DC Comedy Trip: John Mulaney @ the DC Improv

John Mulaney is 29 years old, and it’s a cuspy age for a very cuspish comic. “I don’t look older, I just look worse,” he says in a bit from his last special. “When I’m walking down the street no one’s ever like, ‘Hey, look at that man,’ I think they’re just like, ‘Hey, that tall child looks terrible!'”

The tall child lost in the adult world is Mulaney’s central concern. Or more so it’s the bad kid growing into a bad adult. These are different roles. The bad kid disobeys, obedience being the central job of being a kid. There’s plenty in his act about breaking the rules and paying the price (or not). Mulaney jokes about his kidself getting his face slapped for wanting to watch more than an hour of cartoons, being evicted from a store at age 10 just for smelling bad, shouting “McDonald’s, McDonald’s!” on a car trip and getting something far worse. And then in high school, the bad kid disobeys with drugs and drinks, inciting a whole basement of other bad kids to chant “Fuck da police!”

With each of these bits, we in the audience get to relive some disobedience of our own, or disobey vicariously through Mulaney. We like it because we’re adults now, and this incongruence of time—Mulaney’s physicality makes it happen (more on this)—is what keeps us laughing.

Also there’s a kind of relief. No longer a kid, the adult inherits the communal position of setting the rules. And adult-Mulaney wants to obey but can’t. It’s what makes him a bad adult. He’s a terrible driver. (Others on the road “expect to see a blind dog driving while texting and drinking a smoothie. Instead they see a 29-year-old healthy man trying his best.”) His girlfriend has to step in and explain how he should be treated. He seemingly can’t even order Chinese food the right way.[1] Even his outfit Friday night—jacket and slacks, button-down shirt with no tie—conveyed the unsteadiness of his place between childhood and adulthood. It was the uniform of an adult, but not quite.

About half the material was new to me. Maybe a quarter was from previous specials, and another quarter I heard two nights previous at Big Terrific in Brooklyn. And yet I laughed throughout it all, again, because the material is so strong and his delivery is such a pleasure to watch. Why? What makes it such a pleasure?

In developing the chunk about how his girlfriend takes care of him (from New in Town), he has this great bit about Delta Airlines, which I’m happy to write about after Delta Airlines fucked everything up with my travel getting back home that I hate them and will always hate them and encourage others to hate them with me. It’s a long drawn-out fantasy of abuse after Delta delays his flight. Mulaney says “O-kay!” and heads off to the bathroom, coming back to the counter later. “Any updates?” he asks. “Yeah we took off when you were in the bathroom,” the Delta people say. “Because we hate you!”


They give him a food voucher that doesn’t work, and he takes it to the “Ruby Tuesday Fuck-You Express” to buy a frozen Caesar salad with it, and they go “No!


“Wait,” they say. “You’re a little fat girl aren’t you? SAY IT!

And Mulaney says “I’m a little fat girl” in the voice of a little fat girl.

Mulaney, as I’ve said, is a tall child. At first he seems reputably adult, but as you keep looking you can see how incredibly young he looks. It’s like he was drawn as part the crowd on a picture page from Encyclopedia Brown. That he’s able in one second to play a convincing authoritarian adult (i.e., a good adult, making the rules) and in another to jump into the body of the little fat girl might be his central talent.

This dynamism filled his set the other night. Here’s a man we’ve seen on TV, who with the precision and wisdom of what he knows to be true (“There’s lots of places to pull over in a relationship, and what [my friend] did was he took the car and just drove it into a wall”) can presume a happily granted authority over us in the audience. So it’s so great when he shucks this authority and plays dumb. It’s like a hairy man in drag, or when we say a pet thinks it’s people. Mulaney can sound precisely like our parents at their cruelest, most furious moments (our mothers, mostly; there’s a smarminess we recognize from lunch ladies and schoolbus drivers, the gender-incongruity of which only adds to the comedy), all the while looking and playing the part of a little boy. He’s a bad tall child who’s totally getting away with it, and I’m amazed every time at the performance.[2]

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. One of his best bits I neither want to spoil nor can figure out a way to transcribe without totally destroying. Most of the humor comes through Mulaney’s vocal work and the funny unequal relationship he’s able to paint between him and the lady he orders from. “Sorry you’re so over Chinese food, Chinese-food lady.”
  2. The night’s funniest/saddest bit was watching recent Georgetown grads boo an eighteen-year-old recent high school graduate, just for being from Arlington. This during some light crowd work. “You guys hate national cemeteries or something?” Mulaney asked. “Why do people boo Arlington so much?”

    “B&T crowd,” said some dude.

    “Oh okay,” said Mulaney. Then: “What?

    “It’s Virginia!” yelled the dude’s lady companion. “It’s like New Jersey.”

    “Except it’s not,” Mulaney said, knowing full well how ridiculous it was for little kids—likely getting money from mom and dad so they can live within the District proper—to pretend at being New Yorkers, with real B&T traffic.

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