(It’s Not That) Late Night With (The Next?) David Letterman

When my friend the talent expert texted me last week urging me to check out what was happening on Netflix, I immediately knew it worth my time to do so.  Unlike far too many others in my life these days, he’s an exceptionally busy executive and family man with a frenetic schedule and countless responsibilities.  So when he makes time to check something out, and then raves about it, it’s usually for an extremely good reason.

The subject of his subtle but exuberant recommend was the simultaneously retro and breakthrough tomfoolery unfolding on Netflix, the cheekily titled JOHN MULANEY PRESENTS: EVERYBODY’S IN LA, which featured the stand-up comic and one-time SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE writer as the fulcrum for a live, freewheeling talk/comedy show that channeled the styles and antics of many late night shows of the past and even present.  As the LOS ANGELES TIMES’ Kaitlyn Huamani and Maira Garcia pointed out, it calls on the aesthetics of a ’70s living room for its set, the sketch humor of “Saturday Night Live” and the production chaos of Netflix’s recent ventures into the livestreaming space.  And it executionally resurrected elements of everything else that had and has worked at 11:30 PM ET and beyond for decades.

From the Johnny Carson-esque guest list of real people from quirky worlds (instead of Joan Embry and Jack Hanna from zoos, we got a TreePeople activist, a seismologist and the Associate Curator from the LaBrea Tar Pits), to the Letterman-like usage of the immediate environs of its studio and its neighbors as comedy fodder (instead of 30 Rock and the Hello Deli we got references to the soundstage’s history as the taping site for WHO’S THE BOSS? and the musician Flea “hiding out” at the seedy Denny’s just across Sunset Boulevard where many a development and even more drug deals have gone down) to the Conan and Letterman-like usages of celebrity cameos in character (instead of Larry “Bud” Melman and Tony Randall, we got Will Ferrell as “Lou Adler” and audience members such as “L’il George Carlin), to the Kimmel-like antics of using real people to “compete” for real prizes (here, two audience members hopped into stretch limos to venture on a scavenger hunt to find Flea, with a whopping $200 at stake for the first one to do so).  There’s even the wonderfully overzealous Richard Kind as an evocation of Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank Kingsley character from THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, with touches of Ed McMahon, Andy Richter and Steve Higgins thrown in. We have seen it all before, but we haven’t seen it done quite this well or with a fresh perspective in quite some time.

And by doing it live, something no late night show other than SNL regularly attempts, with the freedom of a global streaming platform to eliminate any wishy-washy concerns about language and length, Mulaney’s sardonic style, quick wit and ability to handle anything thrown at him, including transmission glitches, was on display to an engaged live audience and a whole lot of real-time social media reactors.  And by going global at 7 PM Pacific Daylight Time, it was to a mostly awake and alert dinner hour audience in LA, prime time in New York late night in Europe, and breakfast time in Australia.

You never did know what would happen next, and that sort of careening freefall is rarely seen anywhere these days even on streaming platforms that have every opportunity to provide it.  I’ve long advocated for one to do something like this in the hopes of creating something truly disruptive–something people would want to turn on their TV or device and switch away from sitcoms and game shows to communally watch in real time.  Netflix has tried to do this before themselves, with a short-lived Chelsea Handler show that failed to capture even a fraction of the comedy and frenetics that Mulaney and his team are able to do.

USA TODAY’s Kelly Lawlor summed it up pretty well in her review:

It does not make sense. It does not follow regular formats. It is so strange. And yet it is also pretty funny. It is just so all over the place that it actually kind of comes together. The point of view is chaos, and it surprisingly works for Mulaney, 41, usually an architect of more intimate, self-deprecating comedy.

For me, it most closely resembled the experience I had watching the earliest days of David Letterman’s NBC late night show evolve, especially when in the midst of a particularly bombing interview Dave would start flipping through what else was on against him at 12:30-something, inevitably landing on a rerun of HAWAII FIVE-O or MANNIX and harrumpth “The CBS Late Movie?!  It’s not THAT late, and it’s NOT a movie!!!” Mulaney’s style is reminiscent of that era of Dave, and while it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely mine.

But with that said, one needs to go no further than the Netflix algorithm to be reminded that the road to Mulaney being as impactful as Letterman is still one under construction.  It just so happens that a bonus episode of Letterman’s MY NEXT GUEST NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION dropped a couple of days before EVERYONE’S IN LA began, and it just happened to feature Mulaney as its guest, both on location and in front of a supportive studio audience in Mulaney’s home town of Chicago.  Letterman’s mastery of reactions, not to mention his interviewing prowess that has ultimately reached the level of his idol and one-time boss Carson, are in full display in this clip.   And even behind his now Duck Dynasty-esque beard, Letterman reminds he is still far and away best in class.  Whether you get there on your own or via the Netflix recommend engine, I highly suggest you allow yourself to make this episode the cherry on top of your sundae.

But knowing what I know about how modestly by even Netflix’s proprietary standards their live events have been received relative to their scripted drops, I highly doubt this will emerge as one of its Top 10 series anywhere.  And all indications are Mulaney isn’t quite ready to give up all else he has going on to do this on a nightly basis.   What seems to be possible is that much as this was a “pop-up talk show” designed to take advantage of Netflix’s week-long NETFLIX IS A JOKE festival, which Mulaney performed in himself, this format could sporadically turn up in different cities hosting different events, in each case taking advantage of one of the show’s other attributes, its quest to find unique characters and stories among its citizens in pre-taped bits.  One can only imagine who could be found in, say, Austin, Texas during SXSW or Las Vegas during CES.

So I’ll be eagerly awaiting what does happen next with Mulaney and this experience.  As well as the next text from my very very busy friend.

Until next time…

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