John Mulaney Has What Late Night Desperately Needs

7 minute read

Let’s get one thing straight: John Mulaney is not angling to become the full-time host of a late-night show. He confirmed as much in the monologue that opened his six-night stint at the helm of John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in L.A., the Netflix talk show that runs concurrently with the streaming giant’s annual L.A.-based comedy event, Netflix Is a Joke Fest. (Episodes air live at 10 p.m. ET through Friday and are subsequently available to stream on the platform.) “No matter what happens this week, we’re done May 10th,” he told the studio audience and viewers around the world. “Which is awesome. Because there is nothing I like being more than done.”

Fair enough. The Everybody’s in L.A. concept—Chicago native Mulaney and a panel of Netflix-affiliated comics and thematically appropriate guests dissect a different aspect of Los Angeles life each night—is too specific (not to mention too dependent on everybody actually being in L.A.) to fuel an indefinite run. But the four episodes that have aired so far prove that Mulaney’s acclaimed gigs hosting the Spirit Awards and, this past January, the Oscars’ low-key Governors Awards weren’t flukes. As much as I hate to have to admit this about yet another white guy with a J-name, he has everything it takes to be the best late-night personality of his generation, at a time when the format seems more desperate than ever for a savior.

It helps that he’s so different from his famous contemporaries. There are two predominant schools of late-night comedy now—the blandly pandering variety practiced by Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, before he left CBS last year; and the polemicist model pioneered by returning Daily Show host Jon Stewart (who guested on Monday’s edition of Everybody’s in L.A.) and adopted by acolytes from John Oliver to Samantha Bee to Hasan Minhaj. Network stalwarts like Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert mix the latter modes with varying degrees of success, though Meyers can be too sedate, Kimmel too bro-ish, and Colbert a tad glib.

Earthquake, Nate Bargatze, Zoey Tur, Marcia Clark, John Mulaney at John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA for the Netflix is a Joke Festival at The Sunset Gower Studios on May 7, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. Cr. Ryan West/Netflix © 2024
From left: Earthquake, Nate Bargatze, Zoey Tur, Marcia Clark, and John Mulaney in Everybody's in L.A.Courtesy of Netflix

Mulaney, by contrast, is likable without coming off as insipid or focus-grouped, and broad-minded without being overtly political. In that sense, he’s a throwback to Dick Cavett, the erudite conversationalist whose long-running talk show felt like eavesdropping on a dinner party attended by luminaries from all walks of life. The panel for Wednesday’s “paranormal” edition of Everybody’s in L.A. included comics Sarah Silverman, Ronny Chieng, and Tom Segura; Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; and Kerry Gaynor, who Mulaney introduced as “the hypnotherapist who got me to stop smoking” but who also happened to be a paranormal investigator in the ‘70s. An agile moderator, Mulaney keeps the conversation flowing between in-studio guests, effectively prompts viewers calling in to the show live through anecdotes related to each night’s theme, and seems to know just when to change the subject.

In his curiosity and his ability to telegraph his amusement about his fellow human beings, in all their strangeness, Mulaney also harkens back to Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and even Everybody’s in L.A.’s highest-profile guest, Jerry Seinfeld, at his straight-man best. As too many of today’s blowhards fail to understand, the best late-night hosts don’t make the show all about themselves. Their job is to play ringmaster to guests both seasoned and green, making nonprofit spokespeople like the handful who’ve appeared on Mulaney’s show so far as loose and comfortable as the comedians—and steering the likes of Seinfeld, who’s midway through a dire press tour for his Netflix Pop-Tarts movie Unfrosted, from their hackiest hobby horses.

This is not to say that Mulaney lacks personality. One highlight of Everybody’s in L.A. has been his deadpan monologues. In the premiere, he did something like 10 minutes of jokes using a map of Los Angeles neighborhoods as a visual aid, and never missed. (“A lot of people are always wondering: What happened to New York in the ’70s? It moved to Downtown L.A., where it’s thriving.”) Not all of his pre-recorded sketches have panned out, but the best of them—like a tongue-in-cheek focus group of real L.A. punk elders—thrive on Mulaney and his writers’ enthusiastic pop-culture geekery. If a particular segment goes over your head, just wait for the next one; who but the most humorless party pooper wouldn’t enjoy watching mental-health professionals diagnose comedians, including Mulaney, based on clips of their standup specials? 

The live element keeps the show exciting, with a crammed roster of guests, discussion topics, and running gags preventing dead air. A series of mock interviews with celebrities sitting “courtside” in the audience has included Will Ferrell impersonating entertainment impresario Lou Adler and a female child doing her best Steve Harvey impression. It was a stroke of genius to recruit Richard Kind, who’s so quick with a sublimely ridiculous non sequitur, as the announcer. During one lull in the action, he pulled out a set of “Richard Kind’s Party Starters” cards and posed the question: “Why haven’t more women been to the moon—or have they?” (One contemporary who does deserve some credit for the endearing shagginess of Everybody’s in L.A. is Chris Gethard, whose live 2010s cable-access variety show turned Fusion and truTV highlight The Chris Gethard Show also assembled oddball panels and took calls from viewers.)

John Mulaney at John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA for the Netflix is a Joke Festival at The Sunset Gower Studios on May 3, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. Cr. Adam Rose/Netflix © 2024
Richard Kind in Everybody's in L.A.Courtesy of Netflix

Hosting is hardly the only job at which Mulaney excels. First and foremost a standup who delivered smart yet crowd-pleasing specials before and after a persona-shattering stay in rehab for alcoholism and drug addiction in 2020, he has done just about everything that could conceivably fall under the umbrella of comedy. He’s written for SNL; sent up nonfiction cinema in IFC’s highbrow laugh riot Documentary Now!; and voiced the exuberantly perverse Andrew Glouberman in Netflix’s Big Mouth, the long-running animated comedy co-created by his college buddy Nick Kroll—with whom Mulaney also performs under the Oh, Hello banner as a cranky, Statler-and-Waldorf-esque Upper West Side duo. He even had his own short-lived NBC sitcom, Mulaney, in the mid-2010s. On Letterman’s long-form Netflix interview show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, he called his 2019 Netflix kids’ special, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, his favorite thing he’s ever made. (As with the vast majority of the past decade’s most successful comics, Netflix has played an almost monolithic role in Mulaney’s career.)

It would be a shame to see him stop doing any of these weird, wonderful things in order to sit behind a desk five nights a week, but the late-night format is flexible enough to support many of his existing projects. Everybody’s in L.A.‘s best pre-taped segments follow the Oh, Hello guys on a Hollywood mansion tour that they insist is a Charles Manson tour (“The amount of people I’ve killed in life looking for Candice Bergen!”). A John Mulaney talk show wouldn’t have to be daily, either; it could be weekly or monthly, or he could make episodes whenever he felt like it, as Letterman does with My Next Guest. At the very least, now that late night is an endangered species and Mulaney is its most promising personality since the great Desus & Mero rift of 2022, I’m crossing my fingers that Netflix makes Everybody’s in L.A. an annual tradition.

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