It’s the french fries, stupid: John Mulaney’s connection to Bill Clinton

Caroline Williams
Feb 4, 2018 · 7 min read
John Mulaney in his Netflix comedy special, “The Comeback Kid” / Netflix

John Mulaney’s no comeback kid. Sure, he bounced back after the flop of his Fox sitcom, Mulaney, but his standup’s title refers to the one and only Bill Clinton. The comedian met the former president at the age of nine and hilariously recounts the experience at the end of his special. Interestingly, his parents, Charles and Ellen, went to college with Clinton, giving us an answer to a question we all must have wondered at some point: What was this frat boy-esque President like in his actual frat boy years?

The entire show leads up to these last ten minutes or so, as Mulaney presents his audience with his firsthand experience with the mellow President. It’s good because it lives up to its legend; Bill Clinton is exactly who we would all expect him to be. It’s great, though, because this isn’t a retelling of infamous events or an otherwise hyped-up speculation. John Mulaney has an interaction with Clinton that is worthy of the story because it doesn’t reach for the punchline about a guy already surrounded by potential joke material.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham in 1972 / Clinton Presidential Center

Mulaney describes how male students waited outside the library at night to walk their female peers home and then imagines Clinton in this scene with machine gun-like choruses of “Hey, can I walk ya home? Hey, can I walk ya home? Hey, can I walk ya home?” The situation reeks of hilariously twisted foreshadowing. Naturally, his mother, like many Georgetown students (and Americans), was charmed by his charisma and delighted to be accompanied. Later, Ellen brings John with her to a fundraiser during the campaign to meet Bill Clinton, despite her husband’s insistence that the candidate would never remember her. He is, of course, proved wrong.

“We land at Bill Clinton’s feet. Bill Clinton turns, looks at my mom and says, “Hey, Ellen,” ’cause he never forgets a bitch, ever.” -Mulaney in Comeback Kid

The story’s timing brewed an optimal setup. While it aged incredibly well, its current relevance is even more striking. The sexual offenses by individual hegemons abusing their power has been a hot topic in recent news cycles, making it a forefront issue. Specifically, the #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements have gained ground and provide a contemporary context for the joke.

In 1992, this was likely more impressive than funny, better suited for a good anecdote at cocktail parties than a standup special. Wait five years or so, however, and suddenly it’s an entertaining and comical allusion to nationwide scandal. A future serial adulterer remembering a girl from college he met once by name while waiting to walk other girls home? Perfect fit.

Mulaney spends time constructing his family, joking about their Catholicism, strictness, and, most notably, his father’s steely demeanor. As a “morally-upright, conservative kind of guy”, Charles Mulaney berated his son for supporting Bill Clinton by saying he had “the moral backbone of a chocolate éclair” (regardless of the fact that John was only nine in 1992), though his wife is enamored with the man. Mulaney best conveys his father’s no-nonsense nature through the bit below, taking place at McDonald’s.

John Mulaney relays his tough father’s own gag- seemingly giving in to a backseat full of kids who want McDonald’s only to order a single black coffee and immediately leave.

The joke has since been adapted to meme format by the ever-reliable Internet, placing characters from television and film into three categories of people: those who beg for a stop at the golden arches, those who divert to food at home, and those sarcastic few who order the black coffee. The meme has trended across Tumblr and Twitter, providing a simple way for fans to discuss and interpret their favorite characters’ personalities.

A “Star Wars” version of the “McDonald’s aligment chart” meme, originating on Tumblr

Somehow I imagine the elder Mulaney would shake his head at the viral virtual spread of his trick.

The juxtaposition of Charles Mulaney and Bill Clinton, two polar opposites in every way, is very intentional. It makes the respective jokes that much funnier, emphasizing both Clinton’s goofy charisma and Mulaney’s father’s grave rigidity. When impersonating his dad, Mulaney often pantomimes reading a newspaper without looking up, speaking in a low, strong, monotone voice. On the other hand, his impression of the “Buddy Garrity from Friday Night Lights-looking guy” is done with wide relaxed hand gestures, overexaggerated hillbilly smoothness, and a slight smirk.

