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At Mulaney shows, laughs are real even if truth is stretched

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published November 12. 2012 4:00AM

In Darwin's "Origin of Comedic Species," the scientist devotes substantial analysis to comedians who eschew jokey/punchline material and, instead, focus on the humorous aspects of anecdotal storytelling - whether the bits are true or not.

One thing that makes John Mulaney's standup gigs so wonderful is that, not only do his anecdotes unfold with consistent and e'er-escalating hilarity, one leaves the show - as we did after the sold-out first of two performances Saturday night at Comix in Foxwoods - convinced all these things absolutely happened to the comic. Ultimately, the presumed authenticity makes a big difference in the fan's investment.

Mulaney, who has escalated to stardom via concerts on Comedy Central, appearances on Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon and as a writer on "Saturday Night Live," hasn't led a particularly exotic life. Dressed at Comix in a suit he might have stolen from Barney Fife, Mulaney is quick to point out the relative mundanity of his 30 years on the planet.

But to hear him dissect school-day readings of "The Lord of the Flies" or the humility lessons brought by a family station wagon sporting faux wood strips on the exterior have a warmly comic nostalgia one might expect from Theodore Cleaver, if the Beav was getting fluid at dropping the F-bomb.

As for incidents later in his life, Mulaney's mix of a post-puberty perspective with that innate core innocence is a beautiful thing. When, at a party, a friend's 2-year-old daughter chills and silences the festivities by blithely and out of nowhere announcing "Uncle John is funny because he has a penis" - the onstage comedian still seemed horrified by the dawning implications in the room of such a statement. That, in conjunction with the hindsight relief that everything worked out, is brilliant when deftly juggled by Mulaney.

There's a second crucial aspect to his work. Mulaney can either turn observational in the middle of a story - interrupting the narrative to make a wry assessment of his own thinking or the behavior or his friends or family - or he'll intentionally short circuit the momentum by using a key element as a jumping off point to venture into something equally amusing though only tangentially relative.

These all coalesced in stunning fashion during the finale of his set. The 9-year-old Mulaney attended a fundraiser in the Chicago Hilton ballroom for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Mulaney's parents went to law school with Clinton, and the politician's charisma had created an enduring schism between mom and dad that Mulaney hysterically nuanced. Suddenly, he veered into a ludicrously detailed bit about how the hotel ballroom was the one used in a climactic scene in "The Fugitive." Not only did it not sidetrack the story, it worked spectacularly and helped underscore the chaotic brilliance of the many facets of Mulaney's humor.

The laid-back and monstrously funny Ron Funchess opened the show.

r.koster@theday.com

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