Bizarro Jerry

Mulaney is just like Seinfeld, except it’s not funny.

Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Nasim Pedrad and John Mulaney in Mulaney

Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Mulaney, a bland new Fox sitcom from former-SNL writer and stand-up comedian John Mulaney, has a laugh track. This is, by far, the most interesting thing about it. The show stars Mulaney as a young comedian and assistant to a game show host named Lou Cannon (Martin Short). Mulaney lives in New York City with two roommates, Jane (Nasim Pedrad) and fellow comedian Motif (Seaton Smith). So far, so low-concept. But Mulaney is very deliberately constructed in Seinfeld’s image: Not only are there bits of Mulaney’s tame, quibbling stand-up interspersed throughout each episode, the show, like Seinfeld, is a multi-camera sitcom with that aforementioned laugh track. This is an overt strategy by Mulaney—and his executive producer, Lorne Michaels—to attract the kind of big audience that Seinfeld and other laugh-tracks shows once commanded, and that multi-camera, laugh-track sitcoms still command over on CBS.

The multi-camera versus single-camera debate has long been a Byzantine issue that is disproportionally meaningful to creators, critics, and historians of television. Most viewers likely watch both kinds of show. If you have seen and enjoyed a sitcom made before The Office, you have likely seen and enjoyed a multi-camera, laugh-track sitcom. (Think Cheers, The Cosby Show, and on and on.) If you have seen and enjoyed a sitcom that was not on CBS in the last decade, you have likely seen and enjoyed a single-camera, laugh-track-free sitcom. (Think Arrested Development and its ilk.) But because single-camera comedies have become nearly omnipresent just as TV ratings have cratered, each format has become strongly associated with a certain kind of show: Multi-camera sitcoms are critically dismissed, widely watched hits; single-camera sitcoms are critically beloved, barely watched misses. Michaels, in a recent New York Times piece about Mulaney and its decision to use a laugh track, put the distinction simply: There are “single-camera shows that are admired and multi-camera shows that are watched.”

Michaels, it would seem, has a point. Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Community, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Happy Endings, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Trophy Wife: These are just some of the very good single-camera sitcoms that have struggled to find an audience anywhere near the size of The Big Bang Theory’s, CBS’s multi-camera smash. Still, it’s hard to distinguish between causation and correlation here. Did the networks not named CBS, which has much older devotees, lose their huge comedy audiences because they started making alienating, niche TV shows? Or can they not attract an audience to their very good and edgy but not necessarily niche TV shows because they lost their audience? More simply, which came first, the single-camera sitcom or the terrible ratings? (Network dramas, which haven’t changed formats, have lost audience share too.)

There have been single-camera shows with great ratings: The Office and Modern Family are two of them. This may seem like a weak rejoinder—oh look, two single-camera shows that have done decently!—but the myth of the multi-camera show as some ratings behemoth is reliant on just as little evidence: Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, Mom, and Mike & Molly, all on CBS, all Chuck Lorre shows, and a few of which would probably flail on any other network. Sure, a disproportionate number of new sitcoms have been single-camera, but it’s not as if the multi-camera sitcoms that have been made outside the confines of CBS—Whitney, Last Man Standing, Dads—have done well. (There is evidence that multi-camera sitcoms do much better in syndication, as outlined in Bill Carter’s piece about Mulaney in the Times. But while this is certainly something for networks to consider, a show like Mulaney should be more concerned about being good enough to get to 22 episodes, not that syndication money.)

Reasonable people might conclude, then, that it is just very hard to make a hit sitcom, in any format, right now. And so networks should be trying everything they can, including having a young guy with serious comedy cred make a multi-camera show instead of something like 30 Rock. But Mulaney is simply not the Great Multi-Camera Sitcom Hope it so clearly wants to be. And that is because Mulaney fails at the one thing a sitcom has to be, no matter what: funny.

For a show closely and self-consciously modeled on Seinfeld (“I defend you when people call you a Seinfeld ripoff,” a woman tells Mulaney) and that contains an extended Friends riff (Mulaney tells Motif, who has decided to finally watch it for the first time, “It was sort of for us by us”), Mulaney has not absorbed some basic lessons about these shows. The first is about broadness and specificity. It is a slur on great multi-camera sitcoms that they are not specific. Seinfeld, the most relevant example, is shockingly specific. One of the ongoing miracles of its success is that a show about a bunch of curmudgeonly, jerky Jews doing nothing and living in New York City became a nationwide obsession. It is true, you can watch any episode of Seinfeld with no prior knowledge of the series and it will be funny. But not because it lacks specificity. And the same goes, if not quite to the same extent, to other great multi-camera shows, from Golden Girls to Friends to Big Bang Theory, which manage to be accessible while also being extremely precise about their characters.

