Basing a nearly two-hour play on a “bad joke” should lead to a boring disaster of diminishing returns.
But in the new Netflix special “Oh, Hello,” John Mulaney and Nick Kroll take one of those “bad jokes” a giant leap forward in order to explore something so intentionally awful, it’s exciting.
Portraying a pair of older New York City gentlemen, Mulaney and Kroll spend the filmed play deconstructing a range of topics ― from theater to politics to fame ― only to use the same conventions they ridicule to fuel their own performance.
One moment they might be making fun of an old writing trope featured in plays; another they’re using that same trope both for a laugh and to move the plot along. They found a way to have their cake and eat it, too. Or, in the case of their “bad joke,” have their tuna sandwich and, well, avoid eating it.
In the New York Times review of the 2016 Broadway play filmed for this Netflix special, there’s a strange warning.
“Just so you know: There are lots of bad puns on tuna.”
It’s not something that should have worked, but it did. John Mulaney on tuna sandwiches and "Oh, Hello."
The play is based on a decade-long joke Mulaney and Kroll have been performing, where ― as their geriatric characters ― they fake prank celebrities by giving them extremely over-stuffed tuna sandwiches. (The sandwiches are as big as human heads.) The recurring joke got the most attention when Kroll added it as a recurring segment on his Comedy Central sketch program, “Kroll Show,” which ended in 2015.
When expanding this joke to a full-length play, they had to figure out how to balance repeating the premise fans already understood ― serving too much tuna to celebs ― with not beating a dead tuna.
“I think there were two things happening at once,” Mulaney explained to HuffPost about the struggle of figuring out what would work.
The first is “there’s a real joy” in getting to perfect the repetition of a joke, even if it’s about tuna. The other is they felt their characters ― Mulaney’s George St. Geegland and Kroll’s Gil Faizon ― were the type of endearingly lame duo that would repeat any joke that got a laugh “for the rest of their lives.”
Kroll also attributed the ability to keep using tuna-based humor for the strange universality of the product. Mulaney likened the tuna sandwich to “Oh, Hello.”
“It’s not something that should have worked, but it did.”
The Netflix special, which debuts Tuesday, adds stylistic flourishes to the performance, with well-chosen close-ups (angles you couldn’t see from their mezzanine!) and funny “behind-the-scenes” gags (including a recurring joke involving Matthew Broderick).
This special could be an endpoint or a next step. Mulaney and Kroll have made countless over-sized tuna sandwiches over the last decade and seem reluctant to retire the joke. Kroll even developed an allergy to tuna, literally reaching the breaking point of “too much tuna.”
It’s unlikely they’ll run away from their tuna roots anytime soon, though. The fan base for this beautiful monstrosity of a joke is there. Mulaney and Kroll embrace it.
“We like going to delis,” said Kroll. “We get pranked with tuna pretty often.”