Best of Both Worlds: An Interview with Comedy, Writing and Producer Extraordinaire, Kevin Mulhern
Annie, here. I first met Kevin Mulhern around the time I was born, although one of my earliest memories with Kevin lingers around being a child and watching Kevin and his brother, Brian, in their basement on drums and guitar. Were they good? Knowing the Mulherns, who excel at everything they do, probably yes, and I remember that as one of the loudest moments of my life.
Fast-forward to me at sixteen years old, hoping to start a career in writing, and reaching out
to Kevin. He had already hit the big-time, writing for Phil Hartman, MTV, and more, and I have the nerve to be like, "hey, will you read a few of my essays?" Always the awesome person, we met at a local Starbucks, and he gave me my first bit of writing guidance. Years later, our paths continue to cross (as do our families), Kevin is as successful in writing and entertainment as always, and has been gracious (as always) to share some history and tips with our LCP family.
Read on to learn more about my very first writing mentor, creative guru, children's book author, radio producer, family man, and all-around awesome person, Kevin Mulhern.
Take us back to the beginning! How did you get started in writing?
My start in comedy writing can be traced back to an old, gigantic camcorder my parents bought for our family in the mid-80’s. They bought it primarily to document family vacations on VHS tape, but my teenaged brother Brian and I, already huge fans of “Saturday Night Live,” David Letterman, and stand-up comedy in general, commandeered the camcorder to start filming our own comedy sketches with a fellow teenage neighborhood friend, Bob Leddy. We called ourselves “MLM Productions” (Mulhern-Leddy-Mulhern) and we would distribute VHS copies of our comedic work to friends at high school and, in a pre-cursor to YouTube, we went semi-viral, building up a small cult following of fans in town. It was then that we realized that we had a wealth of proven comedic material in the form of comedy scripts and filmed sketches that we could use, even though we were still in high school/college at the time, to submit to our favorite network television comedy programs like “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with David Letterman," “The Tonight Show,” etc. So that’s what we did. And, despite a heck of a lot of rejections at first, we kept trying, because we realized comedy and writing were our passion.
You had amazing experiences working with Phil Hartman. Can you tell us about that?
When we (my brother and I) were both in college in 1993, one night my brother saw Phil Hartman, then a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” as a guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” On the episode, Phil mentioned how he was leaving “SNL” at the end of that season, and how he had a variety show in the works with NBC for the following season. Phil lamented how tough it was to find young, fresh writers that would be a good fit for his new show. My brother took that cue to mail a submission packet to Phil at “SNL,” containing some of our comedy scripts and filmed sketches.
A few days later, my mother called me at college at The University of Rhode Island somewhat confused. She said a man by the name of “Phil Hartman” who claimed he was from “Saturday Night Live” had called the house looking for Brian, who was at work at the time. Phil asked my Mom to have Bri call him the next day, but didn’t say why. Bri and I spent an agonizing night wondering what this call could have possibly been about. Did he like our stuff? Hate it? Was he going to offer us a job? Tell us to leave him alone? Our minds were racing.
The next day, Bri called Phil, who told him he loved our stuff, so much so that he wanted us to meet with him at “Saturday Night Live” to discuss ideas for the variety show (tentatively called “The Phil Show”). We ended up going to the legendary Studio 8H at “SNL” in December of 1993 to watch a dress rehearsal for that weekend’s show and to meet Phil, who we spent the day with at Rockefeller Center in what was a surreal, mind-blowing experience.
After the meeting, Phil informed us that he wanted to hire us to write for “The Phil Show”. We were beyond thrilled and honored. Phil had been a comedic hero of ours for years. And not only was he insanely talented and funny, upon meeting him we discovered that he was the coolest, laid-back guy ever.
How did you write under that type of pressure (comedy writing, working with someone so high-profile)? Did you have ways to overcome writer’s block during that time?
We collaborated with Phil for a year working on “The Phil Show.” There really wasn’t a whole lot of pressure other than what we put on ourselves as Phil could not have been more supportive. But it was challenging in many ways, of course. However, Phil was so versatile with the multitude of characters and impressions he could do that there was no shortage of concepts to draw from. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was to find a way to make variety work in network primetime TV. That format hadn’t been successfully executed in decades, and there was some concern about that with the NBC network. But Bri and I did some of our best work in that period, largely thanks to Phil’s mentorship and guidance. Back in those days, before the e-mail/internet era, we would fax scripts to Phil and he would call us with tweaks and suggestions. Phil was never a “boss." He quickly became a dear friend and mentor.