Mulaney is, instead, toothlessly broad. In a bid to be accessible, its characters, through four episodes, are mushy and ill-defined. The cast is very talented—which I know more from their work elsewhere than here—but I would be hard pressed to describe any of the characters succinctly. Jane is single, and maybe doesn’t care, but maybe does; she’s bitchy and selfish but usually a decent friend, except when she’s not; and she may or may not have some romantic interest in Mulaney. (The entire second episode is built around Mulaney’s old-fashioned stand-up bit about how you can’t force women—difficult creatures that we are!—to be friends.) Motif, a fellow comedian, is even vaguer, a seemingly affable yet also weird guy, perhaps with an incipient antic-Kramer streak. Short’s Lou is a little clearer: a lady’s man and a narcissist who always takes things too far. But he’s balanced out by a character named Andre (Zack Pearlman), who appears in the first four episodes and is supposed to be a Newman type—the neighbor they all hate—but who also seems, every time he drops in, to have arrived anew from a different, stranger, meaner show.

Mulaney himself is very Seinfeldian, which is to say, much blander than the other characters around him and also a much worse actor. Jerry Seinfeld was no great thespian, but he surrounded himself with a group of comedic geniuses and helped write scripts that allowed those other actors to carry the show. Mulaney—who doesn’t even have a quirk as endearing as Seinfeld’s look of perpetual surprise that he is playing across from such talented actors—has given Mulaney a very unwieldy structure that relies entirely on him. Mulaney is both a workplace sitcom and a group-of-friends sitcom. It features Mulaney at work with Lou and then at home with Jane and Motif and the rest of their weird neighbors, one of whom, by the way, is Elliott Gould. This worked for Mary Tyler Moore, but the last comedy I can think of that tried something similar was The Mindy Project, which quickly jettisoned the friends to focus on the workplace. In the pilot, Mulaney’s professional and personal lives intersect—Jane starts working for Lou—but, in the next three episodes, the two rarely meet. This means that the two spheres of the show are only connected by Mulaney, the show’s weakest performer, and the better actors never get to play off each other, making it all but impossible for them to build an ensemble.

There is an occasional funny bit in Mulaney. Pedrad’s Jane goes on an inspired riff about what Mulaney must be like in bed, for example. But more often the jokes are lackluster. Mulaney’s staid stand-up bits establish the theme of each episode: the impossibility of female friendship, Mulaney’s squeamishness about the human body (“I feel about vaginas like I do about America: I love it, but every once in a while it does things that disgust me”). But these episodes lack the structural elegance and sharp punch lines of good comedies. In one episode, Jane adopts a cat and immediately begins talking about it like it’s a man. (Why won’t he snuggle, why won’t he sleep with her, etc.) Mulaney dates a doula and tries not to faint.

Like NBC’s Whitney before it, Mulaney has a kind of perverse snobbishness, a sense of itself as swimming against the popular, single-camera tide to revitalize something amazing that all the foolish hipsters have tried to toss away. “I knew from the get-go we were doing something weird,” Mulaney told Bill Carter, about his decision to make a show in the format of … every single great television show that existed before the early 2000s and also the biggest hit on television.

This is its own kind of hipsterism. It is the TV version of normcore, taking something hugely popular but unfashionable and trying to make it cool again. Mulaney wants to bring back the multi-camera sitcom, but it doesn’t want you to think that it is just another multi-camera sitcom. It’s more knowing, it’s up to something, it’s wearing those awful cargo pants on purpose. That’s why Mulaney begins each episode with a voiceover from Ice-T saying, “Yo, this is Ice-T. Mulaney is filmed in front of a live studio audience.” It needs to establish its comedy authenticity. Let no one confuse it with a show using canned laughter, even though for people watching from home, there is no meaningful distinction between canned laughter and the manipulated, required laughter of a studio audience. They both laugh at every bad joke.