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John Mulaney is a strange, brilliantly funny host on 'Everybody's in L.A.'

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Netflix, in conjunction with the comedy festival it sponsored in Los Angeles, presented six live talk shows between May 3 and May 10, hosted by John Mulaney. Each show was loosely constructed around a specific LA topic - earthquakes, palm trees, coyotes - and featured a mix of real-life experts and standup comics. All six shows are available to stream on Netflix under the title "John Mulaney Presents: Everybody's In LA." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Anybody tuning in beforehand to watch one of John Mulaney's live talk show specials on Netflix was greeted by a countdown clock noting the minutes and seconds before the entertainment would begin. That really took me back because in the earliest days of HBO, in the mid '70s, that's how HBO would set up the two unedited movies it would present each night, with a countdown clock. And Netflix, by doing more and more live programming as a streaming service, is pioneering its own trail as well - well, sort of, because this particular trail, the live TV talk show, was blazed by NBC and "The Tonight Show" in the earliest years of broadcast television. Netflix's show started out just like the best incarnation of that classic program, only with Johnny Carson replaced by John Mulaney and announcer Ed McMahon by Richard Kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN MULANEY PRESENTS: EVERYBODY'S IN LA")

RICHARD KIND: Live around the world from the corner of Sunset and Doheny in Los Angeles, it's "Everybody's In LA." And now here's your host, John Mulaney.

(CHEERING)

BIANCULLI: After that opening and a Mulaney welcome, "Everybody's In LA" quickly found its own voice. Oh, there were similarities to other programs. Guests came out to sit on the couch in groups as on "The Graham Norton Show." Pre-taped bits and goofy spots with comics who were both in studio and in character were nods not only to David Letterman, but to Jack Paar and Steve Allen before him.

But, oh, my - in his six live shows, Mulaney, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer who is one of the sharpest comic minds working today, went for broke. His contributors' pre-taped pieces were risky high-wire acts, like many of Mulaney's weirdest "SNL" sketches. And even when they bombed, their abject failure on live television often would send Mulaney and his fellow comics into peals of laughter. Pieces of each show were interwoven and highly structured, but the rest was intoxicatingly loose. And while Graham Norton's great gift is to guide several guests at once through an animated discussion, Mulaney somehow found a way to drop the reins and let his guests question each other.

Here's a wonderful example of that. The topic of the night was earthquakes, and the guest expert was a seismologist, Dr. Lucy Jones. At one point, totally unscripted and unplanned, she was peppered by questions from fellow guests - first Bill Hader, then David Letterman, then the least-known comic of the three, Luenell. And Luenell's underwhelmed reaction to the doctor's answer to her question made Hader and another comic, Pete Davidson, collapse on each other in a giggle fit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVERYBODY'S IN LA")

BILL HADER: I grew up in Oklahoma, where you knew a tornado was coming...

LUCY JONES: Right.

HADER: ...Like, a day or two ahead of - you know, 24 hours. Sirens go off. There's no way...

JONES: Nothing.

HADER: Anything. So we just kind of deal with it.

JONES: Each earthquake makes another earthquake more likely.

HADER: Oh, great.

JONES: So when you've had one, you've got an increased chance of another one.

LUENELL: Like having a baby.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: Mostly they're smaller, and we call them aftershocks.

DAVID LETTERMAN: What is the most active earthquake center of the world?

JONES: Taiwan, Taipei.

LETTERMAN: Taiwan.

JONES: Yeah.

LETTERMAN: Any reason for that - the same thing, faults?

JONES: There's three plates that come together. We only have two here going side by side. There, they've got them all sort of crunching in together. They've got about 10 times as many earthquakes as we have in California.

HADER: Wow.

LUENELL: When did it hit you - the passion that you wanted to study earthquakes?

LETTERMAN: Yeah.

JONES: My senior year in college.

LUENELL: Wow.

JONES: I was a physics major before then. And then I finally realized physics was making bombs. And I discovered geology, read the book in the first week of class.

JOHN MULANEY: Earthquake...

LUENELL: And you fell in love with earthquakes.

JONES: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: On another show about helicopters, even announcer Richard Kind felt welcome to break in and ask a question of veteran TV news helicopter reporter Zoey Tur, which led to a surprise conversational detour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVERYBODY'S IN LA")

KIND: Is there any code of ethics between the helicopter guys?

MULANEY: Yeah. Like...

KIND: And you say, look. Let's not. They're having a wedding there. Let's not.

ZOEY TUR: Let me tell you about journalistic ethics. As you know, I found O.J. Simpson in the infamous slow-speed pursuit. I found...

MULANEY: So sorry. Just to...

(APPLAUSE)

MULANEY: Just to step that out a little...

TUR: Yeah.

MULANEY: ...It was announced at a press conference that he was on the run.

TUR: Yes.

MULANEY: OK. And then how did you find him?

TUR: Well, I looked at my crew, and they said O.J. Simpson was in the wind and he was a fugitive from justice. So I looked at the crew, and I said, we got to go find him.

(LAUGHTER)

TUR: And I got in a helicopter with Lawrence Welk III.

MULANEY: OK.

KIND: Whoa.

MULANEY: I don't know what to say about that, but that's very interesting.

BIANCULLI: When Kind's interjections and comic bits landed, Mulaney laughed appreciatively. And when they didn't, as when any idea on the show fell flat, he laughed even harder. Open phone lines to viewers often led to dead ends. And if a planned segment was bombing, Mulaney would abruptly abandon it, all of which seemed to amuse 70-year-old Jerry Seinfeld, one of the few guests given an opportunity to plug his new project, which just so happened to be a Netflix comedy movie called "Unfrosted."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVERYBODY'S IN LA")

MULANEY: I am 41, and you are still way more ambitious than I. You just made a movie, "Unfrosted"...

JERRY SEINFELD: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

MULANEY: ...With every funny person in the world in it.

SEINFELD: Yeah.

MULANEY: And what makes you do something like that?

SEINFELD: COVID.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: We were doing nothing, and we decided to just write a screenplay to pass the time. And Netflix, of course, wanted to make it- same reason they wanted to make this.

MULANEY: Just...

SEINFELD: There's no reason you can see.

MULANEY: Yeah.

SEINFELD: You know...

MULANEY: It's just content. Yeah.

SEINFELD: It makes sense to them, I guess.

MULANEY: Yeah. I don't ask questions.

SEINFELD: But...

BIANCULLI: It made sense to me, too - the looseness, the strangeness, the uniqueness, the limited-edition who-cares feel. It all made John Mulaney's talk show, like his brilliant stand-up specials, funnier and more unpredictable than most TV comedy around these days.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "John Mulaney Presents: Everybody's In LA," now streaming on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ADAM DEITCH QUARTET'S "PLAY ON PLAYA")

MOSLEY: If you'd like to catch up on our interviews you've missed, like our conversation with feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna, one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement, or Tyler James Williams on how being on the hit series "Abbott Elementary" gave him back his confidence, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to find out what's happening behind the scenes of our show and to get our producers' recommendations on what to watch, read and listen to, subscribe to our free newsletter at whyy.org/freshair.

FRESH AIR's technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with engineering help from Adam Staniszewski and Conor Anderson from WDET. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ADAM DEITCH QUARTET'S "PLAY ON PLAYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.