It’s often said that fear is an excellent motivator.
It has certainly worked for John Mulaney, a 25-year-old New Yorker with deceptively old-soul comedic depth, who found his vocational interest and aptitude as a child growing up in a creaky old house in Chicago.
“I was afraid of burglars,” he explains.
To help ease his son’s fears and get him to sleep at night, his father procured old-school comedy greats on audiocassettes for the youngster to play on his Walkman in bed — performances from George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, to name a few.
Years later, studying improv at Georgetown U., and with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York after that, Mulaney honed his own voice, mixing dark wit during standup routines — he frequently culls his adolescent drinking fiascos — with observational humor and an impression-laden delivery style that has a noticeable hint of old-time in it.
A collaboration with Nick Kroll (“Caveman”) on a Comedy Central Web series, “I Love the ’30s,” several years ago put his career in pay-the-rent mode and led to a Comedy Central-sponsored college tour headlined by Mike Birbiglia.
Mulaney describes it as a kind of comedy boot camp, with performances skedded 28 dates out of 30, sometimes several a night.
The fear that wasn’t so useful — anxiety about performing — quickly went away.
“Before that, I used to sincerely hope my standup shows would get canceled,” he says. “But on that tour, you got off the bus, and there was no time to worry.”
Not that anxiety doesn’t still have a useful place in Mulaney’s psyche. Currently working a writing gig for new Comedy Central skein “Important Things With Demetri Martin,” he’s also in the midst of preparing his own standup special for the cable channel, which will tape later this summer.
Rest assured, he won’t be underprepared.
“It’s the kind of thing I’ve been extra cautious about,” notes Mulaney, who is touring this summer to refine his material. “It’s nothing I wanted to enter into lightly.”
For Mulaney, observational material is a strength. Attempting to describe obscene riches during a “Conan O’Brian” appearance earlier this year, he used the analogy of an overflowing pirates’ treasure chest … which quickly led him to wonder why pirates never seem to bring a chest big enough to handle their plunder. “I think it’s the eye patch,” he surmised. “They have poor depth perception.”