If you spend even .5 seconds on the internet, chances are you’ll see a reference to John Mulaney. Even more likely, it’s coming from either a Millennial or a Gen Z kid. Among those kids who make constant references to John Mulaney is me.
Hello, do you have time to talk about our Lord and Savior John Mulaney?
You see, it never stops. But this led me to wonder: what is it about John Mulaney’s stand-up that resonates so deeply with two whole generations that aren’t even his?
I think it all boils down to one thing: he’s a giant meme.
That may sound like a joke, but I think it’s the fundamental basis for why his comedy strikes us so funny. Many of our jokes are self-deprecating, a little window into the less glamorous aspects of our lives and thoughts. And this is exactly how Mulaney’s jokes function as well. He gives us every minute detail, whatever we need to get the picture.
Take, for example, his recent bit on school assemblies. The crux of his joke wasn’t our shared childhood experience of having attended assemblies— it was about oddity (and possible cryptid) J.J. Bittenbinder. Sure, the basis is familiar, but the joke is painfully specific (he even describes how the man dressed for no reason other than he “wanted [us] to know”). His jokes are somehow entirely foreign and extremely familiar. It’s the no-holds-barred specificity of a meme.
Of course, the content is also relevant. He talks a lot about his childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood. You know, the exact age groups of Millennials and Gen Z kids. While most comedians talk mainly about adult life and sex, Mulaney spends a lot of time on his youth. It’s relatable because that’s where we are. Representation is important, after all.
Take also the way he phrases things. He says things in the oddest ways, like a grade A shitposter. When discussing people from the past, he said they woke up every day and said, “Oh god, it’s the old times.” That is such a meme-tastic way to phrase that. It’s familiar in that that’s how we formulate our jokes, with such on-the-nose statements that it sounds ridiculous. See also the way he says, “My wife—I have this wife— *insert rest of joke*.” Who would say something like that? A bunch of insecure, perpetually uncomfortable kids, that’s who! His speech patterns are our speech patterns, at least on TV (but probably all the time).
On the other side, there’s the delivery. He speaks like someone straight out of the 1940s. If anything, this preys on our nostalgia. Even though we weren’t alive in the ‘40s (and neither was he— supposedly), there’s something comforting about hearing someone speak with retro language. Furthermore, he uses a lot of emphasis. Sometimes this is repeating phrases or just emphasizing certain words. And, if you’ve ever been on social media, you know how the kids love to repeat and bold or italicize things for emphasis. Once again, it resonates so deep with us because it is us (see, there’s some emphasis right there!).
Lastly, for the generations most sick of “I hate my wife” and “women are x” jokes, Mulaney is a revelation. Mulaney simply doesn’t make these jokes. In fact, he does the opposite. He talks about how his wife is his hero and he loves her— the joke is how capable and amazing she is and how he’s pretty much the opposite. That’s not to say he doesn’t make fun of her ever. He has a new bit about how she thought Jesus and his disciples were celebrating Thanksgiving in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The key is that he “asked her if [he] could and she said yes.” This is, of course, both a joke and the truth. Even though he doesn’t do this because of the newest wave of feminism, it’s nice to have comedy that complies.
So, yeah. John Mulaney is popular with the kids because he’s a human meme. Cased closed.
And for those of you who have never seen any of John Mulaney’s stand-up, he’s got three specials on Netflix right now. Go watch it. After all, what would Leonard Bernstein do?