John Mulaney on Bill Clinton’s appeal to the younger-minded and affinity for fast food / Netflix

Additionally, the two even have comparable McDonald’s interactions. Mr. Mulaney’s black coffee antic is far different from Bill Clinton’s affinity for Egg McMuffins and frequent jogs to the fast food joint in scanty shorts. The 1992 SNL skit “President Bill Clinton at McDonald’s” is likely not too far off base, highlighting the avid eater’s nonchalant manner and love of greasy fare. Charles Mulaney’s McDonald’s order, meant to show his children who’s boss, is a far cry from Bill Clinton’s hefty McDonald’s order, placed to both satisfy his immature craving for unhealthy meals and provide a photo-op that does wonders for his public image. The fact that John Mulaney’s father, a man of morals, went to college with Clinton, a man of magnetism, is humorous enough itself, but the adverse parallels are a perfect addition.

Clinton at McDonald’s on election night in 1992 / ArkansasOnline

All of this is done in anticpiation to tie together the ultimate joke: the hiring of his father’s law firm to defend Clinton after the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Perhaps the public’s reactions to its President’s eventual shortcomings can be attributed to the overall absurdity of the affair. The blue dress, a twist too good for television, best embodies this. Predictably, the almost ludicrous disgrace has led to many well-deserved and, usually, well-executed punchlines.

“Oh, aren’t terrible things great? And isn’t it funny when things go wrong?”- John Mulaney for Time Magazine

However, as an increasing number of beloved (and some not so beloved) public figures fall to the avalanche of sexual misconduct outings, Bill Clinton remains relatively liked. He even spoke at the Democratic National Convention in a primetime slot in 2016, clearly still considered a desirable representative of the party at the time. Only last month, almost seventeen years since his last day in office, did his unfavorable opinion rating surpass his favorability, which hit its lowest mark since 2001. This latest public opinion, spurred by the Harvey Weinstein fallout, reflects a second guess on the part of the American people. Is Bill Clinton the cool, McDonald’s-eating guy that John Mulaney so lovably impersonates, or is he a perverted creep who belongs behind bars?

Monica Lewinsky”, a song by rapper G-Eazy, which begins with the audio tape of Bill Clinton’s (in)famous line “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” /

Either way, people tend to associate Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky affair over all other allegations. Furthermore, even perjury and obstruction of justice charges, as well as the resulting impeachment, take a back seat to the shockingly dramatic Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Consequently, the claims of women like Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick have been swept under the rug. Lewinsky, on the other hand, has since designed lines of handbags, become a television personality, gone back to school, and given a TED Talk. She even wrote a piece for Vanity Fair entitled “Shame and Survival”, stating that the President “took advantage” of her, though (seemingly paradoxically) maintaining that the relationship was consensual.

For the most part, despite this widespread connotation of the Clinton and Lewinsky names, both parties have come out smelling like a rose. Clinton’s decline is likely only just beginning, but one does have to wonder why it took so long to re-examine the situation. Hindsight’s 20/20, I guess.

Besides his blatant distaste for the forty-second President, Mulaney’s father Charles may have just been on to something before even Kenneth Starr. He hated that Bill Clinton could “get away with anything” in college, and John uses this to deliver another punchline: “Can you imagine how he felt later?” Obviously, it was only a matter of time before the dam broke and Clinton’s extramarital activities were outted. Charles puts it best with what he told John the morning the scandal was released- “The other shoe just dropped.”

Mulaney’s bit possesses many impressive facets, but his perspective at the time of the event is one of the most vital. At nine years old, his innocence and even naïveté mirrors that of the country’s toward Bill Clinton. Everyone wants to believe in their President, and this desire can be blinding at times.

His routine is a display of the easiest and most relatable reaction to something that seems so outlandish, especially because it involved the leader of the free world. We all want to laugh when things become a bit too heavy, and an event of this nature offers too much material to pass up. It’s almost too deserving of satire and parody, but John Mulaney brilliantly brings another angle to the joke with a personal history.

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