How the 'Mulaney' Pilot Loosened Up for Fox

SNL alum John Mulaney reworked his autobiographical comedy after NBC said no

John Mulaney first made the pilot for his eponymous sitcom in May 2013, only to have NBC pass on it.

But that didn't stop the former Saturday Night Live writer from approaching other networks with his Universal Television-produced comedy. "The best meeting I've had with anyone in TV was with Kevin Reilly at Fox," said Mulaney at a recent Paleyfest panel, recalling the former broadcast chief's advice. "He said, ‘I just want you to loosen this up. I just want a funny show about a comedian and these people.'"

Inspired by his favorite sitcom The Cosby Show — which he feels had "a looseness and spirit to it that has never been duplicated" — Mulaney, 32, reworked the pilot according to Reilly's advice, and soon landed a series order at the network.

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The essence of the show remained the same: a semi-autobiographical comedy in which Mulaney plays a younger version of himself as an aspiring comedian living in New York City. "He's a much more wide-eyed person than I was. I thought everything was so important back then and I was really optimistic," he acknowledged, adding with a smile: "I am a little more jaded now."

Each episode of the multi-cam comedy kicks off with one of Mulaney's standup acts, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience — harkening back to his SNL days, where he created the beloved character Stefon with Bill Hader and won an Emmy for his part in penning a 2011 Justin Timberlake monologue. With the crowd's laughter repeatedly in the background, Mulaney is more Seinfeld than 30 Rock, despite being executive produced by the latter's Lorne Michaels.

Providing much of the comedic fodder is a job Mulaney scores in the pilot as a writer for bigheaded game show host Lou Cannon (Martin Short). Lou hires the eager up-and-comer as a writer but quickly disappoints him as a mentor. His character's arrogance doesn't appear to bother Short. "That's the most fun kind of guy," he insisted, "the self-absorbed narcissist who has no idea that anyone else exists or should."

The remaining laughs spawn from the dynamic between Mulaney and his two roommates, played by Nasim Pedrad and Seaton Smith. Pedrad is personal trainer Jane, who — unlike her two roommates — isn't really all that into comedy. "She's kind of finding her way," she said, "and is unapologetically lazy." She's also a bit obsessive, as displayed in the pilot when she hacks into her former lover's email account to read his correspondence with his new girlfriend.

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Mulaney's other roommate Motif (Smith) is similarly trying to break into the comedy scene, and sometimes his jokes resonate more with audiences than Mulaney's. But it's all by design, as the latter writes Smith's jokes. "Oddly Mulaney is really good with black people," said Smith. "Normally writers will pitch me a line and they will try to imitate me, but Mulaney is very reverential when he talks about anyone in his act."

Additional members of the core cast include Mulaney's colorful neighbor Oscar (Elliot Gould), who warns his character is no angel despite his bubbly demeanor, and high-energy trust fund baby Andre (Zack Pearlman), who hasn't exactly found his place in group. "It's like watching a square peg fit into a round hole," explained Pearlman, who's struggled to develop a sense of empathy for his foolhardy character.

As its Sunday night premiere quickly approaches, the series will attempt to strike a chord with viewers after largely failing to win over critics (THR's own Tim Goodman called it "heinous" and ranked it the worst new show of the fall season). Even when one reporter praised Mulaney for "actually acting" after the Paleyfest screening of the pilot, the star didn't seem so convinced, quipping: "Can I quote you on that?"

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