In the conception of his fourth comedy special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, 12-time Emmy nominee John Mulaney intended to use location to his advantage, conquering a venue of almost absurd scale.
When the acclaimed stand-up comedian locked in seven nights at Midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall during his most recent tour—with filming to take place during shows three and four—he began thinking about “how cool of a room that was, and how, unlike maybe some other specials I’ve done, I wanted this to be not so much time-stamped as place-stamped.”
“It was at Radio City, in this room where we had the Wurlitzer organ playing, where we used the hydraulic lift. If there was a clarifying thought to the whole [special], it was to really use the whole room, to use the arch of the proscenium in the set design,” Mulaney explains, with reference to Scott Pask’s superlative production design. “When [the show] would start every night with the hydraulic lift and the organ playing, it really felt like the whole place was vibrating; it was a very cool feeling.”
Laying claim to one of the nation’s most impressive venues—which just played host to MTV’s Video Music Awards—Mulaney then had to figure out how to play the space, using it to his advantage. “Going into it, I had only been on that stage for maybe two minutes and 20 seconds, presenting at the Tony’s with Nick Kroll,” the comedian shares. “My memory of it was, ‘Okay, that’s a really, really wide, big old sea of people to be confronted with.’”
Previously nominated three times for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special—twice, as part of the Saturday Night Live staff—Mulaney will compete in that category once again next month.
What was the process in crafting your material for Kid Gorgeous?
I wish I had a process to talk about. They’ve all been different. This special, let’s say 80% of it was written on the road. I went on tour with a new hour of material that I liked; I wanted to keep adding and rewriting every night, and that was the process up until February of the next year when we recorded it. So, there were whole chunks that I can remember not being there; I remember many dates in the summer without a whole 25 minutes that made it in the final product. I’ve done specials that were maybe a lot more written, or worked out in clubs, and then toured. This one really was like the whole tour culminating in the recording.
Comedically, what was on your mind throughout the period you’ve described?
I had just done the Oh, Hello on Broadway show, about eight shows a week for the fall and winter of 2016. That went into 2017 and when we closed, I went on the road pretty soon after. I think playing a very unlikeable, narcissistic, murderous person on Broadway, I really had a lot of fun yelling on stage and being angry—and when I watch this special, I enjoy all the misplaced anger and exasperation. [laughs] It seems like a young man who’s very upset about a lot of things but none of them are really the important things. So, it was a volume I started to like.
Your bits are often novelistic in their length and level of detail. How have you gone about honing them in the writing, and locking them down for performance?
While I might have jotted down things here and there to get them word for word, I more often than not have a steel-trap memory for the things I like, worded the way I like them. I’ve also had the great benefit of doing theaters for a few years now where it’s become clearer that if it’s interesting and if it’s good, they are listening. Like, the whip-crack exchange of laughs you have to have in other settings is a little different.
I think doing the Oh, Hello show, which was an hour and 45 minutes, also made me realize they’re listening the whole time. You do have to be interesting, but if it’s not a roar of laughter every two seconds, it still builds in this way. I was lucky to find that people enjoyed going down the paths I enjoyed. I think if you bet on people’s patience, you’ll always win. [laughs] I know that sounds not quite in keeping with sociological studies, but it does seem like if you trust people with, “What I’m about to tell you, I feel very strongly about,” they will listen.
For the most part, the stories you tell on stage have always been rooted in personal experience. Would you call it autobiography with a bit of heightening?
You know, when I started off, I might have heightened a little more. I really get a kick out of verbatim conversations and whole cloth, true retelling. I think the delight I have in telling them is always upped if I know in my heart, “I remember when this happened, and it happened just that way.”
Then I do say it’s kind of like emotional autobiography. A lot of it is how it felt. I remember reading The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath, I think she was describing when she’s having a breakdown, people looking really tall and distended over her—and I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s exactly how ages 0 to 18 felt.” Everyone that was talking to me felt 10 feet tall, and people take on a more thundering quality in my memory. But I always give accurate details.
What gave you confidence in taking on Radio City Music Hall, in spite of its daunting proportions?
