Fall 2014 Review: Mulaney

6 Oct

Mulaney and friends

John Mulaney is undeniably a very talented young stand up comedian. Unfortunately, the scripted television show bearing his name is far less successful than his stand-up specials. While the vast majority of network television are mediocre or worse, and some are outright bad, only truly disappoint me because very few lead me to have any expectiation of quality, either because of an intriguing trailer or because there are people involved with the show that I respect. This case is one of the latter.

While I want to devote the bulk of this review to talking about what’s wrong with Mulaney, I should at least briefly discuss the set up. Mulaney plays a struggling stand up who lives with two roomates, has a strange neighbor across the hall, played by Elliott Gould, and just got a job with  a vain and self-centered comedy legend played by Martin Short.

Mulaney, based on both his comedy and his sitcom, is influenced heavily by Seinfeld, the comedian, and the show. His comedy is largely clean and observational, and the sitcom features bits of his own stand up, like early Seinfeld episodes do.

Here’s the problem. Mulaney takes exactly the wrong lessons from Seinfeld. Insead of learning from Seinfeld and being influenced by Seinfeld, he tries to replicate Seinfeld, which makes his sitcom seem about twenty years out of date.

Seinfeld is one of the best comedies of all time, and incredibly important to modern sitcoms in several different ways. However,  if Seinfeld started today I very much believe it would look very different than Seinfeld did when it aired 25 years ago. In fact, as the closest thing to evidence we can possibly have, Curb Your Enthusiasm, from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David did look very different when it appeared a decade ago – featuring a similar style of comedy to what made Seinfeld great but in a notably more modern form; shot in single-camera with no laugh track. Those are the external trappings of modernity and I’m going to bring up the laugh track in a moment. But more than that, Curb Your Enthsiasm felt of its time, modifying the deeper lessons of Seinfeld – no sappiness, clever plotlines, memorable phrases, obessions with the foibles of modern life, to a moment a decade later. Certainly Mulaney is set in the modern era, and the charactesr aren’t making references to the first Bush administration or not carrying cell phones. But the feel is trapped squarely in the ’90s, particularly the pacing, and even the jokes feel sometimes like material that would feel more at home 20 years souped up with phrasology and references that are more current.

The laugh track. I’ve generally eschewed complaining about it in each and every review of a show that features one, because you can only talk about how terrible it is so many times. But it needs to be talked about here for a couple of reasons. (I need to quickly point out that I made no distinction between a laugh track and a live studio audience laughing; to the TV audience, they’re the same thing, real laughs or not.) Mulaney, for one, is a young comic who, as previously mentioned, I expect more out of than say, a Tim Allen sitcom buried deep on ABC Friday nights. Second, Fox may be the most progressive current network in terms of comedy, featuring the three best network sitcoms currently airing New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Mindy Project, all of them single-camera and mercifully laugh track-free.  Thus, Mulaney is the exception in terms of its laugh track on its network, rather than simply following the trend.

As for the multi-camera format, well, I prefer single-camera, but I can certainly understand the appeal of multi-camera and I’m open to a show that shows me that there’s good reason to use it. A laugh track, though, outside of some brilliant anti-humor bit, is never acceptable.

The laugh track simply slaughters any sense of timing. Seinfeld, revolutionary is so many ways, had a laugh track when it aired, because every show had a laugh track. Now we know better, and there’s no excuse. Shows are much more fast paced, but with a laugh track, there are wasted minutes over the course of a 20 minute sitcom that offer nothing but dead space and canned laughter.  What’s particularly astonishing is that the laughter comes at the strangest times; when there are jokes, but even when there aren’t. It made this viewing experience borderline unwatchable for me and constantly cringeworthy.

I wanted deep down to believe this was some sort of meta-sitcom, a commentary on the modern sitcom, but I don’t think it was.

The laugh track though, was far from the only issue. Mulaney’s acting was stilted, performing much better when he was reading a joke to the audience, than with a line to another character, but that worked well enough for Seinfeld, who got at least slightly better as he went along. The jokes, though, were largely  just sad. They weren’t entirely without merit; but what quality was in the jokes was absolutely destroyed by the format.

One more quite note: Just about everyone I know in my generation does not care for Martin Short. He’s so, well, much. There’s no trace of subtlety. He’s just so loud. He has old-fashioned sitcom written all over him, that makes it really difficult for him to slip into an ensemble without trying to dominate whoever he’s standing next to.

Will I watch it again? No. It was very bad. John Mulaney can do better, and I hope he knows this. If he thinks he’s created a good show, I have to severely question his judgment.

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