John Mulaney talks "SNL," Stefon and his upcoming comedy special

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31: Actor John Mulaney attends the off-Broadway opening night of "Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 31, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John Mulaney
Andrew H. Walker
John Mulaney attends "Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," March 31, 2011, in New York.

(CBS) We've all seen a fat kid on a Slip 'n Slide. Few of us have mined that image for laughs the way comedian John Mulaney has. As a writer for "Saturday Night Live," Mulaney and performer Bill Hader created one of the funniest characters to come from the show in ages, Weekend Update city correspondent Stefon, the club kid who seems as if he's been awake for days at a time.

In addition to the "SNL" gig, Mulaney is a successful stand-up comedian. He's currently preparing to tape a one-hour stand-up special for Comedy Central on Aug. 25, in New York.

Mulaney talked on the phone with me about the comedy he watched growing up, what it's like to work at "SNL" and whether he's Polish. So what are you doing out west?

John Mulaney: I'm doing a bunch of shows to get ready for the stand-up special and getting out of the humidity of New York, just avoiding New York in August. Do people ask you often whether you're Polish?

JM: Not a lot. That's from a joke of mine. I know, that's what I meant. I wondered if people asked you that because of the joke. [On his 2009 album "The Top Part," Mulaney tells a joke about parking his car while a guy randomly asks him if he's Polish and then begs Mulaney for a three-block ride.]

JM: That's interesting. It's funny you mention that, the joke. With stand-up albums people normally pull away three bits they like and then the rest of the album they never mention. So there are plenty of jokes on ["The Top part"] that no one has said they like, but recently people have been tweeting at me, 'Are you Polish?'

It was a bit that always got big laughs but after a show no one would say a word about it. Sometimes jokes are like that. People talk about a couple jokes specifically and enjoy the whole thing. But then you never hear someone say, 'I really like the Ray Charles joke you did in 2007.' What jokes do people ask you about if they do?

JM: People have seemed to really like the joke about when I was at the diner and played the jukebox with a friend of mine. People really like the jokes about "Law & Order." What's nice about that is, I really do love "Law & Order" and I keep writing jokes about it and it's fun to have amassed a lot of material on it.

The second time I did "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," I did "Law & Order" jokes on both the shows - two different ones - but same subject. And he was shaking my hand at the end and we were walking toward the desk and he was like, 'You really like "Law & Order," huh?' And I was like, 'I think I'm going to write an hour of it and then I think I'll retire.' And he said that was a good plan. It would take a lot of work, but if you did one or two shows that were just "Law & Order" jokes, that would be amazing.

JM: I have a lot of new ones about a different "Law & Order" franchise, which is very important to me to specify, and I was thinking recently it would be fun to do a show and do all of it together and do 20 minutes on "Law & Order." [Laughs] Talking about jokes, it seems like you don't really do joke jokes. They're based around things that have happened to you or they're about your personality.

JM: They're more premise-y. Some of my favorite comedians, like Anthony Jeselnik and Dan Mintz and Emo Philips, let alone Steven Wright and Demetri [Martin], who are amazing at it. I tried to because I was in college when I started [doing stand-up] and you don't want to talk about your personality because that would be embarrassing [laughs]. So I wrote jokes that were more abstract and I just wasn't as good at it. I couldn't sustain time.

I just watched [Jeselnik] in Montreal for 40 minutes and he was amazing. Solid jokes, so well written, and they do play into his personality. And that's the trick of it. You can have really short - let's call them one-liners - but they have to build the character of who you are. Mintz, Jeselnik, obviously Mitch Hedberg, you totally got a sense of who they are. You've probably answered this a lot before, but when you were thinking about being a comedian, who did you really listen to?

JM: When I was thinking about it as a kid, I listened to everyone and liked everything, from "SNL" to "The Simpsons" to "I Love Lucy" to "The Jack Benny Show" to stand-up conedy that was on TV in the late '80s and '90s, often bad, crappy stand-up. But I loved all of it and thought it was funny and loved watching any comedian. They were all so funny and had, like, big eyes and it was all very funny to me.

I used to do bits I saw on [the television show] "Comic Strip Live." I liked almost every stand-up comedian I saw, some more than others. There was a guy named Dennis Wolfberg, who unfortunately passed away years ago, but I remember watching him as little kid and thinking, 'Look at this guy's face. He's hilarious.'

It was different when I became a comedian. You look at your peers a little. I was on the road with Mike Birbiglia a lot, who's an amazing comedian, and I don't think I can underestimate opening for him for two years, someone who's very smart and very story-based. Whatever's more real is funnier comes from that philosophy. That was great. I like a lot of comedians. I have wide tastes. I interviewed Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci [of Garfunkel and Oates] the other day and Riki told me you'd done her podcast. What did you talk about?

JM: Her podcast is called "Making It," and it's interesting. She tries to focus on - sometimes if you're a comedian, people who haven't done stand up or acted or have not written for a TV show or have not written for films before, they'll ask you: What do I do? Or: How do I get an agent? And it's a podcast to answer those questions. It was really fun. She's a great host. And it's like a step-by-step of how you got there.

I'm always interested in that. I'll read a lot of bios of people from Paul Newman to Elvis and stuff and a lot of times people gloss over their start. They go, 'For 10 years I worked the clubs and then I got my big break.' Well, what was that 10 years like? What does that mean? How did you walk into the club as a customer and then get them to put you on as a comedian? Those things are very interesting to me. What do you wish someone had told you that would have helped you out?

