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John Mulaney talks standup, "SNL" and pirates

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published 11/10/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/09/2012 03:28 PM

John Mulaney talks standup, 'SNL' and pirates

You can have your Descartes and his "Cogito ergo sum."

We're talking the New Profundity - and when, as part of his standup routine, comedian John Mulaney first said, "Pirates never bring a big enough treasure chest," sighs of enlightenment shuddered through the known world.

Think about it: in every picture or image you've ever seen of buccaneers preparing to bury piles of loot, the bounty is always overflowing the physical properties of the designated reliquary! The treasure chest isn't big enough!

Aphorisms such as this have established Mulaney, who headlines two shows tonight at Comix in the Foxwoods Resort Casino, as one of the more shimmering in the galaxy of up-and-coming observational standups.

Only 30, the Chicago-born Mulaney has steadily worked his way up the comedy circuit ladder. He's a favored regular on "Late Night With Conan O'Brian" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," and has released two in-concert CDs, 2009's "The Top Part" and, earlier this year, the very funny "New in Town."

Mulaney is also a longtime writer for "Saturday Night Live" who created, along with cast member Bill Hader, the recurring and very popular character Stefon, a flamboyantly absurd "Weekend Update" correspondent whose expertise is weird Manhattan nightlife.

Earlier this week, Mulaney called from New York to answer a few questions before his Comix gigs.

Q: The pirates/too-small-treasure-chest comment is one of the finest observations in human history. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when that thought occurred to you?

A: Yes, it was a falling apple/gravity moment, wasn't it? Actually, I was probably just walking around or sitting at a temp job. I think the image had always visually followed me. I remember seeing cartoons of pirates as a kid and thinking, "How are they gonna close that?" I understood that they were celebrating that they had all those gold coins and just assuming it would work out. Later on, I understood the scenario because I've shut suitcases that can't be shut. But that's clothes and stuff. This is treasure.

Q: There's a lot of celebrity and presumably a great salary to working for "Saturday Night Live," and presumably it's a really rewarding gig from a creative standpoint. But - and this is important - what are the benefits like?

A: (laughs) Ha! I've never been asked that. I have to say, the health plan is very nice. You get in the Writers Guild and it's just one of the luckiest things because, just for example, the dental's very good. I just got a cap put in and it's a very good dental cap.

Q: Is there a difference between writing sketch comedy for the show's cast and writing material for your own standup routines? Do you ever come up with something really great and then you're conflicted whether it should go to SNL or your act?

A: No. They've always just seemed very different to me. I always think of it as one or the other. Writing sketches has a very different feel to me - you think in terms of a set and costumes and characters. For standup, the jokes just come to me or I'm telling stories. And as you start to refine either one, they just manifest differently.

Q: You've just turned 30. Talk a bit about your awareness of standup comedy growing up. What was appealing about it and was it something that made you want to do your homework - to go back and learn about George Carlin or Lenny Bruce or Bob Hope?

A: When I was growing up, I watched a lot of standup comedy on television. I liked any of the comics; I had no standards. Over time, I particularly remember John Mulrooney, who hosted a show called "Comic Strip: Live." There was a guy named Dennis Wolfberg and he was one of the first ones I really liked.

From there, I got heavily into the albums of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I was fascinated by the whole mystique - almost to the total detriment of any social life. And when I was 14 or 15: Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. At that point, I think I knew where I was headed.

Q: One of your most popular bits is known to fans as "The Best Meal I've Ever Had." (To the uninitiated, it's a true anecdote describing a time when 11-year-old Mulaney and a friend sonically hijacked a crowded restaurant by playing Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?" a succession of times - with a devilish twist and some cruel timing.) "What's New Pussycat" is a perfectly irritating song for such a thing. Given the dubious state of contemporary pop music, is there a current hit song you'd play 11 times in a row on a jukebox just to drive people nuts?

A: I can think of a song called "Shots." It's a bunch of idiots just screaming "shots," like, liquor. The idea being to drink lots of shots. (Editor's note: The song is by LMFAO featuring Lil Jon.) But I think it's too much. Too awful. There's no building tension. It's so bad that, even if you just ordered your food, you'd leave after a few bars. For me, that song is the sexual assault of music.

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