Mulaney TV Review: The New Burdens of Laughter

John Mulaney, a veteran writer at SNL and stand-up comic, is one of America’s greatest young comedians. His new show Mulaney is, well, a little bit less than great. The show premiered this fall on FOX, and the overwhelming consensus is that it sucks. FOX has already bumped the show to the Sunday 7:30pm time slot, and the chances of the show being picked up for a second season are basically non-existent. Sorry, John.

Mulaney will most likely become another member of FOX’s embarrassingly expansive graveyard of shows that choked (or got strangled) practically before the pilot ran. And I just want to say that I hope it doesn’t. I really hope so. But I’m not raising my hopes too high.

“The ratings have not been good, but luckily the reviews have… also not been good. We have a very small but disloyal following,” joked Mulaney on Jimmy Kimmel Live this November.

I’m definitely part of the show’s (dis)loyal following. In fact, I love Mulaney. I’m aware that it’s not great. The acting is dry and awkward, the plots are for the most part derivative and characters aren’t changing my life. But I keep watching, every week. Here’s why.

The show is fascinating. For one, the script is dry but it’s incredibly punchy. Each episode opens in a way I’ve seen a thousand times before, but somehow have never encountered in my life. Mulaney stands in front of the show’s dimmed set and does about a minute of stand-up material— his own jokes, from his real life as a comedian. We’ve seen it on Seinfeld, we’ve seen it on Louie, but on Mulaney, it’s entirely different. It’s almost as if the show hasn’t started yet, and we’re being shown John Mulaney doing warm-up for his own studio audience. I’m not sure any TV show has done that before.

The credits roll, and then a voice-over from Ice-T says Mulaney is filmed in front of a live studio audience, okay?” almost as a challenge to viewers, daring them to deal with the fact that they won’t be laughing alone.

The show doesn’t pretend that it’s anything other than a sitcom. Really it barely pretends like it’s even a sitcom. Take away the corny set and it’s just a venue for Mulaney, Seaton Smith (also a real life stand-up) and Nasim Pedrad (from SNL) to swing out jokes to an audience on a soundstage to laugh at, under the loosely constructed guise of playing “characters” in “situations.”

When that studio laughter comes, it feels different than How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. The laughter isn’t canned— my best guess is that it isn’t even sweetened (it definitely sounds less sweetened than other shows).

The laugh track is actually what makes Mulaney most interesting to me— specifically when putting that laughter in context. FOX has easily the strongest set of prime-time sitcoms over every network, as of some time this year or last. New Girl has grown into a brilliant show over the past three seasons. Brooklyn 99 is great. The Mindy Project is great. Bob’s Burgers is the funniest show I’ve seen in years. The Simpsons is in a different orbit. And what unifies all of them? None have laugh tracks.

The laugh track has all but disappeared from prime-time in the past decade or so, and the advent of Mulaney raises a lot of really interesting questions about what the laugh track even means, or if it can still be an effective device for filmmakers and writers to please modern viewers.

With few exceptions, TV has been dominated by the laugh track for the vast majority of its existence on American airwaves. Really, it’s a relict of a time none of us can remember— way back when the only way you could experience art (music, theater, dance, fine art, you name it) was by leaving the house. Starting with radio and later with TV, producers were looking to replicate that experience for people at home. Shows have been using canned laughter and live studio audiences since the 1950s.

For the next thirty years, a minority of people (mostly actors and directors) hated laugh tracks, but audiences liked them and shows without them got axed by the networks immediately. It wasn’t until the 1990s and the rise of HBO that TV shows without laugh tracks started getting air time and critical acclaim. Today, Chuck Lorre is clutching to the few remaining successful shows with laugh tracks today, and maybe ever.

The fact that Mulaney hasn’t gotten the ratings it needs to stay on air is partially due to the incredible turn around we’ve seen in sitcoms over only a few years. Because of HBO, because of The Office and Arrested Development and 30 Rock, viewers today have way higher standards for what “comedy” should be. People no longer think laugh tracks are comedic fair game, and the critics don’t either.

In today’s world, everybody can access anything all the time. We’re so far gone from the days where you had to make travel plans just to listen to music or see theater that laugh tracks just don’t mean anything anymore.

Some would call the death of laugh tracks the liberation from homogeneous, authoritarian comedy where producers get to decide what’s funny and what isn’t. You could also call it the death of experiencing art as a community— how now we want to claim ownership over the humor of a sitcom, bragging that “I was laughing the whole time” or conversely, that “it didn’t make me laugh, not even once.”

But the thing about comedy is that at its core, it’s about community. It’s about people getting together and sharing the experience of laughter. That’s what it was about back in the days before radio, and that’s what it was about at the beginning of John Mulaney’s own career as a stand-up comedian, working clubs and bars in New York.

I love The Office and I think that Community is one of the best sitcoms ever made. But I also think that if we as a culture decide to shun laugh track comedy entirely, we’ll be missing out on the thing that makes comedy important in the first place.

Mulaney clearly understands what that thing is, the same way that Jerry Seinfeld understood it in 1989. And like Mulaney, the first season of Seinfeld wasn’t great. But in a world where everyone’s a film critic, there’s no longer room for a show like Mulaney to have the time to grow into what it’s supposed to be.

I guess until then, the networks will just have to keep coming up with new pilots until one of them sticks. And hopefully, John Mulaney and the rest of the wonderful world of stand-up comedians will keep getting a seat at the table.

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