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Welcoming ‘Mulaney’ to TV’s Promised Land

Comic John Mulaney’s new show is a Seinfeld for the goyim—in a good way

Liel Leibovitz
October 07, 2014
Cast of 'Mulaney.' (Fox)
Cast of 'Mulaney.' (Fox)

The critics dislike Mulaney. The new sitcom’s humor, sniped one typical detractor, felt “forced and artificial.” Others were less reserved in their lashings. They’re all missing the point: the show is brilliant, in large part because of the way it corresponds with its genre’s deeply Jewish roots.

If you haven’t seen the pilot this past Sunday—and, really, you should—the show is about a young comedian named John Mulaney who lives in New York and tries to make it in show business while taking comfort in a small circle of eccentric friends who behave badly. Each episode begins and ends with snippets of Mulaney—a former writer for Saturday Night Live—in a comedy club, doing bits from his stand-up routine. Remind you of anyone?

The answer, of course, is Jerry Seinfeld. But while Seinfeld reveled in its Jewishness, Mulaney works because it inserts a brilliant Irish-Catholic kid from Chicago whose memorable bits include riffs on blackout drinking into a TV landscape once populated by characters fighting over babkes and converting to Judaism just to tell Jewish jokes. From the old-fashioned opening sequence that informs us that the show, like the best sitcoms of our youth, was filmed in front of a live studio audience, to the intentionally well-worn plotlines, Mulaney is primarily a love note to its genre. Instead of Richard Lewis and Paul Reiser and Larry David playing out variations on the theme of anxiety, however, the same shenanigans are attempted by Mulaney, the Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad, and Seaton Smith as an over-the-top black comedian named Motif.

They’re all terrific comics, but their delivery seems to be predicated in part on the winking acknowledgment that they’re not in Kansas anymore but in sitcom New York, an imaginary place with its own customs and traditions, formerly used to house society’s wise-cracking—and largely ethnic—misfits. To the extent that any cultural creation is about anything larger than itself, then, Mulaney is about defining the new normal. After Seinfeld—a show that nearly did not find its way to the air because it was perceived as too Jewish for middle America’s taste—made it big all over, introducing expressions like yada yada yada into the national lexicon, what happens if we play the same move in reverse, inserting a funny kid from the heartland into the same crammed New York apartment with the same crazy friends? And because this is New York, and this is 2014, what happens if those friends are not recognizably Jewish actors playing an Italian and a WASP but actors from different ethnic backgrounds and divergent comedic sensibilities?

Like every show in its infancy, Mulaney is still grappling with these fundamental questions, but, judging by its pilot, it has the premise and the talent to deliver a gem. And if that’s not enough, Mulaney’s next door neighbor is played by Elliott Gould, relaxed and hilarious as a blissed-out aging hippie. He’s there to calm down the young and quivering comedians struggling to move on up, a very Jewish zen master from the world of sitcoms past welcoming Mulaney and his crew into television’s promised land.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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