JM: Some things you just need to realize on your own. But creatively I got good advice from people. In terms of just doing it, I've talked to people who have been around awhile and I like to talk to people who have been in show business for a long time. A good piece of advice is two things. One is about longevity and building a body of work. You just accrue these things. 'Oh yeah, I did that show in Central Park and I did that pilot with these great people,' and you look back and they add up. And at the time it was a 30-day job or at the time I was wondering if I should've done something else.

The second thing is, I had an agent named Hugh Fitzpatrick, a great guy who's no longer an agent - he works at a network - and I was trying to think of an idea for a TV show, like six years ago, thinking maybe I should write a half-hour TV show. And I asked, what do people want right now? Thinking there was a formula to it. And he said, 'Oh, people just want hits. No one wants anything but hits.' So don't be like, they want single-camera shows. No one knows what they want until it's popular. So do what you think is funniest because that could be the thing. Don't try to strategize that way. There's not some philosophy of what people want. No one thought, 'Let's have a poor kid from Mississippi play rockabilly music, but then Elvis did it and it was, 'That's great!' With everything you've got going on...

JM: this too boring, by the way? I'm sorry, I hope I'm not being boring. It's not too boring but I feel like I'm asking really hack questions.

JM: You're not asking hack questions but I feel like I'm being really unfunny because I can go on and on about this stuff and as a comedian I shouldn't be boring for 10 minutes. What's kind of funny is, sometimes I think it's difficult to interview comedians - and this isn't a reflection on your answers - because aside from the jokes I want to hear about how you got started and when did you know what worked...

JM: Oh! Well, I find that stuff really interesting. So I'm psyched. I just didn't want you to think, 'He's talking like he's Bill Carter writing an article about this.' No! Well, let's change it up a little bit.

JM: Oh no, I was half just being insecure. Don't change up anything you're doing. You're talking to someone who's also insecure, so don't sweat it.

JM: Oh, beautiful! When you're working on "SNL" during the season, do you have time to do stand-up?

JM: Yes, we have off weeks and when we there are re-runs that means we have a couple weeks off and I go on the road and do stand-up during those weeks. I don't do a lot of stand up during the show, and I like to focus on one thing at a time. That's what I meant, during production weeks.

JM: I've done shows during production weeks and as busy as it is in any busy situation, sometimes you find yourself with, like, five free hours out of nowhere. So I'll occasionally put together or figure out a set and go do something. And I try to keep it, like, in my off weeks I can go off and write every day and do stand-up at night and during on weeks I'm into "SNL" and that's all that's happening. I have to ask you about Stefon. Was that your idea or [cast member] Bill Hader's idea? Who was that?

JM: It was really two ideas coming together. I wanted to do a guy who was describing crazy clubs. A friend of a friend was trying to do it, start a club night. In New York, they're guerilla, they move around to different spaces. And he was also listing things it would have. And it was always more [about] the rhythm of things, like, 'It'll have an old guy in a wedding dress, a goat, trance Tokyo music,' and he would list everything he would have. Was it as absurd as what you guys come up with?

JM: No, we racheted it up a notch. And he was more...[laughs]...more deviant-ish than crazy, based on that gentleman. And Bill had this barista he would see [when he bought coffee] who had the Stefon voice and would cover his face with his hands when something was too much for him to handle. And this was just somebody Bill knew from a Starbucks.

JM: Yep, from buying coffee every morning. Think that guy has any idea he was part of the character?

JM: I don't know. Someone else asked that and I'm not sure. There are a lot of baristas in New York. Do you have a Stefon line or moment you like most?

JM: Well, Bill and I will sometimes go to a restaurant for a few hours to get out of the office. And we were in this big tablecloth Chinese restaurant on 48th street and we came up with this DJ named DJ Baby Bok Choy. And I remember saying that he wears huge yellow-tinted glasses like Red Foxx at the Oscars. And Bill said, 'What was that?' And I was like, 'I don't know.' But it came out all in one sentence and I said I think I once saw a photo of Red Foxx at the Oscars and he had on big yellow-tinted glasses and then that became a thing. A lot of the things Stefon describes are things we've seen once. They're not relatable [laughs], but they're things that exist and I've seen once. Like a fat kid on a Slip 'n Slide. I know what that is. Do you ever think about - I don't know how exactly it works on "SNL" - trying to be on camera more?

JM: I ever think of trying to be on camera more? Let me put that another...are you going to be on camera more?

JM: Don't know. Not in charge.'s not like...when you're a writer on "SNL," you get so much responsibility over your pieces, it's really rewarding. I'm not there hoping to get promoted to another thing. I'm there because I really like it. I don't know if I've read how you got that job.

JM: I did monologues at Assscat at [Upright Citizens Brigade] Theatre. I'd done them a couple times and I met ["SNL" head writer] Seth Meyers and [former cast member] Amy Poehler through that and I'd been around New York doing stand-up for a few years and they might have known who I was. They'd seen me on Conan a few times. And I auditioned for the show and [cast member] Bobby Moynihan auditioned at the same time. We still share an office.

They said they weren't going to hire any more cast members but would [I] like to be a writer? And they knew I'd written for Demetri [Martin]'s show. So it all kind of came together. And I was like, 'Yeah.' I was headlining clubs already and I was excited to tour and do stand-up but ["Saturday Night Live]'s such a big deal to me, I said, 'Absolutely.' And you're taping a special for Comedy Central on Aug. 25.

JM: Oh yeah. It'll be a big hour special. It'll be a big...[laughs]...I'm already saying it'll be big.

John Mulaney's Comedy Central special tapes in New York at NYU's Jack H. Skirball Center, Thursday, Aug. 25. For information or to sign up for tickets, click here.