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Georgetown University: A Breeding Ground for Comics

John Mulaney talks about how the school's improv group helped launch his career.
The cast of John Mulaney’s sitcom: Elliott Gould, Zack Pearlman, Nasim Pedrad, Mulaney, Martin Short, and Seaton Smith. Photograph by Matthias Clamer/FOX.

In August 2000, John Mulaney, a Catholic kid from Chicago, arrived at Georgetown, and a week later he was accepted into the school’s fledgling improv group, cast by fellow comedian Nick Kroll. He would soon follow Kroll to New York, sleeping on the elder comic’s couch while he hit open-mike nights. That trail led him to an Emmy-winning stint writing for Saturday Night Live—and to Mulaney, a sitcom debuting October 5 on Fox. Besides Kroll and Mulaney, Georgetown has become a breeding ground for off-kilter, quick-witted comics: Mike Birbiglia, Funny or Die’s Owen Burke, comedy writer Brian Donovan, and Parks and Recreation’s Alison Becker. Mulaney, now 32, talks about Georgetown as a comedy spawning ground.

Why do you think Georgetown’s improv group has been such a career launcher?

When I was there, it kind of felt like the only game in town, at a school that didn’t have a ton of theater. They’ve since built a huge performing-arts center we’d have loved to have. But it was just a very funny group of people—I’m surprised more people I did improv with didn’t go into comedy.

So with little else in the way of performers, you were the outsiders?

In retrospect, we were pretty much just left alone. We sold tickets—the money covered us and the children’s theater; we didn’t have to ask for grants. If I had gone to an NYU or an Emerson that had a lot of performing arts, it would have been very different.

Did that self-sufficiency carry into your career?

It definitely helped doing standup early on. We would do shows at the coffee shop at Georgetown’s Lauinger Library and have to set up chairs, so in New York it seemed natural to just walk into a bar and ask to do a show. There’s the idea that if you want to do a TV show, you have to make one—you can’t wait for someone else.

How does Washington compare as a comedy town?

DC Improv is really good, and in the past few years the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse has turned out to be an awesome venue. When you have two central hubs like that, a lot of young comedians can get stage time, and that’s what makes a comedy town.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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