At first glance, Bulldog Alley may not seem like much of a performance area. But for comedians John Mulaney (COL ‘04) and Nick Kroll (COL ‘01), this unassuming venue would change their lives.
“I saw John audition his freshman year, and was like, this is the funniest guy I’ve ever met” said Kroll.
Kroll was a senior when Mulaney, a freshman, auditioned for the Georgetown Improv Association. Mulaney, for his part, hadn’t planned on focusing on improv in his time at Georgetown. He had acted in theatrical productions in high school, but wasn’t sure if he would continue with acting in college. Originally he had planned on writing, and maybe starting a humor magazine, until a friend dragged him to the improv audition where he would meet Kroll.
“I remember very specifically seeing John’s audition with his friend, and they were both funny,” Kroll said.
If that first meeting set the stage for a promising future of collaboration for the pair of comedians, an afternoon more than a decade later in New York City secured it. In the eyes of most people, Strand Bookstore, known as the Strand, is a huge, independent bookstore in the heart of downtown Manhattan. It is a trademark of the city, and contains “eighteen miles of books” for avid fans of literature, according to its website. For Mulaney and Kroll, however, the store would provide something else: inspiration.
“We were at the Strand one day, and we saw these two older guys buying two copies of Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” Kroll said. “So, we saw these guys, and we just sort of observed them. They both bought their separate copies and we followed them to a diner where they both sat and read their copies of the book.”
These two elderly gentlemen became the inspirations for the protagonists of sketches they performed in comedy clubs, on the Kroll Show, and on and off Broadway. However, the long road to that show, “Oh, Hello”, which is now touring the country, started at the beginning of their freshman years.
“I was a freshman, and there was this thing called the Funniest Act on Campus,” Kroll said. “I don’t know if that still exists but I bombed terribly.” Despite his poor audition, Kroll was noticed by Mike Birbiglia (COL ‘00), another successful Georgetown comedian. He was encouraged to audition for a sketch show called the No Show, and thus began his comedic career at Georgetown.
“Doing the shows with Improv at Georgetown and Bulldog Alley are by far some of my greatest memories and really propelled me to go want to do comedy,” Kroll said of his time in college. He also discussed several Georgetown staples. “Who can forget all the magical evenings at Rhino and all the classy things that happened there?” he said. “I have to credit Wisemiller’s for instilling in me a lifelong love with what I think is Mexican polka music.” However, above everything else, Kroll valued performing in Bulldog Alley, which he jokingly described as a ghetto, adding that the intimate environment helped the performances.
Although they have gone on to achieve enormous popularity, both Kroll and Mulaney relayed stories to which every Georgetown student can relate. Kroll spoke of unsuccessful attempts to sell his textbooks in the Leavey Center and the flavored coffee at Uncommon Grounds in the Leavey Center. “I mean, you’re never gonna find a better pun coffee name than Uncommon Grounds, I’m telling you.”
Mulaney, who described his time at Georgetown as feeling like twenty years instead of four, has come to appreciate the experience in hindsight. He described one academic incident as being particularly memorable. “I remember once turning in a paper on Paradise Lost, sprinting … as fast as I could because it was late,” he said. “I just remember I was 19 years old, I was so exhausted, sprinting to turn in a paper on Paradise Lost that no one needed or wanted.”
Mulaney experienced another turning point in a place Hoyas know all too well: Lauinger Library. He recalled taking a cigarette break with a group of friends outside of Lau in the early hours of the morning during finals. “[We] just kind of realized that we couldn’t keep taking cigarette breaks,” he said. “Everyone started dipping in the library. I had one of those big tables all to myself because I was chewing tobacco, and I just remember saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to get your life together.’”
He also discussed a debate involving writer Christopher Hitchens in 2002 concerning whether or not the United States should invade Iraq. He said that witnessing the crowd getting into the argument by booing and cheering was one of the most intellectually stimulating moments in his time at Georgetown.
In the classroom, Mulaney spoke of one experience in particular that shaped his career: Dr. John Glavin’s (COL ‘64) screenwriting class. During one exercise, Dr. Glavin made the class rewrite the lyrics of Cole Porter songs with updated references. The assignment initially seemed useless, but as the semester progressed, Mulaney began to see the value in what Glavin was teaching. “It was about teaching you that the more economical you can make anything, song lyrics, dialogue, jokes, the better it’s going to be,” he said. “I think that’s influenced me the most … It’s rules from Glavin’s class that I think about all the time.” Mulaney majored in English with a Theology minor, which he said he also enjoyed immensely.
