John Mulaney seems like a very nice boy. That might be a strange thing to say about a 32-year-old established comedian, but it’s a role Mulaney himself embraces. Being a thirtysomething comedian who looks like he’s 12 is kind of his shtick. That’s also the basic premise of “Mulaney,” a new FOX sitcom starring young comedian Mulaney as — you guessed it — a fictionalized version of himself. Mulaney is one of the most talented comedians in the business today. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live, and created the now-classic character Stefon. His stand-up is brilliant, his comic voice likeable and wacky. I have been anticipating the premiere of “Mulaney” for almost a year now. But as much as it pains me to criticize someone so terrifically gifted, “Mulaney” is bad. Almost unwatchably so.
The plot of “Mulaney” is nothing revolutionary, though it sounds promising enough: A young comedian struggling to make it in New York City gets a job writing jokes for a hammy, self-important game show host. “Mulaney” is much like older sitcoms: It incorporates a laugh track and employs a multi-camera setup, in which several cameras film from unchanging locations (that’s why you always get the same view of the Cosby family’s living room). Mulaney intended for his show to reinvigorate the old-fashioned multi-camera vibe that has recently become nearly archaic. The problem is that “Mulaney” isn’t inventive or subversive enough to make the outdated format seem fresh.
The larger cast of characters is also not particularly engaging, at least not yet. They have short-term goals in place of personality traits. They’re cardboard-thin, a collection of great comic actors reduced to half-baked sitcom clichés. Seaton Smith plays Mulaney’s roommate and fellow comedian Motif, a decent, if not hilarious, Goofy Best Friend type. Nasim Pedrad, one of Saturday Night Live’s most versatile players, doesn’t quite find her footing as Mulaney’s other roommate, Jane (to be fair, she’s pretty much boxed into a stereotypical Crazy Stalker Ex-Girlfriend role). Elliott Gould makes a brief appearance as the Obligatory Strange Neighbor, and Zack Pearlman flits in and out as Weirdo Who Is Universally Hated And Inexplicably Always Around. And finally, Mulaney’s new boss, Lou Cannon, is in the capable hands of veteran comic actor Martin Short. In this role, however, he’s relegated to a handful of cheesy one-liners and the ever-popular Joke About Not Remembering Someone’s Name (“Jay Mulaylay?”).
Like “Seinfeld,” the show to which this one is most often compared, “Mulaney” is bookended by stand-up from its titular star. But Mulaney also wedges truncated bits of his existing material into the plot and dialogue. An extended observation about seeing an abandoned wheelchair, a hilarious bit from one of his specials, is shoehorned into a bizarre cross between dialogue and an aside. In one of his stand-up specials, he tells a hilarious story about lying to a doctor and having to undergo a prostate exam; however, when acted out in “Mulaney,” the story loses almost all of its comedic steam. Mulaney has proven himself to be a great storyteller when he uses his own voice. He just hasn’t found the right way to tell half-hour, sitcom-ready stories. As a huge fan of Mulaney’s work, I was familiar with much of his self-plagiarized material. I didn’t want to keep watching the show; I wanted to turn it off and watch his comedy instead.
It’s possible that in an age of hyperrealistic, boundary-breaking TV the multi-cam, laugh-track-heavy sitcom just feels unnatural. “Louie,” another show about a struggling New York City comedian, conspicuously shoves aside traditional rules of television to extraordinary effect. But I don’t think the problem with “Mulaney” is its antiquated format. After all, classic sitcoms like “The Cosby Show” are still beloved, and current ones like “The Big Bang Theory” are still popular. The simplest, sincerest, most damning criticism of “Mulaney” is that it isn’t funny. Questions of style and “Seinfeld” comparisons aside, the show’s not worth watching.
“Mulaney” was roundly panned by critics and largely ignored by Sunday night TV audiences. The pilot drew just 2.3 million viewers, a dismal figure for a much-anticipated, hyped-up series premiere. For now, I can only cancel my series recording, turn on “New in Town” — one of Mulaney’s great stand-up specials — and hope that this very nice boy finds a better venue for his talents. In other words: I want more Mulaney and less “Mulaney.”