Embracing the Chaos: On John Mulaney’s “Everybody’s in L.A.”

Henry Luzzatto puzzles over John Mulaney’s Netflix talk show “Everybody’s in L.A.”

Embracing the Chaos: On John Mulaney’s “Everybody’s in L.A.”

DESPITE ITS HOST’S supremely confident stage persona, John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in L.A. starts out self-conscious. In his opening monologue, Mulaney explains that he doesn’t really understand the point of the show and assures the audience that, with only six episodes streamed live and nightly on Netflix, it “will never hit its groove.” He’s right to worry. With everything from traditional call-in segments and monologues to chaotic guest cross talk to a robot-based running gag and semi-real, semi-staged portraits of Los Angeles, the show is a chaotic mix of disparate comedic modes that constantly dares itself not to work.

But while Mulaney lampshades the show’s oddball, seat-of-its pants approach, this setup doesn’t stop Everybody’s in L.A. from hitting its stride. In fact, it may help, since the improbable combination of tones and ideas is what makes this show—maybe even more than its liveness—feel unique among Netflix’s new comedy lineup. Instead of rehashing the format of traditional late night, Mulaney uses its structural and tonal looseness to build something specific to his voice and the streaming medium.

Everybody’s in L.A. has several major points of reference, but on its face, it’s largely a weird, underworld reflection of Los Angeles’s signature 20th-century talk show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–92). Its debts to The Tonight Show are clear from the start. The garishly upholstered set and Mulaney’s “cute little outfit” styling—all textured suits and smart button-ups—feel straight out of the 1970s. “You are a vision in pastel, my friend,” Jon Stewart quips. “I don’t know how long we have before they have to reshoot that ’70s porno that they shot here.” Mulaney’s local jokes about traffic and weather have an old-fashioned zing and cadence (he even occasionally gets up on his toes like Carson when the jokes don’t land). And Richard Kind, playing the Ed McMahon role of sidekick behind the podium, shouts “John Mulaney!” with a tone that seems to intentionally invoke the classic “Here’s Johnny!”

For people too young to have watched Carson—or too well adjusted to dive deep into decades-old comedy—it’s hard to overstate just how big a phenomenon The Tonight Show was. It dominated the airwaves for 30 years, and a single appearance on the program could launch comedians and musicians into mainstream careers. Its grip on the monoculture was so pervasive that, when Carson’s final episode aired in 1992, Comedy Central paused their programming, and instead ran a message that read: “Watching Johnny Carson’s last show and so should you.”

But if Carson represented the high point of comedy intended for a broad, mainstream audience, Mulaney’s updated version lands differently. Instead of making the comedy palatable to the largest possible cross-generational viewership, Mulaney’s stagy delivery comes across as deliberately kitsch, calling attention to the inherent strangeness of the show’s old-fashioned setup while indulging in its quirks. At least in the first few episodes, he does a traditional monologue but interspersed with tossed-off “fucks” and “dog shits” that would make an old-school Tonight Show audience blush. He throws to live, on-the-ground segments—a coyote cam, a glimpse at watch parties around the globe—but they never end up quite working, and Mulaney instead riffs on their unintelligibility before cutting to a “piece of video tape.” He even attempts some old-school product placement, only to get promptly shut down by Schweppes. Undeterred, Mulaney still has his delivery robot, Saymo, bring warm cans of generic-brand ginger ale to the guests, going through the motions of onstage advertisement even without the financial benefits.

The opening credits sequence features a stylish montage of L.A. locations set to the title song from the 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A., but it closes on an image of a minion from Despicable Me (2010). This blend of reverence for and deconstruction of the city’s iconography emerges as the defining characteristic of Everybody’s in L.A. The juxtaposition of broad, old-fashioned comedy tropes and cutting parodies of the current state of the city and its culture can work but occasionally leaves audiences off balance: are we meant to laugh with the city or at it?


The structure of the episodes follows that of a traditional late-night talk show, at least at first. After a monologue, Kind and Mulaney introduce an L.A.-centric theme (Earthquakes! Sunglasses! Helicopters!) followed by guests: usually a comedian or two accompanied by some sort of hyperspecific figure in Los Angeles municipal politics or media, everyone from a palm tree expert to erstwhile O. J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark.

But while the panel segments, at least on their face, generate humorous tension between (for example) a totally baffled-looking Sarah Silverman and a well-meaning local hypnotherapist, Everybody’s in L.A. doesn’t really want you to laugh at its earnest, noncomic guests. If anything, while Mulaney and his fellow comedians constantly riff on one another and the format of the show, they approach the noncelebrities with polite, if distant, curiosity. (Even when Mulaney includes guests who seem like punch lines—such as the hair-pieced hypnotherapist Kerry Gaynor—he doesn’t dish out quips so much as let the audience gawk at the awkwardness.) It’s almost respectful, but it can make the interview sections drag a bit; Mulaney, despite his comedic chops, can seem uneasy riffing with his nonfamous guests, and he lacks the interviewing skills (or interest) needed to delve into their areas of expertise. “Am I here on the wrong night?” David Letterman jokes after a long, dry exchange between Mulaney and seismologist Lucy Jones, prompting the first audience applause in a while. Mulaney attempts to shift the topic to New York and Letterman’s legacy, but Letterman refuses. “I have some questions for Lucy, actually,” he says. “Please, do what you want,” Mulaney replies.