As for having writer’s block, one of the benefits of working as a comedy team as my brother and I did is that the odds of you both having writer’s block at the exact same time are minimal. So, the guy who had the creative juices at the moment could help carry the guy who was blocked until he came out of it, and vice versa. My brother and I are at our best when working as a team, even though we now work separate, competing gigs in radio.
Anyway, sadly, as so often happens in show business, NBC got cold feet about the variety format of “The Phil Show” because a similar show had flopped a few years prior, so they pulled the plug. Our first true heartbreak in show business as we had done a year’s worth of work on the show and it was our dream to work with Phil. Because his talent was uncontainable, Phil was immediately offered a role on the sitcom “NewsRadio,” which Phil tried to get us a writing gig on but it was already fully staffed with writers, so it was back to the drawing board for us.
How did your work with Phil Hartman lead to your work for MTV?
Our work with Phil directly led us to writing for “The MTV Movie Awards” in 1995, 1999, and 2003. The producer of the Movie Awards, Joel Gallen of Tenth Planet Productions in Los Angeles, who also happens to be a URI graduate, was tapped to produce “The Phil Show” while it was being developed. Phil had spoken highly of us to Joel at the time, and, when Joel needed writers for the 1995 “MTV Movie Awards”, Phil hooked us up with Joel and we had an amazing experience writing for the Movie Awards. We got to work with such comedic stars as Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, and many more. Like our first visit to meet Phil at “SNL” years prior, the MTV experiences were all otherworldly and we made some great friends in the comedy world.
Tragically, our best friend in the comedy world, Phil, was killed by his wife on May 28, 1998 in their home in what turned out to be a murder-suicide. We had continued to be in touch with Phil in the years leading up to his death, and the night he was murdered, my brother spoke to him about starring in a movie he had written just for Phil. We were beyond devastated by Phil’s passing, so much so that we took a break from show business for a while to process our grief. We never have, nor ever will, meet another talent and man anywhere approaching the human being that Phil was. We both owe him our entire careers.
How did your career change after Phil Hartman’s death?
Our careers changed after Phil’s death in that, for awhile, nothing seemed all that funny anymore. I suppose we were both clinically depressed and even traumatized by Phil’s sudden, unexpected death, and creative endeavors and writing did not come as easily as they once had. We both kind of felt like we were drifting I think. Phil had been our rock, our anchor, for so many years, and had been the first person of true import to really believe in us. I think we eventually came to the realization that the best way to honor Phil was to continue trying to bring laughter into the world, so, in 1999, we went all-in, took leave from our day jobs, and temporarily moved to Los Angeles to write for the 1999 “MTV Movie Awards”. It was there that we kind of started to find our comedic stride again as we were collaborating with true industry giants.
Do you have any funny stories from the comedy-writing time of your life?
The funniest story from the comedy writing time of my life came in the early ‘90’s, before we hooked up with Phil Hartman. My brother was submitting jokes to Jay Leno, who was, at the time, guest hosting “The Tonight Show.” One night around midnight the phone rang at our parents’ Smithfield, RI home where we still lived. My brother answered it and, when I asked who it was, he softly mouthed to me excitedly, “IT’S JAY LENO!” Rather than let my brother have his well-earned moment in the sun with the superstar Leno, I ran to the phone downstairs and picked up the line and immediately squealed, “HI, JAY!” Leno was very thrown off by my unsolicited, sudden interruption. I had just had this sudden, uncontrollable notion that this would be the only chance I would ever have to talk to Jay Leno and I had to seize the moment. The rest of the conversation was awkward and cut off much more abruptly by Jay than it would have been had I not been such a meddling geek. My brother has never let me live it down that I potentially derailed his career as a writer for Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” although Jay did buy a freelance joke from him at one point. My brother still has the uncashed check for $50 hanging on his office wall.
You’ve had a very successful radio career. Can you tell us more about that?
Radio was a happy accident for me. I had interned at the heritage rock station 94 HJY in Providence, RI, for then-midday personality Amy Hagan after college around 1994-1996. I had also gotten a job board operating for WALE, also here in RI. But I was anxious to move to a big show biz city to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and improv, so I moved to a small town in New Jersey outside of New York City, supplementing my dream with a career in print journalism as editor of a local newspaper. I did that for several years, during which I did stand-up in Manhattan, formed a sketch comedy group in the city – basically did everything I could to keep my comedic chops alive.
I eventually moved back to Rhode Island and found myself drifting from job to job aimlessly. At that time, my brother was a host of an afternoon radio show on then 103.7 WRX in Providence, and he asked me to come on the show to perform crazy stunts, which I did. I’m not proud of some of the stuff they had me do, but I had decided any way I could break into radio I would do! That eventually led to a fulltime gig as producer of a morning show on the now-defunct FNX Radio Network (heard all over New England) on a show co-hosted by my brother, The Jaxon and the Pharmacist Show, where I regrettably was known by the on-air name, Brain Damage, because of my continued practice of doing foolish radio stunts. That show was a great experience, and the best thing that came of it was that it was through that job that I met my amazing wife of almost 18 years, Jenni!
