. And then you walk off. Look. Don't be bad.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ben Holmes
GROSS: (Laughter) So were you chosen to do that part because you're not nasty?
MULANEY: I think Pete wrote me in to that episode and one previously because, as he would say - we're very close friends. And I try to be a very nice person, but someone like Pete knows that I can be extremely mean to him in order to make him laugh. So that was always our dynamic as friends - was to make fun of the most sensitive things in his life to him, or when he was nervous, try to make it worse, in order to make him laugh. But he thought that that would be a good use of me - would be to play a tremendous bastard.
GROSS: Yes. Well, well done (laughter).
MULANEY: Thank you.
GROSS: So you...
MULANEY: I forgot about the line don't be bad right before he walks out.
GROSS: That's really helpful, right?
MULANEY: Which I - oh, that's so common, too.
GROSS: Seriously? People really say that?
MULANEY: Yeah. Not don't be bad, but you better kill. Or I - a club owner once said to me, I need you to do really well (laughter). I said...
GROSS: How is that helpful?
MULANEY: It's not. It's not. It's just - I always thought that's kind of an unspoken thing in live performance, that we would all like it to go really well. But yes, don't be bad is often said in a variety of ways.
GROSS: My guest is John Mulaney. He's a former writer on "Saturday Night Live" and a two-time guest host. His latest stand-up special, "Kid Gorgeous" is on Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and writer and actor John Mulaney. Well, you mentioned on "Saturday Night Live" when you were hosting that you drank when you were young. And I think you mentioned cocaine as well. Was it party drinking, self-medicating drinking?
MULANEY: Yeah, party drinking, and then - so I started drinking pretty early. I drank from when I was about 13 to 23. So kind of party drinking, and then I was an excessive party drinker. And then I started messing around with drugs fairly early, too. And those - all of it helped with - I wouldn't say social anxiety because I was kind of outgoing, but it - I don't know. I liked the persona of it, if that makes sense. And then what happens is, even if you're doing drugs to get people's attention or to look cool, you get addicted to them. And that eventually was the case. I was - by the time I quit, I was using drugs and drinking alone. You know, the party had decidedly ended, and I wasn't even with the people I used to be doing it with.
GROSS: So we're going to have to wrap up in a couple of minutes. But before we do, I know you injured your hip, and I think this was shortly before your Radio City performance that became your most recent stand-up special. Are you still in pain from that? Is it...
MULANEY: Yes. I have a labral tear in my hip. And I think - it would have happened, the doctors say, just based on the way my hip bone is. I might have exacerbated it doing the Broadway show "Oh, Hello" because I was standing with a very wide gait, playing an older man every night. And so it's a tear. I haven't had surgery, and I go to physical therapy. But it's - yeah, there's a great - kind of a lot of pain. And because of favoring a different side of my body, I had sort of messed up my rotator cuff and shoulder as well. So there's a lot of reciprocal pain from it, but I have been going to physical therapy and trying to manage it as much as possible.
GROSS: You know, in "Kid Gorgeous," your stand-up special, you made a joke about how you've always seen your body basically as a vehicle to carry your head from room to room (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Which I thought was really funny. But how has pain changed your relationship to your body? Does it make it harder to be funny?
MULANEY: No, unless the audience seems to think I'm getting less funny with the hip pain. But something about it has made me feel kind of a little older faster or slowed down. And maybe that perspective I've enjoyed in terms of writing comedy. I had a - and a lot of people, when they start stand-up, if they look young, a lot of their comedy is either said explicitly or implicitly - like, look at me. I'm young. I'm young. I'm young. And that's kind of the (laughter) - that's kind of the subtext of every joke. And I'm only 36, but it's a new way of looking at the world, which is, you know, like, ah, stairs, you know?
MULANEY: And walking home from Gristedes and, like, you know, having bags on the subway from the supermarket and just kind of that, like, ugh, you know? And I don't want to become a grumpy person, but I do think it's kind of opened the door to the reality of, like, oh, is everyone - oh, yeah, everyone's shoulder - or what? - your ankle. What's yours? Yeah, your - OK - your knee, yeah. We're all kind of in pain all the time and that type of pain that there's really nothing to do about but, hopefully, stretch a little and not have to be on an airplane for too long. No, I've - it's painful (laughter), but I've enjoyed the perspective a little.
GROSS: Well, I like the way you deal with physical and mental pain in your comedy. Thank you so much for talking with us.
MULANEY: Thank you very much for having me. It's a real pleasure.
GROSS: John Mulaney's latest comedy special "Kid Gorgeous" is streaming on Netflix.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Natasha Lyonne, the co-creator, co-writer and star of the Netflix series "Russian Doll," in which her character keeps dying and coming back to life and doesn't understand why. Lyonne nearly died of drug-related problems in 2005, which led to her recovery. In 2014, she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in "Orange Is The New Black." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.