Every fall, our usual swarm of peers transforms into a parade of leather folio-holding, suit-clad, stress-filled balls of anxiety. Georgetown has a reputation for sending a large portion of its students into traditional, straight-edge jobs following graduation that have equally traditional, straight-edge processes for getting hired. But how do students who choose less traditional career paths achieve the specific forms of success they desire? Uniquely equipped to answer this question are alumni Nick Kroll (COL ’01) and John Mulaney (COL ’04), who helped shed light on their own versions of atypical success as two of the most recognizable names in today’s comedy scene.
Kroll is notable for his role in the popular FXX comedy, “The League,” his Comedy Central show the “Kroll Show” and appearances on popular series including “Parks and Recreation.” Mulaney’s standup specials, “New in Town” and “The Comeback Kid” are available on Netflix and have been widely watched and extensively quoted. In addition, he produced numerous memorable sketches during his time as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” including his co-creation of Bill Hader’s character, Stefon.
This year, Kroll and Mulaney embarked on a joint project, “Oh, Hello,” in which they embody two characters they debuted nearly 10 years ago on “Kroll Show.” The touring show played at the Warner Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. However, their partnership began many years before this exciting new venture.
The duo met on Georgetown’s campus in Kroll’s senior year and Mulaney’s freshman year, when Mulaney tried out for The Georgetown Improv Association, then known as the Georgetown Players Improv Troupe. They both found a mentor in fellow Georgetown comedy legend Mike Birbiglia (COL ’00), and as they say often in their show “Oh, Hello,” the rest was history.
“We got very lucky that we met such a good group at Georgetown and started our careers that way and now I think about how … almost 15 years later, that we’re still performing together and having so much fun. It’s just the most gratifying thing, both to be on stage and also to say I’ve been performing with this person for so long,” Kroll said in an interview with The Hoya.
The two recognized the strange fact that Georgetown has produced so many comedy titans despite its reputation as a school centered on consulting, finance and government.
“It is funny because Georgetown isn’t known as a comedy school, and yet there are a number of very funny people that came out of it. But I think it’s almost the fact that it wasn’t this comedy college that allowed for people to find some people they like working with and find what they like doing,” Kroll said.
When asked what they would have done if they had not gone into comedy, Mulaney said at Gaston,“I cannot answer that question. I wanted to be a nightclub entertainer like Ricky Ricardo and then a comedian from about the time I was 3 or 4. I’ve never had another plan and I’ve never had another skill. Truly.”
Kroll echoed that sentiment, stating that he knew he could not be a traditional student any longer.
“I similarly never had anything I could do or was good at before. It definitely was not going to be more school,” Kroll said.
Kroll’s distaste for rigid academia was most clearly demonstrated by his unique ability to fall asleep involuntarily anywhere, even in the classes of the most interest to him.
“When I was at Georgetown I took a bunch of modern art classes. I loved Picasso and I would go into a lecture specifically on Picasso and I would fall asleep. And I would never find myself falling asleep doing comedy,” Kroll said.
Finding the thing you “wouldn’t fall asleep doing” was a prominent theme of the talk they gave in Gaston Hall on Tuesday in an event hosted by the Georgetown Lecture Fund. The two displayed their easy wit in every sentence and response, but below the humor there was a clear message for the students in the audience.
“I was more scared of regret than rejection,” Kroll said of his decision to pursue comedy during the event. “I didn’t want to look back and feel like I didn’t try.”
The pair urged students to find the thing about which they were truly passionate, the thing that did not feel like work, and to follow it to their fullest every day, even if it seemed unstable or risky. Of their vocation specifically, they stressed that this was not something to be attempted without full commitment.
The pair’s tenacity and hard work have resulted in widespread success. Their most recent venture, “Oh, Hello,” was one of the most difficult shows to get tickets for in New York and, after a successful off-Broadway run, they have taken the show on the road.
