John Mulaney, comedian and former SNL writer, who most famously collaborated with Bill Hader to bring fan-favorite Weekend Update correspondent Stefon to life, has been waiting a long time to see his sitcom debut.
A pilot of the show was made for NBC, but the network decided to pass and it sat in limbo for quite some time before Fox decided to order the show to series, looking to replace American Dad!, which is moving to TBS on Sunday nights. Tonight Mulaney finally makes its debut, and I hate to say it, but NBC might have been right.
Let me get this out of the way; I’m a big John Mulaney fan. I love the jokes he wrote for Bill Hader, which were so funny Hader couldn’t help but break character in almost every Stefon sketch. Mulaney’s reoccurring, sassy old man character George St. Geegland is often a highlight of Nick Kroll’s Kroll Show on Comedy Central, and Mulaney’s stand-up special New In Town (available on Netflix) is one of my favorite comedy specials I’ve seen in the last year. I wanted to love this show as much as I love his other projects, but I just can’t fully say I enjoyed the pilot episode of Mulaney.
The biggest problem, the elephant in the room whenever a comedian stars in a multi-camera sitcom about being a comedian, is the constant comparisons to Seinfeld. And Seinfeld is easily one of the most beloved comedies in the history of television so you can’t just cop the show’s basic format like this and have it not feel like a flaccid imitation. Throughout the duration of the pilot, you might find yourself asking, “why don’t I just watch Seinfeld if I want to watch a show like this?”
The show is not without its merits though. Nasim Pedrad, another former SNL star, shines as Mulaney’s crazy roommate Jane, and she and Mulaney have a funny, frenemy rapport right from the get-go. Martin Short as Mulaney’s new boss, a vain, out of touch game show host that hires Mulaney mostly to listen to him talk and occasionally write jokes, also scores some laughs. But speaking of laughs, the show’s use of a laugh track is instantly distracting and over-the-top.
I hate to say it, but the biggest problem with the pilot might be Mulaney himself. He is both at times wooden and trying too hard. He delivers his lines either completely flat, or like he’s doing a bit on stage. No real person interacts with their friends like that. It may have worked for Jerry, but John can’t quite pull it off. Another issue is that the show borrows large chunks from New In Town, which is probably fine if you haven’t seen it, but feels like an inferior retread if you have.
There are a few other interesting characters mulling about, like Zack Pearlman as the disdained drug dealer Andre and Elliott Gould’s Oscar, an eccentric, spacey neighbor, but Seaton Smith as roommate Motif is a complete dud. He failed to register one single laugh with me, probably because his “genius” punchline feels like an especially despicable Dane Cook joke.
Sadly, the best moments of the show are when Mulaney is doing his stand-up routine between the sitcom parts, on stage where he might just belong. Mulaney isn’t a complete mess, and might just be suffering from pilot syndrome, but it’s definitely going to need to be better than this.