“And I think there’s a scholarship called the John Mulaney scholarship for anyone on line at Wisemiller’s to shoplift an Arizona Iced Tea.” – John Mulaney
Outside of the classroom, the pair mostly focused on improv. “That was the biggest thing,” Mulaney said. “I really loved it and I cared about everything from rehearsals in the group to poster design.”
I think it was really helpful for us to feel like we were doing something that not everybody was doing on campus,” Kroll said. “It was a real choice to do … I think it just gave us a lot of stage time and allowed us to perform all the time so that when we got to New York we had already logged a lot of hours.”
Their experiences were unique because of how small the comedy scene was at Georgetown. “It’s not a school you go to because you’re like ‘Oh, look at that bangin’ comedy scene,’” Mulaney added.
But being a part of such a small, tight-knit group helped the duo develop their talents because of how many opportunities they had to perform. Mulaney compared Georgetown’s small comedy scene with the environment at a school like Emerson, which has many more sketch groups, saying that Georgetown offered many opportunities for growth.
Due to their busy careers, the pair have been unable to return to Georgetown to watch the improv group perform. However, the two will return to campus when “Oh, Hello” comes to D.C, and are making an appearance in Gaston Hall at 11 AM on Tuesday, Feb. 16th in an event sponsored by the Lecture Fund. Their impact on Georgetown will be well remembered, both on and off campus. “I’m pretty sure we still have an endowment at Booeymongers,” Kroll said. “And I think there’s a scholarship called the John Mulaney scholarship for anyone on line at Wisemiller’s to shoplift an Arizona Iced Tea,” Mulaney added.
After their graduation from Georgetown, the two have followed separate paths into the professional world of comedy. Kroll made guest-starring appearances on such shows as Parks and Recreation, Community, and New Girl, along with appearances in the films I Love You, Man, Date Night, and Dinner for Schmucks.
His breakthrough came as fantasy football fanatic Rodney Ruxin on FX’s hit series The League, which recently aired its seventh and final season. In 2013, Kroll also created Kroll Show on Comedy Central, which he starred in with prominent comedians like Bill Burr, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, and, of course, Mulaney.
Mulaney himself became a writer for Saturday Night Live in 2008 at the height of the election between John McCain and Barack Obama. “That was a second college.” Mulaney said. “Writing late at night with people and everyone laughing ridiculously hard … it was incredibly fun.”
During the period, the show was at its most popular. Mulaney and his fellow writers were tasked with producing ten shows in eight weeks, which, according to Mulaney, was the most shows SNL had ever put together in such a condensed time period. “I remember going home in a taxi cab and a bus pulled up next to me and it was an ad with all the guys from SNL,” he said. “Then I looked to the other side to the magazine stand and it was Entertainment Weekly with Seth [Myers] and Amy [Poehler], so it was just like … I couldn’t get away from this. It was everywhere. It was so exciting.”
Mulaney has also had huge success as a stand-up comedian. His first stand-up comedy special, New in Town, premiered on Netflix in 2012. his second The Comeback Kid, came in 2015.
Mulaney also tried his hand at sitcom television with his semi-autobiographical show, Mulaney, which premiered on Fox in 2014. Unfortunately, Mulaney received poor reviews and was cancelled after thirteen episodes. “I would say having a TV show with my name on it not do well by any standard and get [to] cancelled was hard,” Mulaney admitted. “However, the same year that happened I got to go on tour and play Carnegie Hall and do this special for Netflix, and it was the same year I got married.” There was a lot going on for the comedian, which he described as both difficult and amazing.
Working with the cast of SNL gave both Mulaney and Kroll, who had several of them guest star on his show, invaluable experience. “[As] a comedy writer, purely, you get such an appreciation for writing for other people,” Mulaney said. “As someone who studied writing in school, and took screenwriting and playwriting classes, that was a second appreciation of when performers and actors come in, that’s when things get enhanced and get better.”
“It’s just really exciting to be working with your friends and to be doing the show 15 years after meeting him and still feeling the same way.” – Nick Kroll
He added that many writers see writing in comedy as a solitary experience, when in reality, it is a totally collaborative endeavor until the moment it gets put in front of an audience. Kroll said that it is an incredibly exciting time to be working in comedy because of the variety of comedic outlets, from stand-up comedians to news shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
The development of “Oh, Hello” started in The Strand, but it has evolved since. After seeing the two elderly gentlemen in New York City, Mulaney and Kroll wanted to create characters who could resonate in cities around the country. “It just seemed so specific and funny to us … once you see them, those guys in New York are everywhere,” Kroll said. “Most cities have their kind of old, liberal racist guys, so we saw them, and then we started to create those guys, and we started talking like them.”
