On John Mulaney, Late Night Host

A few thoughts about Everybody's In LA.

On John Mulaney, Late Night Host
Image via Netflix/YouTube.

I thoroughly enjoyed Everybody’s in LA, John Mulaney’s foray into late night with Netflix this past week. While I’ve seen some commentators describe the show as anti-late night or a deconstruction of late night, I thought it hewed more or less to the form: each show had a monologue, guests, pre-taped segments, a wonderful sidekick in Richard Kind, fun little sketches, and musical performances. What made it distinct, to my eye, other than the not-to-be-understated fact that it was live, was that it mostly existed outside news and promotional cycles: with a few glancing exceptions, Mulaney and his guests weren’t selling anything or joking about the day’s headlines. Instead, the show located a powerful engine in its host’s personality, specifically his interest in the titular city. Each episode revolved around a variation on the theme—helicopters, earthquakes, the future of LA—which loosely guided Mulaney’s free-ranging conversations with his guests, including comedians in town for the Netflix Is A Joke Festival, LA luminaries like Marcia Clark, and various non-celebrity experts in local history, science, and culture. In other words, Everybody’s in LA had something absent from pretty much every other late night show except Last Week Tonight: a sense of curiosity, one might even say passion. 

Naturally there has been much speculation as to whether the show was a trial run for something more regular. It certainly felt that way to me, and I’d venture that it was a successful one, demonstrating both Mulaney’s talents as a host—truly, he’s a natural—and his creative team’s eclectic comedic sensibilities. It was particularly wise of him, I think, to work with Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh, who have a generational knack for short-form work that starts in the left field and somehow moves even farther left from there, pulling the rug out from under the viewer again and again and again. Their “Reverse Borat” segment was a season/series/whatever highlight, for me, and the “reverse Borat” reveal wasn’t even its funniest turn. Their sketch about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler fans, too, was a great example of Everybody’s in LA’s embrace of the sort of weird, deadpan, anticlimactic comedy we are less accustomed to seeing on late night than from former late night writers once they leave late night to pursue their own projects, finally free from its shackles.

Indeed, it’s those shackles that give me some ambivalence about a more permanent iteration of the show. With the caveat that I think Mulaney is one of the funniest people alive, I also tend to think that the nightly talk show, as a form, requires a certain commitment to mediocrity. Part of this is the schedule: not even the most talented comedy writers in the world are going to produce the best possible versions of their best possible ideas if they have a show every night. (As SNL shows us, they may not even be able to do this with a show every week.) Then there’s the pressure that Everybody’s in LA was free of by virtue of its concept, a popup show about Los Angeles featuring artists who happen to be in town for a comedy festival. Perhaps I am too cynical, but I fear a nightly variety show would have no choice but to become a part of the Hollywood PR machine, if only as a means of maintaining a steady roster of guests. This is just the way things work. Artists and politicians are busy people: they don’t go on late night to have a good time or hang out with their friends, they do it because they have something to promote.

This constraint is not necessarily antithetical to good comedy, as we can plainly see from the careers of Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, and previous generations of late night hosts like Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. It also seems clear enough that Mulaney is not interested in being a publicist: when LA mayor Karen Bass called in during the final episode of Everyone’s in LA, he and his guests made conspicuous efforts to steer her away from pablum talking points about the city, later remarking that he didn’t want to give her a platform to promote herself. I have no doubt a Mulaney late night show would be just as committed to an uncompromising ethos of silliness and eccentricity. What I doubt is how sustainable this would be at Netflix, which has proven again and again that it’s not in the business of creativity. When I consider that every decision the streamer makes is driven by a hunger for endless subscriber growth, and when I consider that late night shows (and their hosts) tend to become de facto spokespeople for their corporate patrons, I find it difficult to envision a world where a Netflix late night show gets to be free from the pressure to be something for everyone, rather than to be whatever it wants to be. 

That said… maybe it’s worth a shot. I’ll certainly tune in.

What Else?

-Dave Chappelle is not well:

On Thursday at the Punch Line, he did seem to have moved on from the topic of gender (similar to his July 2023 show). He acted a little more self-aware this time around, sincerely apologizing halfway through a joke about domestic violence to anyone in the room who had experienced it. But he could not stay away from the slurs — he’d sneak them into unrelated bits, dog whistling about his old grudges. For such a virtuosic storyteller, it felt like a lazy move, a misdirected misdirection. When discussing our divided country, he drew the battle lines of a civil war as MAGA vs. “f—tland” — cue another San Francisco reference with the same slur — but then he said that in this case, he’d likely be on San Francisco’s side.
Politics was a recurring theme. He noted how he voted Democrat in 2020 (“I f—k with Joe Biden”), and potentially would again, but said that this was the hardest election of Black people’s lives (and didn’t elaborate). The war in Gaza was another topic, with Chappelle dropping a line about Israel having the right to defend itself and feeling like “the best defense is a good offense.” He bemoaned the fact that the U.S. is sending guns to Israel and food to Palestine and that the hostages seemed to have disappeared from the conversation, before pivoting back to familiar territory (“if the hostages were transgender, they’d be rescued”). 
Most of the edgelord humor was pretty juvenile: antisemitic stereotypes about banking and the media, along with cringey accents. One of the bigger laughs was about a communist toy store (“Toys ‘R’ for All of Us”), but it was followed by a distasteful rhyme about Chinese people that’s so cliche it would barely score a laugh on an elementary school playground.

-I loved Schuyler Mitchell's essay in The Baffler about the “disdain for queerness” at the heart of Zionist discourse, as seen through the Israeli sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet:

In Eretz Nehederet’s “The Gospel According to Berkeley” sketch, two American college students and their professor (played by Gelman) visit Joseph and Mary in Jerusalem after baby Jesus is born. Gelman tells them that they’re actually Palestinians because Jewish people only arrived as colonizers in 1948—a straw man set up to mock Palestinian indigeneity. “You don’t practice Judaism. You practice Islam,” he says. “There are no Jews here.” They are also quick to emphasize that they are not three wise men from the West, but rather, “three wise persons.” It is notable that in this sketch, it is the queer students facilitating the erasure of Jews and their replacement with Palestinians.
The scene, alongside other handwringing over the “existential threat” Palestinians pose to Israel, calls to mind the great replacement theory, a hallmark of white nationalism which claims that white populations are being systematically “replaced” by ethnic minorities. Far-right Republicans in the United States have turned it into an all-purpose cudgel, brandishing it against migrants seeking asylum and queer, especially trans, people—anyone who threatens the construction of their “ideal” population. In Israel, Palestinians are treated as “demographic time bombs” and denied the right of return. That antisemites have long used this hateful ideology to persecute Jewish people makes the embrace of such views by Israeli politicians all the more troubling.

-BREAKING NEWS per antivaxxer and picket line-crosser Mike Binder: the conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped in on a recording of Kill Tony during the Netflix festival last night. As you may recall, Tucker Carlson dropped in on the same show in March.

-Another banger from Hotel Art Thief:

Keep it going for your host!

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