Each episode features comedians spanning the world of US stand-up, all of whom have landed in Los Angeles for the Netflix Is a Joke festival. But while the show takes a smorgasbord approach to the panels, most episodes feature an elder statesman of comedy who arrives to offer metacommentary on Mulaney’s hosting ability and the program’s odd setup. In the pilot, for instance, Jerry Seinfeld stands directly in front of the other guest, before sitting down to tell Mulaney that he is doing a great, but rather strange, job. In the second episode, Jon Stewart looks totally baffled during his appearance, eyes darting manically (“What is happening?” he asks repeatedly). Patton Oswalt takes control like a guest comedian on a drive-time radio show, clearly fueled by the chaos that comes from the call-in segments and the couch full of comedians. Letterman passes through the show like a human Quaalude, taking the pressure off of Mulaney by subtly switching into “host mode” and asking thoughtful questions before the robot arrives, entropy takes over, and he ends up cuddling under a blanket with Luenell. Nikki Glaser appears on the final episode and quips, in reference to the show’s serial format, “You finally have a podcast.”

While each of these more experienced comics has their own take on the show, it’s Glaser whose read offers the most relevant critique. In an era when nearly every big-name comedian has a live video podcast with a set, guests, and high production values, how exactly is a six-episode Netflix talk show supposed to stand out? When the show calls out its perceived lack of quality and low budget, or when the conversations get long and meandering, it can be difficult to tell what this show gets out of being a show on a premium subscription platform instead of a freely accessible podcast on YouTube.

In fact, while Mulaney takes obvious visual and tonal cues from Johnny Carson, when it comes to reach, the real inheritor of The Tonight Show’s mainstream mandate may be The Joe Rogan Experience (2009– ). Sure, it’s filmed in a dim room featuring dudes crushing brews and blunts instead of in front of a studio audience, but The Joe Rogan Experience offers the closest thing to an old-fashioned 1970s talk show, in which a host and comic (or “public intellectual”) riff on hot topics and their personal obsessions. And while Rogan’s show fits into the world of “alternative media,” by sheer viewership alone it offers a similar opportunity to launch club comedians into stardom. In this case, “stardom” may amount to a YouTube special with a few million views or a headlining gig at the Comedy Mothership, as opposed to a decades-long comedy career, but Everybody’s in L.A. guests like Tom Segura and Stavros Halkias can directly attest to the benefits of a “Rogan bump.”

While Everybody’s in L.A. shares some of the same influences as discussion-heavy internet podcasts of the Joe Rogan variety, it ultimately aims for something different, both formally and tonally. The show breaks up its loose live format with filmed video segments, some of which resemble Saturday Night Live digital shorts, while others are closer to local news features or mini character sketches. The first episode, for instance, features an extended House Hunters parody, in which Mulaney and a group of fellow comics tour overpriced L.A. homes. The short is funny but clumsily produced—they talk over one another, make comments off-mic, and laugh loudly enough to clip the audio. It ends up feeling more like friends doing bits for one another than it does a traditional comedy segment. However, the tone, at least, is clear—when Mulaney rips the cord off of every ceiling fan, you’re supposed to laugh, partially at Mulaney’s low-key vandalism but mostly at the absurdities of the L.A. housing market.

The show intersperses its filmed comedy segments with local, documentary-style “looks at L.A.,” and after a while, these supposedly differentiated genres start to blend together. Because the show generally doesn’t pump in audience laughs during the pretaped bits, it can be difficult to distinguish what’s “comedy” from what’s not.

In the middle of the third episode, these two modes end up colliding completely. Fred Armisen—known for almost always doing a bit—presents a filmed segment about Los Angeles’s old punks, in which he brings together members from X, Fear, Minutemen, and more of the city’s classic punk bands. The segment has a comic edge—it begins with Armisen picking up punks on the street and piling them into his van—but when the crew of legends finally assembles, Armisen mostly asks them genuine questions about their lives. Sure, there’s something vaguely funny about the idea of 75-year-old punks who use walkers but still shout “onetwothreefour” with fury, the same way there’s something vaguely funny about putting Zoey Tur next to Patton Oswalt wearing two pairs of sunglasses. But neither host takes a dig at the people in front of them or cues the audience to laugh at them. It would be too mean. And even if Everybody’s in L.A. doesn’t always know what show it is, it’s just not that kind of show. By the end of Armisen’s segment, when he gathers the aging musicians to play a new song together, it feels more like a feel-good stinger at the end of a local news hour than it does something that could play in the back half of Saturday Night Live.