The pair started by hosting a two-man stand-up show in New York City. Then the characters, named Gil Faison (played by Kroll) and George St. Geegland (played by Mulaney), made their first televised appearance on Kroll Show.
“People really liked them,” Kroll said. “You know, we had always been told nobody will get it outside of New York, and then we had like 16-year-old girls from Arizona dressing as them for Halloween.” After the Kroll Show finished, the two did a promotional interview for another comedian in New York City in character as Gil and George. “It was really really fun, and we sort of jokingly said, ‘Oh, George and Gil should go on Broadway,’” Kroll said. “And then, we started to say, ‘Well maybe those guys should write a play.’”
“Oh, Hello” opened off-Broadway in the Cherry Lane Theater on Dec. 10 and was very well-received, which led to the pair starting a nationwide tour.
“It feels like being back in college where you’re doing this thing because you love to do it, and it doesn’t matter really who sees it or what happens,” Kroll reflected. “It’s just really exciting to be working with your friends and to be doing the show 15 years after meeting him and still feeling the same way.”
While the play is scripted, the two make sure to include as much improvisation as possible to make each performance feel fresh. “For us I think it’s the best of both worlds,” Kroll said. “[It is] something that we really like as a written piece and also that has a lot of room for improvisation to keep it fun and loose for us and interesting to do every night.”
The show is never played the same way twice, which keeps both the performers and the audience on their toes. “When you’re doing a live show every night, you can keep tweaking and editing and changing jokes,” Kroll continued. “John and I are constantly thinking about a new way to do something, whether we want to change it or not.”
Mulaney explained the differences between doing “Oh, Hello” and his other stand-up routines. He said that stand-up is like captaining a ship and entertaining the passengers all at once, which is fun for him, but as one person, keeping the attention of more than 1,000 people for an hour is challenging. Doing a two-man show is even more liberating, relaxing, and fun for both of them.
“These characters in particular are so insane sometimes that it’s probably the most liberating thing to do on stage because we can kind of do whatever the hell we want,” Mulaney said. “It feels like we deeply know the characters and we’re willing to go off in various directions every single night.” Mulaney admitted that he is constantly wondering what the two are going to do during the play that night.
Kroll added that the two will adjust the play depending on where they are performing. “We’ll tweak jokes and add jokes to every city that we’re in,” he explained, “but the core of the show will be the same.”
Since Georgetown is not considered a prime producer of comedic talent, Mulaney expressed some of the trepidation he felt upon graduation, and he offered some advice for hopeful performers. He said that upon graduation, you would see your friends go into banking, or law, and that is terrifying since you will be an unemployed comedian.
“You just went to this great school, and you’re like, ‘What the hell happened? I should be so impressive, I would tell people I went to Georgetown and they would be so impressed,’” he said. “‘Now I tell people I’m trying to be a comedian and they look at me like I have the plague.’”
Mulaney explained what he sees as the positive of being a comedian. “Being a comedian is incredibly fun, I enjoy it as what you get to do professionally, the types of people you get to meet and the types of experiences you get to have, both working and/or travelling, and performing for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s an incredibly fun experience. So that’s the good news.”
The frustrating news is that it took him years to get to this point. Despite the uncertainty that dominated the early years of his career, Mulaney recommended not having a backup plan when you graduate. “I found people with backup plans tend to go to their backup plan and not see it through,” he said.
Looking ahead, both comedians are working on several projects besides “Oh, Hello.” Kroll said that he is developing a few television shows and working on some movies, while Mulaney said that he is writing for Documentary Now, a show created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers. For now, however, the two are focused on having the time of their lives with “Oh, Hello.”
Looking back on their time at Georgetown, they can both reflect on how memorable their experiences were. “You know you’re always fighting with people or upset, but also having the best time of your life,” Mulaney added.
Long in a league of their own, these two will now make a triumphant comeback to the place that started it all. This time, however, they have found a new venue in town, one that should fit their outsized talents a little better than the cramped confines of Bulldog Alley.
Additional Reporting by Daniel Varghese.
John Mulaney and Nick Kroll will be in Gaston Hall on Tuesday, February 16th at 11 AM for a special event hosted by the Lecture Fund.
“Oh, Hello” is playing at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. on February 14th, 15th, 17th, and 18th.