Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Unreliable Nathan

Nathan Rabin often writes about flops.  In fact, he has a whole book on them. But those are cinematic disasters.  In a recent A.V. Club post, he writes about a TV flop and misses the boat.  The show in question?  The ill-fated sitcom Mulaney, canceled earlier this year.

Rabin starts with a discussion of how talented and popular John Mulaney was before he created his show.  No.  He wasn't that well known, much less beloved. As for talent, he'd been a decent writer for SNL, not much more. Neither his material on that show nor his standup were especially impressive.  Perhaps a small group had heard of him, but he was less famous than most comedians who get sitcoms--Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, even Seinfeld or Louis C. K.  Essentially, his name meant nothing, and if he was to make it in a show, the show had to sell him, not the other way around.

Everyone knew Mulaney was in trouble when NBC turned it down, even though it had SNL producer Lorne Michael behind it.  Fox picked it up, but it was already damaged goods. Still, if the show was okay, it had a chance.

Each episode featured Mulaney doing a bit of standup in front of the studio audience (or so I'm told--I bailed pretty quickly).  Here's what Rabin has to say about it:

In the first illustration of the show’s colossal miscalculation, these stand-up comedy bits are way too short, often hovering around the one-minute mark. It’s a testament to how little Fox understood Mulaney’s appeal (or maybe to how Mulaney misunderstood his own appeal) that the network somehow assumed that audiences would be in a hurry for Mulaney to stop doing stand-up (something he’s very good at) and start acting (something he is, to put it diplomatically, not quite as gifted at).

Completely wrong.  This was a sitcom. People were tuning in for enjoyable plots with entertaining characters and funny lines.  Killing the action dead with some standup, just because you think you've got a funny comedian, was a bad decision.  Seinfeld started that way, but he was a well-known comedian and the concept of the show--that we'd see how his stand-up came from his real life--was how it was sold to the network.  But even that show soon realized that's not what an audience wants in a sitcom and dropped the angle.  If Mulaney wasn't as good at acting as standup, tough, he'd better learn. Seinfeld wasn't much of an actor either, but that's the part of the show that mattered.

Worse is Rabin's main thesis--that doing the show live, three-camera style, doomed it as a throwback.  This is nonsense.  It's true that TV has gone crazy for one-camera shows shot like a film, and there's a lot you can do with that format.  But a live show, which used to be the norm (Norm!), is still around. In fact, the most popular sitcom of the past decade, The Big Bang Theory, is done that way and still going strong, as are several other hits presently on air. Critics may care about the format, but the audience doesn't.  And seeing as how Mulaney's main TV experience was on SNL, a show that's a live as can be, doing it that way was probably the right decision.

What doomed the show was weak writing and clichéd characters.  NBC saw that, so refused to put it on the schedule even after developing it.  It's exceedingly hard to create a good show, no matter how much talent is behind it.  But the "problems" Rabin mentions didn't matter at all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. One of the greats.

2:47 AM, September 01, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Your take is right on. We watched two or three episodes and bailed. We even knew who Mulaney was and liked his stand-up.

In my opinion Mulaney himself was okay, but Pedrad and Short, both of whom I also like, were given terrible characters to play that they couldn't save.

I am not aware of what Mulaney's role as a writer for SNL had been? Is there a way to find out who wrote particular skits? Did he do some great ones?

10:44 AM, September 01, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

While SNL doesn't credit specific writers for specific sketches, you can sort of find out who did what. Mulaney, it's known, created with Bill Hader the Stefon character. I found Stefon actively unfunny, but he was an audience favorite.

11:01 AM, September 01, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I wish you hadn't told me. I disliked the Stefon bits too. But my daughter loved them, so I guess it hit its target audience.

8:52 AM, September 02, 2015  
Blogger New England Guy said...

Stefon is one of those characters that seems famous for being famous. I'm sure he'll seem funny in my dotage.

I never liked Belushi's Samurai character but now that nostalgia has kicked in, I find myself laughing at it. (It's just so dumb)

9:23 AM, September 02, 2015  
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