Tiffany Haddish and John Mulaney met as young comics at the Improv in Los Angeles and have shared a mutual admiration ever since. Both are previous Emmy Award winners; Haddish for hosting “Saturday Night Live” and Mulaney for writing a song for “SNL” and his standup special “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City.” Now the pair find themselves going head-to-head in the variety special (pre-recorded) category — Haddish for her Netflix standup special “Black Mitzvah” and Mulaney for the same streamer’s “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch,” which also scored him a nod in the variety writing category.
At the peak of their careers, the two took time to talk to Variety about the state of comedy today, casting Jake Gyllenhaal and how a fake penis helped Haddish find her voice.
You’ve known each other a long time; do you remember your first impressions of each other?
John Mulaney: Before I had a long conversation with you, I saw you onstage a lot. You were good right away — did you have a past life where you were doing sets? I would watch and I’d be like, “I should stop.” Because it’s so boring when I talk; it’s as exciting as Triscuits.
Tiffany Haddish: I remember when I first met John I was like, “He has to be the smartest guy I’ve ever met.” He always looks clean-cut and sophisticated like he might be a scientist or a mastermind at investments. Or he could be a Jehovah Witness, I don’t know. But I wanted to know him.
Mulaney: It’s funny you thought I was smart. I think by dressing as my dad I think I look kind of smart. But if you went on a weekend trip with me you’d be like, “This is the dumbest son of a bitch ever. He doesn’t know how to do basic things!”
You both have such specific voices as comics; how did you develop that?
Mulaney: I feel like now on stage I talk the way I really think — the way I talk in my head. When I started, I was trying to be a lot of different people so it wasn’t right away. I’d be in, like, Nashville trying to pretend I was gonna get wasted with everyone and then pass out in the Kroger parking lot and it was just clear I was not one of the boys. As soon as I moved away from that, it got a lot better. And some of the things I was nervous about were the things that later became popular.
Haddish: I started in 1997 when I was a teenager at the comedy camp at the Laugh Factory. I definitely had a voice, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just throwing stuff up against the wall and trying to see what worked. And for a period of time — for like five years — I tried to dress like a man so I could be a part of the boys’ club. I even did a podcast where somebody gave me a flaccid penis and I would put it in my pants and go to the comedy club with it in there. I was 23, 24 at the time and I felt more confident and it felt to me like the men were treating me like I was one of the boys.
Mulaney: I really like that a flaccid penis made you confident when there’s a whole industry about men not being confident because of their flaccid penises.
Haddish: Even though it was a fake penis, it seemed like people had more respect for me. Just from my walk, my energy. Then one day we were in the parking lot in a group and I was wearing baggy pants and I started doing a little dance and it fell out of the bottom of my pants. And people were like, “What are you walking around with a fake plastic dick for?”
Mulaney: Which is a legitimate question, I’m on their side here.
Haddish: And from that point on I said, “I’m just going to be confident in what I think is funny and hopefully people will go along on this journey.” And that’s when I found my voice.
Because of your specific voices, how did you know your specials would work?
Mulaney: I pitched the concept to Netflix with a few examples. I said, “It’s going to be kind of like ‘3-2-1 Contact’ or ‘Sesame Street’ and have that sensibility of the Shel Silverstein books that are a little dark. We’ll have songs about how one kid only wants to eat noodles and a thing with Richard Kind called ‘Girl Talk.’” Now, I have a great relationship with Netflix — I’ve done three specials with them — and I’ve never seen people’s excitement fall so fast when I started describing these things. Also, the first person I said I wanted was Dick Gregory and they’re like, “Well, he’s dead.”
Haddish: Did you know I thought Dick Gregory was my grandpa for so many years? My grandma said, “When you meet Dick Gregory, you tell him I said hello.” In the ’50s, she was a model on TV and would be at events and knew him and so in my mind, she was telling me to say hello because that’s my real grandpa. But it’s not true.
Mulaney: I wasn’t kidding, he was my first choice. I just didn’t know he was dead.
Jake Gyllenhaal is more unhinged in this special than in “Okja,” and that’s saying a lot.
Mulaney: Jake Gyllenhaal has been my favorite actor for a couple years and when the director and I were talking about him for Mr. Music, I said, “Have you seen ‘Okja?’ He can really make a choice.” We never told Jake but on set one day after a really crazy take he said, “I feel like this is a sequel to ‘Okja!’”
Tiffany, in your special, you do an amazing physical bit about the world’s laziest stripper. How did you perfect that bit and know it would work?
Haddish: I did it in front of a bunch of audiences. And it’s just a funny concept; there are some very lazy strippers. And it doesn’t matter what kind of job you have, there’s always someone who’s lazy as hell!
Are there lazy comics?
Haddish: F— yeah
Mulaney: There’s actually only one who’s not lazy.
We’re in a time where people are attuned to being more sensitive in their comedy; do you find that makes you more cautious?
Haddish: I feel like people are always trying to cancel somebody for what they’re saying and I personally believe it’s about your intentions. Is it coming from a good place or to be vicious and malicious? I feel like I can talk about anything I’m comfortable with and if somebody else isn’t comfortable, it’s not my problem. I try to talk about things from my perspective, my point of view, and if it offends someone, it’s on them.