Like the Chicago Theatre, which is like 3500 seats, Radio City’s somehow shaped correctly. When I went in and they were building the set, standing on the lip of the stage, I thought, “Okay, this is doable.”
It is absurd to just have one person who isn’t like Adele or Tony Bennett standing on that stage. But the whole set that Scott Pask built, those arches getting smaller and smaller, it was meant to kind of scale it down, and then it was like, “I hope I pulled it off.” It felt like, “This is huge, but it works.” This place was built before screens, it was built for every seat to have some good experience of the show, and that was definitely important.
What made you think to get composer Jon Brion on board to play the organ for the special, bookending the experience?
Jon had done original music for my last special, The Comeback Kid, and, boy, there’s no one I’d rather work with in that capacity. I really love his film scores, his songs and his live performances, like at Largo in Los Angeles. The Chicago Theatre has a Wurlitzer organ as well, so we had talked back in 2014 about the Wurlitzer there, and it really came together for this one because it was definitely going to work out that he could come and play live every night.
He played a bunch of songs for the audience before the show and would do new covers every night. I would be down in the bowels of the theater on the hydraulic lift and I would hear him start playing [David Bowie’s] “Life on Mars?” on the organ. It was very beautiful, a really crazy experience. He played [Radiohead’s] “Creep” one night and there’s that line in “Creep”—”What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here”—and I really felt it being on stage at Radio City.
While Kid Gorgeous takes on Trump, it does so in oblique fashion—you equated Trump to a “horse loose in a hospital,” never mentioning him by name. What inspired that take?
I’ve had the luxury of not thinking about [politics] too much before the past two years. You know, I like the bit I did that references the current troubles. I find names boring a lot. I find his name boring, I find the name of the people he runs with boring and stupid and forgettable, and I hope that while the lessons aren’t forgotten, the people are. There was nothing all that calibrated about it. I thought, “I like this bit a lot, and it seems to entertain people more than bum them out.” There’s lots of debate about, do people want a break, or do they want to get into it? I have no answers for any of that, but I thought this bit seemed right.
I also find it continually baffling how much the underlying current is that no one has any idea what’s going on. You just haven’t seen that amount of vulnerability, so the idea of it being an unprecedented event, like a horse loose in a hospital, I was like, “I won’t get sick of that idea, and that won’t feel dated to me any time soon.”
It’s always nice to act on shows made by people you really love, and those happen to be great shows, so it was fun and comfortable. On Portlandia, I was doing [Oh, Hello’s] George St. Geegland with Nick playing Gil Faizon, and it seemed like a hilarious Flintstones/Jetsons thing to meet the women that run the bookstore in Portland. I feel like those guys can be dropped in any situation and I’d buy it; they’re so entitled to everything that the fact that they would show up in Portland for an assisted suicide and think they can go toe-to-toe with anyone seemed totally dead on.
It was fun to play myself on Crashing because while I would never be mean to Pete, he and I definitely had a lot of fun saying, in a joking way, ridiculously cruel things to each other about each other’s lives and careers. It was very funny to do that, but in a narrative where no one knows if it’s a joke. [laughs] I was really delighted by people saying, “You were so mean on Crashing”—if they only knew the half of what Pete and I feel comfortable saying to each other.
You’ve worked with Kroll on a number of projects outside of Oh, Hello, hosting the Film Independent Spirit Awards together for the past two years. What has been most rewarding about that creative relationship and that gig?
I like everything about working with Nick and have been since I was 18. We’re different people but when we’re in that zone, it’s a ridiculously symbiotic relationship. Taking the spontaneity and chaos of the moment and improvising around it is something he’s beautiful at. With the award shows, I’m always struck by how the two of us together work each other into a state that’s almost reckless. [laughs] It’s very fun for me to watch. Like, my mom used to separate my brother and I because it was like, “You’re stirring each other up,” and I enjoy that about the Spirit Awards. We’re stirring each other up to be kind of insane—and the other thing is with two people, you can have twice the jokes because no one needs to breathe. The first year we really approached it like a ‘wall of sound.’ Look, we’re not big Phil Spector fans, but we do think ‘wall of sound’ can be applied to jokes.