In Talking to John Mulaney About SNL, Standup and Growing Up a Comedy Nerd, Mulaney talks about why he goes for personal stories over jokey jokes ("because you believe what you’re saying and it doesn’t feel as detached").
With your stand-up, a lot of the material is personal stories. Is that something that evolves over time? It seems like the personal stuff is common among the more established comics. As a comic, is that where you eventually want to get to?
Yeah. When I started off, I was very premise-based and I would say an outright lie about my life just to get to a joke. I would do that kind of stuff at open mics. A couple things happened. One was I realized I’m not a great pure joke writer like a Dan Mintz or Anthony Jeselnik, let alone like Emo Philips or someone. So I was like “well, I can’t sustain this.” And more, I have things that I think are funny and it’s more of my take on them that appeal to me. I knew I wasn’t going to write an hour of very tight, impersonal jokes. The second thing was I was opening for Mike Birbiglia a lot. He took me on the road in 2005 and I opened for him on and off for like two years. Opening for him was huge for me cause I was going across the country every week. He and I did 30 days on the road together straight on a bus. I had to do stand-up every night, sometimes two shows a night. I was doing 30 minutes in places like Columbia, MO and I wasn’t ready to do a half-hour. Those things were big for me. Watching him and how he was able to dissolve mining real life for comedy, I just liked it. And then watching Paul F. Tompkins at Bumbershoot in 2006, I remember seeing him tell just three stories from his half-hour set and how many jokes he pulled out of those stories. Just the amount of jokes from the set-up to the whole story, it was packed. That really appealed to me. So I just started doing that. And then it becomes just more comfortable on stage because you believe what you’re saying and it doesn’t feel as detached. I still talk about TV shows and bullshit, though.
In Talking to Neal Brennan About 'Chappelle's Show', Standup, Podcasts and More, Brennan explains how standups are a hybrid of entertainer/writer/philosopher/pastor.
Where you do want to go with stand-up? Do you have an end goal in mind?
I would like to do theaters. That’s my goal. I said this to [Parks and Rec creator] Mike Schur, who’s an old friend of mine, when he asked why I was performing so much. I said “Cause I’d rather make Bring the Pain than The Hangover.”
Why is that?
It’s more personally satisfying. Bring the Pain means more to me than The Hangover does. Raw and Delirious mean more to me than 48 Hours and Trading Places and The Nutty Professor. The other thing with movies is, if George Carlin’s act was a movie, it would be a dystopian post-apocalyptic thriller. There’s something about movies that’s so cooperative and so fake. There’s something about movies where they’re upholding Judeo-Christian values that I just think is corny. I like movies, but with stand-up you can really affect people’s thought process. You’re not just an entertainer, you’re a writer, you’re a philosopher, you’re a pastor, you’re so many things. Dave’s act, Chris Rock’s act, Billy Burr’s act, Stanhope, Attell, shit is dark, man. But it’s a real reflection of the world that you just don’t get anywhere else. So that’s what I like about stand-up. If someone said to me you could be a really successful comedian or you could be a really successful TV and filmmaker, I’d pick stand-up every time…I just think stand-up’s the coolest thing ever. That’s the bottom line. I love Chappelle’s Show, but I think what I love most about it is how much it’s like stand-up. Stand-up’s just really interesting. So hopefully I’ll be in theaters based on this mixtape.
More of Phil's interviews at Splitsider.