Ask any ten comedians to name the best stand-up on the scene these days, and nine of them -- myself included -- will answer without hesitation: Louis CK. To borrow a phrase from HBO's classic Mr. Show, he's pretty much 'King Shit of Fuck Mountain.' A lofty title to be sure, yet one decidedly earned given his unwavering work ethic and the genius observations regularly spilling from his brain.
The question is then begged: with Louis reigning supreme, who's the next guy down the list? Given you've in all likelihood read the title of this piece, I'll avoid drawing out any faux suspense: I reckon a convincing argument can be made for John Mulaney based on the strength of his debut album The Top Part.
"I read that this week over two days the Dow Jones dropped 929 points. And I can't tell you how frustrating it is... to not know what that means." -- John Mulaney
Let's rewind a bit. In the summer of 2009, my brother and I served as creative producers for Sarah Silverman & Friends, an all-star gala at the international comedy festival Just for Laughs. As the kids say, the line-up was sick: in addition to Silverman, there was Arrested Development's David Cross and the aforementioned Mr. CK. And among those rounding out the night was John Mulaney, a.k.a. some kid from Chicago I'd never heard of.
He was -- and still is -- a writer slash Weekend Update contributor at Saturday Night Live. He also made regular wiseacre appearances on a little VH1 show called Best Week Ever (spoiler: the best week ever was June 18 to 24, 1995).
"It was always weird when I'd go out drinking for the night with some money, black out, then wake up with no money. It was even weirder though when I'd go out for the night, black out, and wake up with more money. Because that means I earned money."
Although Just for Laughs obligations forced me to watch the show on the green room monitor (not entirely the best way to take in live comedy), one thing was clear: Mulaney not only held his own with the big boys on the bill, he had the 2700 people in attendance hanging on his every word.
The next day I downloaded his album The Top Part, even opting to pay for it like a card-carrying grown-up. Released in March 2009, it features a set recorded at the San Francisco Punch Line several months earlier.
"I had started writing at SNL in August (2008), and we did ten shows in eight weeks because of the Thursday elections specials," Mulaney recently explained to me. "And then on the first week off I flew to San Francisco and recorded the album. It was a couple of days after Obama won the election."
"I got to the foul line and I air balled the first free throw. But I did not air ball the second one. Because after you air ball, the goal no longer becomes to make a basket. It's just to hit some shit."
Although it's sometimes difficult to empirically prove an album is criminally overlooked, I reckon this should allay any doubts: when I entered The Top Part into popular aggregate review site Metacritic, I was hit with a message that read "The website encountered an error while retrieving this request."
So yeah, Mulaney fucking broke Metacritic.
In his defense, Mulaney had modest expectations when The Top Part was released, hoping the disc could serve mostly as a calling card of sorts. "I remember thinking I wanted the biggest picture possible of me on the cover because no one knew who I was," he says. "Something I could direct people to that had an hour of stand-up on."
"You'll walk by the newsstand and you'll see the headline 'Beauty Slain.' And then you look at the photo and you're like "Ehhhh... How about 'Body Found'?"
Calling card or not, The Top Part is a finely-crafted piece of work; the material honed to a point that nary a word is wasted. No crowd work or filler observations about the comedy club's serving staff. Mulaney simply hits the stage and throws down. His observations are deft and his comedic voice fully formed, a rare thing for a debut album and doubly rare for a 26-year-old.
All this despite the fact Mulaney doesn't cater to any specific gimmick. The material isn't overtly absurdist, offensive or angry, and you've heard many of the subjects before: commercial air travel, film and television, sports, binge drinking -- tropes long ago strip-mined by lesser comics. Yet Mulaney's razor-sharp writing and delivery breathe fresh life into these topics.
"I bet you that when Donald Trump makes a decision he thinks to himself, "What would a cartoon rich person do?"
Whether he's examining his dad's need to sell him on the concept of his mom ("You know who's a great lady? Your mother!") or deconstructing the characters that appear in every Law & Order episode (Judge Who Allows Everything, Guy Who While Being Questioned by Homicide Detectives Won't Stop Unloading Crates), Mulaney swings for the fences and hits the ball into the parking lot, all while making the process seem effortless.
The end result is a criminally overlooked album that's original, painfully clever and, at the risk of hyperbole, funnier than most things that currently exist or will exist. The designation 'King Shit of Fuck Mountain' may be taken, but as this closing clip from The Top Part proves, Mulaney at least has bragging rights over being the Undisputed King of the Salt & Pepper Diner. A lofty title indeed.
'The Top Part' is available on iTunes. Mulaney's second album, titled 'New in Town,' is set for a January release.
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