The most surprising thing about "Mulaney," an effortful new sitcom in a hopefully classic mode starring the comic and former "Saturday Night Live" writer John Mulaney, is how ordinary it is, how conventional are its ambitions. The series premieres Sunday on Fox.
Even as Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Nick Kroll, among other stand-ups now leading shows that bear their name, have taken TV comedy to deeper or more complicated places, Mulaney has put himself at the center of an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom whose most obvious antecedent is acknowledged in a head-them-off-at-the-pass line addressed to its star: "I defend you when people say you're a 'Seinfeld' rip-off."
Like "Seinfeld," "Mulaney" is a slightly surreal show about a New York comedian and his oddball friends — roommates Jane (Nasim Pedrad) and Motif (Seaton Smith), neighbor Oscar (Elliott Gould), resident chunky interloper Andre (Zack Pearlman) — here extended to include an oddball boss played by Martin Short, a vain, needy, sexually creepy host of an absurd game show.
Also as in "Seinfeld," the star is the relatively normal one, almost to the point of being the straight man. He insists on his own strangeness, but he does not quite sell it. None of the energy of Mulaney's stand-up act has transferred to his sitcom.
"I love how you're so deadpan and don't hit the joke too hard," one of the women Mulaney will date for no more than an episode tells him — another "Seinfeld" inheritance — in what sounds like another preemptive remark.
There are also the Seinfeldean coinages and obsessions, but pushed forward and highlighted in a way that feels both self-aware and inept. If this were a show that demonstrated the impossibility of originality in a three-camera sitcom in the year 2014 by embracing the old tropes, that wouldn't be exactly original — "appropriation" art and all that jazz — but it'd be something more than the slightly graphic simulacrum of a 20th century sitcom we seem to have here.
It's suggested, at least, that Mulaney is a product of 1990s situation comedy: To Motif, on his juvenile approach to women: "That's how Ross got Rachel; he was humble, he was nervous, and he had no swagger." ("Who's Ross? What is 'Friends'?" asks Motif, who is black and presumably raised on other things.)
Gould's performance is alarming at first; he flounces, he flaps, he balls his hands like a baby. (He's like an older-generation, pothead version of Stefon, the "Weekend Update" character Mulaney created with Bill Hader.) But he at least suggests a character that might exist independently of this sitcom and has some of the show's best, weirdest lines ("We're going to see Steely Dan at the Beacon — they're only playing nine nights, and then they leave for a whole month").
Indeed, it's not that the show is utterly devoid of effective jokes, though at times you may feel like checking your watch as you wait for the next one to come along. Everything is in order, from the cluttered sets to the supporting cast. Yet nothing gels.
Follow me on Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd
When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday