Joe Mulligan is a very funny fellow. A well-known face at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jams in the 1990s, Mulligan returns to the jam on September 9. He is also a staple on the stand-up comedy circuit where he has become famous for including a guitar in his act, improvising songs based on audience suggestions. Recently, we sat down with Mulligan at his palatial estate in midtown Manhattan to talk with him about his career as a comedian, improviser, and musician.
How did you get involved in improvisation?
I saw an ad in Backstage in 1983 or so. I had just finished an equity showcase, a show called the Pahokie Beach, in which I played a lifeguard who was a bass player on the side. And I remember it because I broke my finger on stage. There’s a photo of me staring at my hand in dismay.
I was looking for the next thing to do and saw [improv troupe] the First Amendment performing. Something struck me. I loved the way they pulled stuff out of thin air. So, I went to auditions. Barbara [Contardi, the company director] told me I was good but not ready. But I really wanted to do it, so she took me on. I went to workshops and worked lights for the show. That was invaluable in understanding the structure of a scene.
Why did you get involved in acting to begin with?
I grew up in New Jersey, and belonged to a church that had shows my father acted in. My father did the lead in The Music Man and My Fair Lady. I did The Mikado and Gilbert and Sullivan as a child. in the chorus I grew up around theater. Then, I began playing my guitar in coffee houses. I came to New York in 1979. I always had this dichotomy within me between music and acting. I did musical showcases at Kenny’s Castaways; I did original songs at a bar on Bleecker Street. Mercifully, none are on tape. At the 13th Street Theater, I started doing lights. I worked my way up to original productions on stage.
You also continued with your music?
I became involved in a rock band called No Laughing. We released a single, distributed by CBS Records in which we took a Chinese food menu and set it to doo-wop. We thought it was funny but absolutely nothing happened with it. My partner assured me that within eight weeks I’d be off bicycles [as a messenger] and in limousines.
Why did you start including your guitar in your act?
Since I was coming from First Amendment, I was aware I could do something improvisationally with my guitar. Soon, I made my living from guitar improv comedy. I’d go there, and then get a suggestion and musical style and do both. I felt like I was a bard, singing the news of day in reggae, blues, and opera. I started doing that April 1, 1987. I know that because it was my last day as a bartender and first as a stand-up.
I’ve been to 45 states with my act. I began touring four years ago. Over the course of time, my act has become more stand-up and less musically oriented, to the dismay of club owners, who want the music. People perceive you as being certain way, and you get typed.
What appeals to you about improv?
To me, it’s fun when improv takes off on its own, when you reach that magic moment when it all just takes off, when you take that lumbering big old Wright Brothers plane down the road, and it just takes off. It’s wonderful when it achieves its own reality and sense of purpose. You can’t plan those moments. They just happen.
SEE JOE MULLIGAN ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28TH AT SUNDAY NIGHT IMPROV, 7 P.M. SOTER-LEE THEATER 236 WEST 78TH STREET!