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You're Never Too Young To Be A 'Comeback Kid'

Comedian John Mulaney in his new special, <em>The Comeback Kid</em>.
Saeed Adyani
Comedian John Mulaney in his new special, The Comeback Kid.

By the time standup comedian John Mulaney was 30, he'd had a successful comedy special called New In Town, an Emmy nominated turn writing for Saturday Night Live and was on his way to the comedy promised land — his own sitcom.

But in 2013 Mulaney hit a bit of a wall. His self-titled Fox sitcom -- a classic live studio audience show about a young comedy writer living in New York — was panned and canceled.

He turned to other writing projects and started touring again to packed houses. And he found his fans still loved his finely tuned jokes about growing up and getting older — jokes he's showcasing in a new special called The Comeback Kid. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish the title was his wife's idea. "Bill Clinton was called 'the Comeback Kid' in his 1992 campaign when he was 46," he says, "And so I thought, what if I called it The Comeback Kid? How on-the-nose and stupid would that be? And my wife was like, 'That would be really funny, because it's only been a couple of years [since the short-lived sitcom], and it would be like, what the hell happened to this guy in between?' "

Interview Highlights

On joking about entering adulthood

I think it was more about the plunge — I got married, bought a house, moved cities, had big career things, all in one year. And so I was just, at every phase, like, am I the age where you get married? And then I was like, yeah, you're 31. And with buying a house, I ... felt like a little kid driving a Corvette. I was just like, I don't think I should be allowed to do this at all.

On jokes that walk a fine line, and whether comedy audiences are too sensitive

You know, I don't dwell in too many areas that would be dark or possibly treacherous, but when I've had jokes that I've wondered, like, would anyone react to this in a negative way, I don't know — if you just stand by the comedy of it, and if you're just in that room, and you know the audience is connecting to it, then the fear of someone taking it out of context and being like, "Did you call a woman a cow?" I can be like, ahhh, there were a whole bunch of people there that can attest to the fact that I was saying something differently. Also, that's kind of our job, is to sometimes get flak, and I don't mind it that much.

On his canceled sitcom

It's very interesting to go through a failure, and like a true failure, because a lot of things, they fail on one level but then everyone loves them because of it; they become like loveable failures. We were an unloved failure ... there was no cult. It was just me. In the kind of "yay culture" we're in now, like everything is celebrated somewhere on the Internet, and I have yet to find that pocket that was psyched.

I never considered getting out of comedy. It made me just think, like, you have to be enjoying what you're doing, because if you feel fried as a person, or fried as a writer, just sort of, you know, exhausted and spent, and maybe it's not making you feel good, the actual process — to then hit one of these pockets is really rough. And it's a good reminder to always be kind of a kind person to everybody. Because when you hit one of these pockets, when you're really down in a real stupid, Frank Capra kind of way, you're really grateful to have people around you.

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