I'm such a fan of comedian John Mulaney's 2009 debut stand-up album, The Top Part, that I was very cautious in approaching his follow-up, New in Town. In theory, he had years to write and sharpen the material on his first album, and only two years to put this one together -- and that's in addition to his duties as a writer and producer on Saturday Night Live. He set a high standard for himself, and I didn't want to be disappointed by something that's less than great. Luckily, having now heard New in Town, I can say that's not a problem. It's another great stand-up album from one of the best and most promising young comedians working today.
There's a tendency with a lot of comedy classified as "observational" to go as broad as possible in the hopes of being more universal, but all that usually does is call attention to how broad and calculated the bits seem. John Mulaney understands that the more specific you are -- not necessarily about your own experiences, but about your observations -- the more relatable the jokes become. It's why he begins with premises that are narrow and then goes even deeper, like a routine about Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that works as a standalone joke if you've never seen the show, but which becomes funnier when you have and realize just how spot on his criticisms are (the same could be said of the brilliant Law & Order routine on The Top Part; the long-running Dick Wolf series is to Mulaney as Hot Pockets are to Jim Gaffigan). It's the attention to odd little details that make his bits so funny, like a bit about how easy it once was to commit crimes (which quickly devolves into a riff on old gangster movie cliches) or comparing a pack of girlfriends to a heist movie. He zeroes in on super specific details, and the humor comes not just out of how well-observed they are, but how true, too.
Not that all of New in Town is all specific-obsessive observational comedy. Mulaney is also a gifted storyteller, and that's where the album shows growth even over The Top Part. He's not afraid to get more personal here, and while it never turns into full-on confessional, we do get a better sense of who Mulaney is this time out. From stories about his days as a hard-partying teenager to the story about Xanax that closes out the album (and which I've seen him tell live), which becomes an absurdist epic almost on par with the "What's New, Pusscat?" story from The Top Part, Mulaney expertly weaves personal anecdotes in with the jokier observational stuff without ever making it seem like his set is shifting gears or jerking around. And, of course, there's the track that inspired the title, which I wouldn't dream of spoiling here except to say that Mulaney demonstrates an ability with words -- as well as the timing and know-how to structure a joke -- to rival a comic even as literate as, say, Patton Oswalt.
Like Louis C.K.'s album, Hilarious, which was released in the first month of 2011 and had every subsequent comedy album held against it in comparison (and which ultimately wound up being my favorite album of the year), New in Town throws down a gauntlet early in 2012 that will be difficult to match. Mulaney's comedy is accessible to everyone without ever feeling compromised or dumbed down. It's smart, it's honest and it's incredibly funny. As nervous as I was about approaching his second album, I'm already anxious about what he's going to put out next. It's easy to get spoiled by albums as good as New in Town.
- Comedy Central Premiere Date: 1/28/12
- Album Release Date: 1/31/12
- Label: Comedy Central Records