I finally got around to watching the first three episodes of John Mulaney's new show Mulaney on Fox. As an avid comedy lover and an unapologetic sitcom fangirl, I was excited to see how this old school format would play out with a modern narrative. I didn't read any reviews beforehand, but couldn't completely ignore the Seinfeld comparison chatter.
As the first episode began, the dialogue sounded a little familiar. I quickly recognized that it was a joke from Mulaney's standup routine about deviously trying to procure Xanax from his doctor. When I began to guess the punchline of every joke there after, I realized his standup routine had essentially been turned into a pilot for sitcom. This actually came as somewhat of a pleasant surprise. I've followed Mulaney's stand-up for a while and happen to find him hilarious. A show based entirely on his comedy would surely be entertaining.
What turned out to be not quite so compelling, is when the show began to stray away from Mulaney's comedy and started to rely heavily on cliche sitcom one-liners. Coupled with audience laughter after every other joke delivery, things began to rapidly sour. I was reminded of another clever, quick-witted comedian who tried his hand at a traditional multicam sitcom back in 2006.
Lucky Louie was Louis C.K.'s first endeavor into a serialized comedy based on his own life, but actually turned out to be more like an attempt at a contemporary Roseanne with excessive profanity used as a comedic crutch (it was HBO after all), and the most annoying child actress that has ever been cast in the history of the entertainment industry. In a nutshell, it didn't work, and didn't even come close to the gem that Louie on FX turned out to be years later.
While I'll always be a huge fan of the traditional multicam sitcom, I think Mulaney's talents as a writer and comedian would be better suited for a format that could let his sarcasm and hilarious real-life observations run free. The pilot was able to incorporate a lot of that but it somehow disappeared in the following episodes. Even though Mulaney described his own standup in GQ as "boring, very straightforward, rarely edgy," I think it's a lot less screwball than the writing and acting present in his sitcom so far.
It doesn't appear to be an issue of which network or the fact that its broadcast and not cable either. New Girl and The Mindy Project are both on Fox and are both hilarious, well-written comedies, even with the restrictions of broadcast TV. Lucky Louie was on HBO with the ability to use as much profanity and adult humor as possible (and certainly took advantage of that) but it still didn't work. The lackluster chemistry of Mulaney appears to be more of a format issue. His style of comedy isn't allowed to breathe in a sitcom.
Perhaps this will be Mulaney's Lucky Louie and in five years he'll have a version of this show where he's really in the driver's seat. I imagine laughing out loud a lot more to that version.