Mulaney: I think about every single syllable before I say it out loud.
Are you being serious?
Mulaney: I’m kind of half-serious.
Haddish: That’s why he’s smart as hell!
Mulaney: Also, I’m the enemy.
Haddish: You are not!
Mulaney: Well, my dad is. Listen, I try to learn and do the work and use my platform for social justice. What a weird time when I say such formal sentences like that! If I was criticized for a joke I made, I feel like it’s O.J. [Simpson] in Vegas. White dudes have been running amuck for so long, if it’s twice the blowback from something that used to not get criticized, there’s a reason for it and it’s not about stealing memorabilia, it’s about something else. I do think a lot of the recent controversies about some comics have been more cooked up by right-wing Republicans. So don’t listen to the mob, but respect the mob. Be prepared to apologize, but don’t give into them.
Do you have jokes you regret or wouldn’t say today?
Haddish: I don’t regret any of my jokes but I’m going to go with yes as well because I was immature, so I wouldn’t do them today. Maybe I would rewrite them a little bit to grow it up. I had some immature stupid s—. I was dumb; I was 20.
Mulaney: I had that thing of, “I’m a progressive person so I’ll make fun of racism and homophobia!” This happens in sketch comedy a lot where you make fun of it by showing it. It’s a phase, at least in my generation, where you say, “I’m making fun of those things!” Yeah, but you just put the words on TV. I feel like I can say confidently I’ve moved well beyond that.
At the same time, you have to be willing to try new things and to fail. Tiffany, in your special you address bombing at your big New Year’s Eve show.
Haddish: There’s success in all my failures. If you really pay attention to everything I talk about, they’re all fails in life. But I turn them into wins. Because I’m not afraid to talk about my mistakes and would encourage others to talk about failures because how is anyone going to grow and get better if others don’t share their mistakes.
John, what’s been your worst experience onstage?
Mulaney: It’s not the worst, but recently I was in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at an outdoor show and a campground and a heckler yelled out, “I believe I speak for everyone here when I say I would enjoy silence more than the sound of your voice.”
Haddish: I would have been like, “Mom, is that you?”
Mulaney: It was a good heckle, it was.
How do you handle heckling in general?
Mulaney: I find that more often than saying, “You suck!” it’s the hecklers that are talking along with you and they’re agreeing but the problem is, they’re alcoholics. So they talk and throw off your rhythm. But you can also have fun with that.
Haddish: First, I’ll try to be nice and say, “You want some time and attention? Did you grow up in foster care like me?” Then, I attack. And I will go in, horribly. One person was like, “You made me feel like a piece of s—!” I was like, “That was my intention! Because you interrupted my job.”
Mulaney: Don’t shoot to wound.
Like all comics, you talk about people you know and people in the public eye. Has anyone ever taken issue with something you’ve said?
Mulaney: I told a story about a high school teacher and though I changed his name, I barely changed it. And everyone knew it was him. Even to this day, 25 years later, if someone asks this teacher if the story is about him, they get detention. So he’s still mad. With my parents and other family I basically believe if you don’t want me to talk about it on stage, you shouldn’t have done it to me when I was a kid.
Haddish: Yeah, at first my family used to get mad, but they all got a place to live now and they ain’t worried about food in the fridge, so they’re like, “You do you! Talk about what you need to talk about!”
Mulaney: I talk about Tiffany’s family a lot, they don’t like that.
Haddish: I feel like my brothers and sisters don’t even watch my comedy. I think because they’re around me, they’re like, “We know what you’re going to say.” And I tell them all the time, “I’m using that on stage!”
What makes you laugh? Who or what do you find funny?
Haddish: Everybody that’s nominated in our category. I love everybody in our category. But the things that make me laugh are probably when I see mistakes happen on the news or when I’m watching a show and all caught up and then I realize it’s a drama when I’ve been laughing the whole time! I got a dark sense of humor. But a bright personality.
Mulaney: People falling down makes me laugh in a way I’m ashamed to admit. I watch this show “Floor Is Lava” and people have to jump from object to object and it makes me laugh so hard when they slam their faces down on plywood. That gets me really good. Oh and people mispronouncing words, especially when they’re yelling at you. Anyone yelling at me really makes me laugh. When bosses would get up in my face and were so mad at me, it was very funny.
What do you think the future of standup comedy looks like? Are you missing it?
Haddish: I miss it terribly. I think we’ll get back to live shows and it will be hard to hear people laughing because they’re wearing masks. And I think it’s going to be outside, so maybe more in the daytime.
Mulaney: I agree, there’s now going to be more outdoor shows.
Haddish: I’ve been doing Dave Chappelle’s shows in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There’s 200 people sitting in chairs 6 feet apart in cornfields. They’re held in cornfields and Christmas tree fields. You know plants — they respond to sound, and they’re hearing all this laughter. These are going to be the best Christmas trees and the most delicious corn ever. They’re hearing joy and laughter.