During their show in the Warner Theater on Monday night, they displayed, yet again, their strong abilities to think on their feet, read the room and play off each other with a banter that can only develop from working so closely for many years. The characters, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, are two eccentric, elderly men from New York. They feel equally too strange to be real and yet so familiar that you swore you grew up next to them. In a reoccurring sketch on “Kroll Show,” the two pranked contestants by giving them sandwiches overfilled with tuna.
These loud-mouthed geezers spoke with such a strange cadence that it soon started to feel as though there were an echo in the room: The laughter from the audience was often punctuated by various people repeating the strangely pronounced words to their neighbors, mid-chuckle. They brilliantly played to their audience, making jokes about D.C.’s inability to function with 1 inch of snow and comparing the design of New South to that of a women’s prison, while also making pointed and intelligent jokes about theater’s strange customs as a whole.
It was clear that, while just about everyone in the audience was a big fan of Kroll and Mulaney, not everyone knew Faizon and St. Geegland. About 10 minutes into the performance, St. Geegland gurgled at the audience “You didn’t know what this was going to be! And you still bought a f---ing ticket!”
Despite the lack of familiarity with these two Upper West Side-dwelling senior citizens, the audience couldn’t get enough of them. It was easy to have fun because it was clear they were having fun — their energy was contagious and the material was fresh and engaging.
“Everything about this has been so fun. It was so fun to perform off Broadway and on tour and in bigger theaters it’s even more of a thrill. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in comedy,” Mulaney said.
Ray Tierney (MSB ’16), a senior hoping to pursue comedy, said that Kroll and Mulaney’s humor, in addition to the work of alumni comedians such as Brit Marling (COL ’05) and Jim Gaffigan (MSB ’88) , may have made an impact on other students’ Georgetown experiences.
“I think there are a lot of people that you’re always surprised to find out went to Georgetown. I think in some sense that might be a rejection of Georgetown’s rigid structure. There are people like Brit Marling, Mike Birbiglia, who kind of just maybe get bored and, not necessarily lash out at the Georgetown system, but kind of just reject it and go their own way. And I think that’s a really inspiring thing that they’re willing to forego that traditional path in order to follow a more artistic pursuit.”
Olivia Hinerfeld (SFS ’17), the moderator of the event at Gaston Hall and a longtime fan of the duo, said she was struck by Kroll and Mulaney’s advice.
“I was impressed by their feedback about pursuing one’s dreams without a back-up plan at Georgetown. I feel like we are often encouraged to aggressively pursue Plan A, but to always keep Plans B, C, D and E in our backpockets,” Hinerfeld said. “I know that personally, I am now considering what I think of as Plan A and questioning whether or not I am ready to throw my entire self into the pursuit of this dream.”
Hinerfeld said she believes Kroll and Mulaney’s success was not necessarily a rejection of what they had experienced at Georgetown, but rather a non-traditional product of things they had learned while undergraduates.
“I think that being in an environment that doesn’t generally lend itself to comedy forces students to become more creative and aggressive in how they pursue this discipline. I would imagine that this tenacity would translate to success in the real world, since aspiring comedians are encouraged to start working diligently from a very early point,” Hinerfeld said.
Hearing Kroll and Mulaney take a retrospective look at the path that led to their current successes and reflect on how their Georgetown experience influenced them inspired many students in the audience to think more critically about their passions.
“A career in comedy or some other creative pursuit is definitely something I dream about. The feasibility of that, however, has made me hesitant towards actually pursuing that path, but I think seeing Mulaney and Kroll has reinvigorated that passion,” Tierney said.
With their speech and show this past week, Kroll and Mulaney showed fellow members of their alma mater that with a drive to make things happen for themselves and a sense of humor about life, they could also find their own brand of success.
Not even an overloaded tuna sandwich sneakily served to you by Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland should get in your way.
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY: NAAZ MODAN/THE HOYA, PHOTOS: COURTESY CHRISTIAN FRAREY, CLAIRE SOISSON/THE HOYA