The Line Between Edgy & "Ugly" Humor In The Age Of Trump, According To Nick Kroll & John Mulaney
If you think you're tired of constantly stressing about the current state of politics, imagine being a topical comedian. "I wish that I didn't have to think about Donald Trump so much," John Mulaney tells reporters at a press event for the debut of the Netflix special Oh, Hello On Broadway, written and performed by him and Nick Kroll. The long-time collaborators and friends star as George and Gil, two crotchety Upper West Siders who are as equally opposed to "PC culture" as the current President and many of his supporters. But in the Broadway show version of an act that's a decade old and still kicking, Kroll and Mulaney had to constantly mark and re-mark how far they were willing to take their alter egos' unpleasantness, especially as it related to racism and sexism. There's a line between edgy and "ugly" comedy.
"There are a few jokes over the run of it — and we both felt the same way," Kroll says. "We would say things that were in-character sort of racist or misogynist or intolerant or whatever, we’d very quickly would try them out, see how they felt. Then both of us would be like, 'Hey, are we comfortable with that joke anymore?' And we’re like, 'Not really.' There’s an ick factor."
"Some things are just ugly," Mulaney chimes in.
The duo first developed the personas of Gil and George about 10 years ago, at weekly shows at Rififi, an East Village bar and comedy club that's gone the way of so many other cult favorite New York City spots. That is to say, it's no more. Mulaney insists that though they've deepened the characters through sketches on The Kroll Show, Comedy Bang Bang, Conan, off-Broadway, and then Broadway, the core personalities of Gil and George haven't changed at all.
"The first show, we said, 'We love comedy. We love Jim Belushi, who died from cocaine,'" Mulaney says, slipping into George's strangely emphasized cadence. "That was in the set-up the very first time we were onstage, and like, that’s not that different from what was on Broadway."
It's not a one-line synopsis that you'd expect would transition well to the Great White Way. (Though, "Cats sing their way into the afterlife" sounds like a hard sell too.) But Oh, Hello was a limited engagement hit, recouping its budget towards the end of its five-month run, according to Variety. The Broadway incarnation started previews in September 2016 and ran through early January 2017, meaning that it encompassed the frenzied final months of the Presidential campaign, the election's immediate aftermath, and Trump's inauguration. Since Oh, Hello isn't entirely scripted and there are plenty of opportunities for improvisation (and for the stars to "mess with" each other"), the news cycle provided them with way too much material to fill those gaps.
"Remember when Steve Harvey got the beauty pageant wrong?" Mulaney asks, comparing the news cycle to the Great Miss Universe Incident of 2015. "It’s like that, plus Farrah Fawcett dying, plus Michael Jackson dying, every day. But that’s every single day, all three of those things happening."
Now, Kroll and Mulaney fans who weren't able to make it to New York can watch one particular version of the changing live show from the comfort of their couches. It's a bit of a badge of honor to get a fully produced film version of a Broadway show out into the world, but at a certain point in the development process, the comedians let go of their expectations.
"[Playing these characters] truly has been the thing for me — and I think John — always the most fun thing to do," Kroll says. "And it was sort of like, so whatever happens, if you’re gonna go down, go down having the most fun, doing the most fun thing you can think of."
That fun involved composing a somewhat absurdist show-within-a-show, wherein the Gil and George are presenting their own play to the audience, while also dealing with their own interpersonal drama, including a rent hike, a botched audition, and a compromised raccoon. Throughout, the audience is treated to the pair's indefensible opinions and casual terrible-ness. But it's the consistency of their craven personas that made it safe for Kroll and Mulaney not to scrub the material clean.
"If you’re offended by George’s Durst-level misogyny, then you might be like, 'Oh, but it’s the character.' If you’re a wealthy Upper East Side woman who’d be offended by this man screaming the c-word at you, then you might be like, 'Well, the shock value is what sells it,'" Mulaney explains. "I knew there was enough bullsh*t in all performance that you could buy some of those people. I did not think people would be like, 'This is offensive, I’m walking out.' I thought people would be like, 'This is dumb as sh*t.'"
By towing the line between retaining Gil and George's crude roots and avoiding the nastier jokes that, in Kroll's words, wouldn't get "the laugh for the right reason," Oh, Hello establishes a crusty charm, like stained but well-loved armchair. You shouldn't like hanging out with these coots, but you do.
And so do Steve Martin and Michael J. Fox, two of the guests that Mulaney and Kroll wrangled for the taped performance. Over the course of Oh, Hello On Broadway, celebrities like Katie Couric, Rebel Wilson, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert joined Gil and George onstage for an off-the-cuff rap session and an obscenely large tuna sandwich. Mulaney insists that they got insanely lucky with "the most funny, beloved, amazing" guests for the Netflix special. And those guests also perfectly juxtapose their distasteful hosts.
"[Steve Martin's] big stadium comedy and high art all at once. And George and Gil are neither, but believe themselves to be both," Mulaney says. "Michael J. Fox is so amazingly talented, but also brings so much positivity to the world. So for George and Gil to interview him, who bring so much negativity, it was the perfect mix."
So do Gil and George have another Broadway run in them? Kroll and Mulaney are somewhat coy about whether they'll embark on a full-scale stage follow-up to Oh, Hello. (Though, maybe they're being dead serious that it's a musical version of The Godfather written entirely in Yiddish. Who can say?) These characters are enduring, endearing, and unexpectedly suited to a format that's not always known for taking risks.