John Mulaney shares his pop culture Must List, from a Werner Herzog doc to Floor Is Lava
John Mulaney has had a busy 2020, from hosting one of Saturday Night Live's last live shows (remember that soaring musical ode to LaGuardia Airport?) to developing a sequel to his adorably goofy 2019 kids’ special, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (which just scored him another Emmy nomination for writing).
Here, for EW's Celebrity Must List, the 37-year-old comedian shares a few of his personal pop culture picks.
MOVIES: Burden of Dreams
One thing I never get tired of is the film Burden of Dreams, which is the documentary by Les Blank about Werner Herzog trying to make a movie called Fitzcarraldo, which involves moving a steamship over a steep hill. That's the story they were dramatizing, and in an attempt to dramatize, Herzog wanted to actually move a steamship paddleboat over a hill, and he wanted to do it in the jungle the same way it was done in the script. It’s tense and fascinating because the film crew is in a terrible predicament, yet it’s fundamentally hilarious because it’s a predicament that they put themselves in. No one asked them to do this. I find a lot of life is bitching about having to do something like move a steamboat, and not really addressing that I was the person that wanted to do that.
MUSIC: Passing Strange by Stew
I've been listening to the album for the musical Passing Strange a lot. That’s been in my rotation because it is a live recording of a show. It scratches some itch of not being able to see anything live. I don’t mean I’m just listening to applause all the time, but I kind of am. The same way I've been listening to the American Utopia album a lot.
I also watched a documentary on Lil Peep. I didn't immediately think I would be a Lil Peep fan, but I have a few Lil Peep songs on my phone, one of which begins with loud screaming, like someone being murdered. Every time it starts, it scares me. However, it's very good.
TV: Floor Is Lava (Netflix)
Floor Is Lava is the type of thing I find funniest that I normally don’t talk about, which is people trying to do something physical and falling. I saw some review where they said it’s difficult to tell who this show is for, and that’s the perfect way to overthink Floor Is Lava. You don’t have to worry about who it’s for: It’s for you.
Basically, it's two or three contestants on a team. They have to get across this room where the floor is, like, bubbling, red, viscous water that sprays on the different pieces of furniture and different objects that you can jump to. It takes its name, obviously, from the game children play where you have to jump from the couch to the chair because... the floor is lava. This show absolutely takes that and doesn’t do that much more with it.
The only problem with Floor Is Lava is that there’s only like 10 episodes. I was immediately frustrated that there weren't more.
STAGE: Martin McDonagh's Hangmen
I don’t know if it had been produced before in New York, but it starred Johnny Flynn, who was in Emma. I saw it Off Broadway, and it was fantastic.
BOOKS: The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist
It’s the story of Los Angeles in the 20th century in three parts: William Mulholland stealing water, the motion picture industry getting started around D.W. Griffith, and the story of Aimee Semple McPherson. It’s three central things that are always happening in L.A.: water, movies, and cults. L.A. was almost uniquely founded by those.
BONUS: The Studs Terkel Archive
I’ve been listening to this a lot. On studsterkel.wfmt.com is an archive of his radio interviews over the years, which was everyone from James Baldwin to Nora Ephron to musicians, comedians, activists, politicians. He’s a really great, curious interviewer.
I didn't know him, but I saw him a lot. He was my best friend's neighbor when I was a kid [in Chicago], and he was like 90. He didn't drive, which inspired me to not drive for a long time. He was just this really old man who had a funny name, and then I sort of knew about his books and knew he had been a broadcaster. But I think there are like 1,200 programs on this website, and they're really fantastic.
—As told to Devan Coggan