Some standups have God-given charisma that’ll cut a hole through the bottom of the stage. They’ll make you laugh out of sheer force of will, whether by volume or inflection or antics or some mystical combination of all three. They’re the kind of performers that, if you saw their set, written out on paper, it would look more like an observational casual brunch conversation than something people would willingly spend money to go see.
But there are some comics who take the reverse route: They’ve got enough punchlines to fill out a late night packet or a Twitter feed and spend time bulking up the means of delivery. If you watch John Mulaney’s 2009 episode of “Comedy Central Presents,” it’s got most of the material that would eventually find its way onto his first album, “The Top Part.” The Salt and Pepper Diner story has a lot of the same beats, but there’s a certain tightness on the eventual album version that elevated that to one of Mulaney’s best-loved creations.
Whether by his voice work, his Broadway show, or the natural evolution of a standup career, the man on display in “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” is someone who consistently has that same efficiency, the same control that made his “New in Town” a modern classic and “The Comeback Kid” a reliable Netflix go-to. And there are some parts of “Kid Gorgeous” that play to Mulaney’s strengths as an overall performer. When he pretends to be a seven-year-old being interviewed on the news, he keeps his mic at an angle to maintain that illusion. Alex Timbers’ direction highlights those key moments when Mulaney races across the Radio City stage to emphasize a particular point in a story. At one point, Mulaney gets a solid reaction from just jiggling his mic cord back and forth.
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But in spite of all that, what really comes through in “Kid Gorgeous” is that Mulaney is still one of the sharpest writers working. His “Saturday Night Live” tenure is scattered with legendary characters and bizarre creations (may “Rocket Dog” outlast us all), and most of those best creations come from attention to detail that elevates a simple setup into something truly quoteworthy. Stefon became a household name because of Bill Hader’s performance, but the idea that he could create an entire world just by listing off a handful of disparate things came from the laser-like attention to the words he was saying.
Who knows what part of “Kid Gorgeous” will stick beyond this week. It might be his pitch-perfect Trump metaphor, his over-the-top Mick Jagger impression, or his rant against colleges looking for alumni donations. To see what magic Mulaney can whip out of thin air, though, look no further than JJ Bittenbinder. Weaving a tale worthy of a character who sounds like he got his name from a Great American Novel, Mulaney relays a story of an elementary school safety assembly led by an imposing, larger-than-life figure. Mulaney paints a picture (that gets more absurd by the sentence) by recreating the physical parts of Bittenbinder’s wildly ineffective advice to a crowd of grade-schoolers. What puts it over the top is this description of how this mugging-obsessed fellow exists in Mulaney’s memory: “He looked like he should be the conductor on a locomotive powered by confetti. But instead, he made his living in murder.”
That’s not just a great joke to hear said out loud. That’s something that everyone in the audience gets a chance to create for themselves while Mulaney gets to relive his second-grade bewilderment. It’s more like the first sentence of a chapter on a page or a line in a 1950s screenplay than something you’d expect to be part of a Netflix standup special. It’s a line that earns him the chance to punctuate that section of the show by saying, “He was the weirdest goddamn person I ever saw in my entire life.” Instead of hopping right to that, it’s the kind of full-bodied storytelling that still can wink and engage with people who like their jokes direct or with a little bit of pizzazz.
And Mulaney’s just as good when he’s concise as he is when he embellishes a little. For every summary of a church (“a weird Byzantine temple with green carpeting where everyone has bad breath”), he can sum up an entire four-year college experience in a single fact (“I didn’t drink water the entire time”). He even gets some quality mileage out of great lines that aren’t meant to be funny. Following up one of the night’s more depressing observations, he tells the crowd, “That line never gets a laugh, but once you write it, it stays in the act forever.”
With most of Mulaney’s material, there’s always that sense that something else is going on just outside of where he’s focusing your attention. Late in the special, Mulaney gets into a quick story with this setup: “Well, it doesn’t matter why, but I was sitting in a gazebo.” That middle part is such tiny shading, a little nod to the idea that this whole construct is kind of absurd, listening to someone talk for an hour about things that may or may not have even happened. As a piece of rhythm and pacing, it also keeps this whole process from settling into a simple back-and-forth between setup and punchline. (It serves the same function as something like “I’m holding a red cup—you’ve seen movies…” from a “New in Town” bit.)
A good portion of “Kid Gorgeous” is dedicated to breaking down how other people construct their stories, too. Mulaney’s writer side emerges when dissecting a sentence about Leonard Bernstein that his dad told him when he was young. It’s the basis for describing a standard Catholic priest homily as “a book report that is also standup comedy.” Even the way Mulaney highlights a simple phrase like “secondary location” shows how the very idea of a string of words can change how you live your life.
For those audience members who didn’t grow up in Chicago or graduate as English majors or write for world-famous TV sketch shows, Mulaney circles back to ideas that are a little more universally relatable. As he ramps up for a handful of jokes on the inherent weirdness of robot-thwarting password verification, the laughs don’t come from him just pointing at the idea of a Captcha photo and saying, “That’s crazy, right?!” He imagines a sing-songy, nursery-rhyme speaking voice that’s basically an entire character sketch in a handful of sentences. It’s the kind of hypnotic weirdness that lasts just long enough to get the full sense of what he’s doing, but not too long that it becomes a guy doing a wacky bit on stage until he beats the audience into submission.
There are even a few nuggets buried deep in the end credits. It’s unusual enough that the special starts off with him being led on a circuitous route through the bowels of Radio City Music Hall. And sure, who wouldn’t want to get introduced on stage by Jon Brion playing the organ? But it’s seeing what the title of Brion’s composition is that suddenly gives context to the whole thing and shows that all of these disconnected stories and observations are all serving a purpose. This is standup as clockwork, the kind you don’t always appreciate fully as it’s happening, but take a closer look and those gears are calibrated in some pretty impressive ways.
“John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” is now available to stream on Netflix.