In general, the show hesitates to “punch down” in segments that feature everyday citizens, unlike other “alternative” riffs on late-night, such as The Eric Andre Show (2012– ) or Da Ali G Show (2000–04). Two of the program’s more involved comedy pieces, both featuring Rajat Suresh and Jeremy Levick, attempt a similarly confrontational style of humor, but they do so in clearly staged set pieces. One early segment stages a disappointing surprise for a pair of Amy Poehler fans, who are forced to hang out with the two awkward writers and Patton Oswalt. Episode five, meanwhile, presents a belabored critique of Sacha Baron Cohen–style vox-pop comedy, in which Levick plays a “reverse Borat” who baits Suresh’s gullible on-the-street reporter looking for a clicky sound bite. These aren’t bad premises, but neither sketch works, at least partially because the Angelenos who play straight in the scenes are very obviously actors, not real “man on the street” subjects, which blunts the natural awkwardness and satirical commentary of reality TV.

These filmed comedy segments tend to flounder, and by the final episode, they’re largely abandoned in favor of on-the-ground segments that focus on quirky figures throughout the city—a weird small-business owner, or a lowrider enthusiast, or an enthusiastic guy who just yells at the camera. These little glimpses of Los Angeles find their groove by the end, letting the audience decide whether or not they’re worthy of a laugh, a snort, or an “aww.” They’re not as crazily heightened as an Andrew Callaghan video or as melodramatic as something like Soft White Underbelly, nor do they indulge as directly in those classist undertones. Instead, they feel like something drawn from the world of social media entertainment, like personal TikToks dropped into a traditional talk show. Like everything else, it’s a combination that seems out of place but feels more natural the longer it goes on.


The best parts of Mulaney’s show, however, aren’t the ones where they take real-life stuff and finagle it into a bit but the moments where they do the opposite: take an absurd, illogical bit and play it straight in a way that threatens to break the show. Mulaney fields phone calls throughout the series, and while the majority feature normal people with weird stories—a woman who found a coyote in her bedroom, or several reported ghost encounters—the occasional appearance of names like Ben Mankiewicz, Mayor Karen Bass, and Bob Dylan (actually SNL’s James Austin Johnson, doing an inexplicable impression) keeps the panel continually on their toes, wondering whether each call is really shtick. Periodically, Will Ferrell and Andy Samberg interrupt the show from the front row of the audience while playing over-the-top Los Angeles stereotypes, refusing to break character and leaning into hyperlocal references. Even the show’s biggest stars aren’t there to appeal to the mainstream but instead to dig deeper into L.A. lore, even to the point of illegibility.

Episode five features a “makeover” segment from Cedric the Entertainer that, at least at first, seems like one of the show’s more dramatic and personal looks into the lives of L.A. residents. That is, until the onstage conclusion shows the two made-over contestants in absurd outfits, revealing that the initial schmaltzy tone was just a setup for a final punch line. In the same episode, actor and ex-con Kevin Gage appears onstage in a white bathrobe and does five minutes of stand-up as his character “Waingro” from the 1995 film Heat, delivering a series of non sequiturs, movie references, and audible sighs into the mic, while Mulaney and guest Bill Hader nearly melt down with laughter.

As truth and fiction become increasingly difficult to distinguish, viewers might ask: So, wait, does this guy, like, do stand-up as Waingro? Or did they write this bit and ask him to do it? Is this bad on purpose? Does Kevin Gage know it’s bad on purpose? Does Waingro, the character, know? None of these questions get answered, of course. It’s funnier not to know.


By the time John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in L.A. reaches its final episode, the show has strayed pretty far from its initial setup as a Netflixized version of The Tonight Show. Mulaney’s monologue has all but disappeared, the interstitial comedy shorts have been largely replaced with more verité segments, and, for the first time, the episode features a narrative objective: two audience members attempt to find the bass player Flea. There are still some clumsy moments. But when Flea arrives, commandeers the stage, and makes a grand emotional pronouncement about Los Angeles while forgetting the show’s actual name, it feels like the series has achieved its highest form: it’s partially a prank on the guests, partially a prank on the hosts, and partially a prank on the viewers, all at the same time.

Everybody’s in L.A. is inconsistent from beginning to end. Sometimes that feels intentional—like part of the joke—and sometimes it doesn’t. But from the beginning, Mulaney knows how weird it is to be doing a locally focused old-fashioned late night–style show for just one week on a streaming service, and it’s to his credit that he constantly one-ups that weirdness. In contrast to a deliberately shocking “late night in hell” program like The Eric Andre Show, Everybody’s in L.A. is a show that gets its humor from the incongruity of trying to evoke the “normal” mainstream standards of a bygone era while still playing to the host’s own sensibilities.

By the end of its run, Everybody’s in L.A. doesn’t revive the same kind of classic comfort TV of the original 1970s shows it pays tribute to, nor does it entirely skewer it. Instead, Mulaney combines parody, constant (sometimes inadvertent) experimentation, and earnest curiosity about the L.A. community, producing something unique in the current comedy landscape. The show was never really meant to last, and like all Netflix originals, there’s a chance it will end up sinking into the endless stream of content, never to be seen again. But while Everybody’s in L.A. might not be Netflix’s answer to traditional late night, it proves that sometimes a show will find itself in the chaos, as long as you give it a chance to get weird.

LARB Contributor

Henry Luzzatto is a Brooklyn-based screenplay editor. His fiction, humor, and opinion writing can be found in body fluids, Points in Case, New Internationalist, and more.


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