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How John Mulaney uses his relentless creativity to figure out what to do next

The popular comedian put his mind to reinventing the children’s variety show—finding something new in a format whose moment came before he was born.

How John Mulaney uses his relentless creativity to figure out what to do next
[Photo: Sam Jones/Trunk Archive]
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Instead of following up his Emmy-winning 2018 Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous: Live at Radio City, with more stand-up, John Mulaney—the first person ever to have gone from Saturday Night Live writer to three-time host of the show in under a decade—returned last winter with a gonzo kids’ variety special called John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. The Netflix event, which aired on Christmas Eve, combined self-aware comedy with moments of real poignancy and coaxed an unforgettable musical performance from a delightfully unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal, earning Mulaney a deal with Comedy Central for more specials.

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Fast Company: What made you decide to do a children’s variety special?

John Mulaney: I was seeing a decent amount of high school theater in 2019 for another [yet to be announced] thing I’m working on, and that started to plant the germ of Sack Lunch Bunch. . . . There’s always three slot machine rollers rolling [in my head], and then it’s just, like, which one hits first. I’ll be equally medium interested in those things and then suddenly one idea will be like—kablooey!—that’s a real thing here.

FC: In 1972, Marlo Thomas made Free to Be You and Me, a kids’ special that blended songs, comedy, and serious themes. What made you think you could make the concept feel relevant for 2020?

JM: Most things I’ve done are sketches on Saturday Night Live or episodes of [IFC’s satirical show] Documentary Now!—which have major touchstones because they’re homages to specific documentaries. Stand-up comedy can be anything you want, but it has an agreed-upon framework or a negotiation with the audience. And I just thought, Marlo Thomas and her friends just made a thing and the structure is that it is this. [That was] the reason I was so addicted to pursuing it. It was kind of like, Oh, you know what something could be? Anything you want.

FC: It seems like reviving the musical in comedy is a long-term project for you.

JM: I cannot play, compose, or sing music, but I really like musicals. Writing lyrics is similar to joke writing in terms of communicating an idea with brevity and needing the exact right word. I’m probably better at joke writing, but I love it. Sometimes it’s “aim small, miss small,” like with the “Co-Op” episode of Documentary Now! [which parodied the 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company]. We said to ourselves, “We’re making this for maybe three people.” And we’re very delighted it turned out to be more than three. I’m also happy that the audience seems to like those SNL musical numbers, but otherwise they are pure fantasy camp.

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FC: Do you finish a project and immediately start another, or are you waiting to be inspired?

JM: I live in the haze of having finished something. I’m not particularly restless. I like to sit back and watch something roll out and enjoy it.

FC: Are the other ideas you’re playing with eliminated, or backburnered?

JM: They just kind of stay in place. I’m happy that most of the things I put on my plate now I’m interested in for years.

FC:  Do you remember what your career goals were like 10 years ago?

JM: I used to be really worried because I didn’t have plans or goals. In part, it was because I really liked what I was doing. In 2010, I was able to do a special for Comedy Central and was on SNL, and I couldn’t have been more content. But I felt weird about it because people would say, “I want to be a director” or “I want to have my own production company.” And I thought, okay, I want to have an idea for next week, but that’s about it. I was talking to [SNL executive producer] Lorne Michaels about it once, and he said, “Never plan more than six months ahead.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s great, because I can’t.”