John Mulaney is not the new Jerry Seinfeld — but he is ready to face the inevitable comparisons his new Fox sitcom, Mulaney, will draw to NBC’s iconic comedy Seinfeld. Not only do both star stand-up comedians playing versions of themselves and revolve around the daily insanity spurred on by a group of oddball friends dominating his life, but each episode opens with him performing stand-up.
After the show’s first trailer was released, Twitter exploded with 140-character comparisons. “Is Mulaney supposed to be like Seinfeld?” The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman tweeted. “Mulaney is to Seinfeld as Muppet Babies is to The Muppets,” Pajiba posted. And Time.com wrote a story titled, “8 Ways The Trailer for Mulaney Resembles Seinfeld.”
Mulaney was nonplussed. “I was well aware from the beginning that people would make comparisons,” Mulaney told BuzzFeed while promoting the fall comedy — which he created and executive produces — at the ATX Television Festival. “It would be absurd to say Seinfeld wasn’t an influence on me growing up, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a fan. But the most egregious [similarity] is that I also do stand-up on the show.”
He added, “If the audience thinks it’s too similar, that’s what they think, but I don’t think there’s any point in distancing myself; if we’re even a tenth as good as Seinfeld, we’d be lucky.”
That hopeful fraction is one reason why Mulaney had no problem with Kevin Reilly, Fox’s now-ousted chairman of entertainment, saying Mulaney was “Seinfeld for a new generation” at the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers in May. The other reason lies in the purpose of the event.
“That’s a sales presentation,” he said of the yearly gathering of advertisers, where they’re exposed to — in the span of one week — every new show the broadcast networks plan to roll out. “They’re just trying to get people to buy ads so that is a totally acceptable thing to say to sell a show. It’s like saying something is ‘the next Coca-Cola.’ If you watch Shark Tank, you know you have to use whatever you have to sell something to people. Now, when it comes to marketing the show, the billboards are not going to say, ‘We’re as good as Seinfeld.’ I was well aware from the beginning that people would make comparisons, so it’s like we did it before anyone else could do it.”
Being able to anticipate critical response, both positive and negative, is an essential tool in a stand-up comedian’s arsenal — especially since, much like fronting an eponymous TV show, success or failure will be forever tied exclusively to your name.
“With stand-up, it’s always been my name, so if someone doesn’t like a show I do, it’s on me,” he said of deciding the sitcom would share his surname. “The sentence I’ve been trying to avoid my whole career is: John Mulaney isn’t funny.”
While six years of performing stand-up and four years writing on Saturday Night Live certainly put the 31-year-old on audience’s radars, Mulaney is quick to acknowledge that starring on a network sitcom boasting his name is another thing entirely, putting him in the crosshairs like never before.
“I was a little scared but I wanted to go,” he said, with a restrained giggle, about the decision to leave the Lorne Michaels-produced series after four years. “Lorne would roll his eyes at this, but, in my opinion, SNL is not going away anytime soon. That fact was lost on me until I was creating my own show, which can be taken away at any second. So, leaving a show that’s not going anywhere brings different levels of comfort and anxiety. With SNL, the show isn’t going anywhere, so my anxiety was about how I fit into the show. In L.A. [where Mulaney is produced], the show might be going somewhere so it’s less personal and more communal anxiety.”
And Mulaney knows, all too well, what it would feel like to lose his show because it’s already happened once before. Mulaney was originally created for NBC, but the network opted not to pick the show up to series in May 2013. Calling the experience “obviously disappointing,” Mulaney adds that he was most disheartened to not continue working with the cast of “incredible actors” he’d assembled: Martin Short, Elliot Gould, Nasim Pedrad, Zack Pearlman, and Seaton Smith.
Mulaney, along with Lorne Michaels (who is an executive producer), refused to send the series to the pilot graveyard in the sky and took a slightly re-worked version to Fox, where it was picked up for six episodes in October 2013. When asked if he thought Fox responded more positively to the series because of NBC’s tweaks or simply because they “got” what he was attempting to do, Mulaney remarked that it was a combination of the two.
“There were some tweaks, but Fox was interested in a pure comedy like this,” he said, before explaining what he’s come to understand about the pilot process in general. “It’s a weird thing to take a gamble on. They’re placing such big bets — even financially — that, if I’m to step outside and look at it objectively, passing on a show called Mulaney is not that crazy. So I have respect for the chances they have to take.”
And Fox is also taking a chance with Mulaney’s timeslot, scheduling it to air on Sunday nights, after The Simpsons, critical darling Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the still-dominant Family Guy. But Mulaney can’t focus on that potentially risky timeslot because, despite having a head start thanks to an early series order, every episode brings with it a new set of problems, turning his beloved creation into an all-consuming behemoth.
“At home we talk about it like it’s a constant hurricane,” he said with a laugh, masking an undeniable hint of understandable frustration. “It’s a lot of decisions to make. I think I learned to just make decisions and some of them are totally going to be wrong, but no one’s keeping score day to day with a gun to your head. Also, nothing will get done if I don’t just start making decisions. It’s the most high-pressure thing I’ve ever done, but I also have to be more cavalier than I’ve ever been before, so, it’s become such an all-encompassing presence in my life. But that’s the way it should be.”