When my brother and I left FNX, we decided to move to LA full-time to pursue our real dream again of writing for television. We did the “MTV Movie Awards” again for the third time in 2003 and got a writing gig on the syndicated Warner Brothers game show, Street Smarts, as well as getting hired to write Bonus Features for the DVD box set of NBC’s “Friends,” which was another surreal experience as we got to spend time on the famous set of Central Perk.
Then for personal and professional reasons my brother had to move back to RI and I, missing my trusted comedy writing partner, soon followed suit, moved back to Rhody, and got married. Shortly after that, I got a job as producer of The Paul and Al Morning Show at 94 HJY, where I had interned about a decade prior. I had been a big fan of Paul and Al while I was in college, and it was a thrill to finally be able to work with them. Nearly 18 years later and I’m still here and loving it and the creative freedom it affords. The show and station are consistently #1 in the ratings and my job is challenging but very rewarding and fun and I work with great, talented people.
How do the skills gained in a radio career overlap with a writing career and vice-versa?
My television writing credentials definitely helped me earn a job in radio because Paul and Al were looking for someone who could write topical radio comedy bits. So my sketch background came in handy as far as conceiving and crafting a workable premise. Where writing for television and writing for radio greatly diverge is that, in radio, you are mandated to be as brief as possible. You won’t hear a five to seven minute sketch on the radio like you might see on TV. So you really have to become a very solid self-editor and use an economy of words to make your point and get to the punchlines. Also, radio is obviously an all-audio medium, so you can’t rely on visuals and sight gags like you can in TV. So, yes, there are similarities in a strict writing career versus a radio career, but there are also many different skillsets employed in both.
We’d love to hear about your book publishing experiences! We understand you published a children’s book called Cody the Cloud?
Yes, I published “Cody the Cloud”, a children’s picture book for kids aged 3-7, with Mascot Books back in 2015. It was awarded “Children’s Book of the Year” by Head Start New England a few years back, which was a huge honor. It’s the story of a cloud who can’t make it rain and teaches lessons about anti-bullying, believing in oneself, never giving up, always trying your best, and the power of kindness and love to change the world. The book is dedicated to my family, including to my amazing 7 year-old son, Liam. People can order a copy on my website, CodyTheCloud.com as well as on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.
What are you working on now?
I’ve recently completed a memoir about a dear friend of mine who passed away from Multiple Sclerosis several years ago. It’s the story of the power of true friendship through great adversity, and how two friends, Tom Murray and myself, helped lifted one another above the trials of M.S., from which Tom suffered, and severe chronic depression, which I have suffered with for decades and continue to battle. It’s an uplifting story despite its very heavy subject matter, and I am proud of it. It’s my first attempt at writing a true book for an adult audience. It’s called So Many People Have It Worse Than Me, and I’m currently seeking a publisher. Other than that I have several completed screenplays that I’m always looking for an opportunity to try and market..
What did we miss? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
You actually did a fine job asking a wide array of excellent questions, so I don’t have much more to add other than a little piece of advice for anyone seeking a career in writing, radio, television, journalism, film, or any form of show business: be persistent. Believe in yourself even through the most heartbreaking rejections. There were many times I felt like giving up, but, if I had, I would not have all off the wonderful things I have in my life right now. Use every setback and success as a learning experience and keep on plugging!
Beverage of choice, (morning versus evening): I have the tastes and palate of an 11 year-old boy. I don’t care for alcohol. I like sweet beverages, morning or evening. Love Dunkin Mocha Iced Coffee or a nice, sugar-laden Frozen Mocha in the morning. At night, I love diet A&W root beer. Hey, you’re not interviewing me about being health conscious!
If you could gift another creative any one book, what would it be?
“Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. Even though the title itself says it is about screenwriting (and it is), it is also invaluable for anyone who is trying to craft a true story for any medium. It’s a must-have book for any creative person in my opinion who wants to tell a fundamentally-sound story, though it is a monster of a book and quite involved and complex.
Two movies you love right now:
Right now I am obsessed with any films by the brilliant writer/director, Christopher Nolan. Most recently he did “Tenet,” which was such a clinic in outside-the-box conceptualization and execution. His writing is literally mind-blowing, his films beyond innovative and pioneering in every way, leaving what I feel to be largely poorly-written movies in Hollywood these days in the dust. I also love “Inception” by Nolan, which came out several years ago and is a cinematic masterpiece. I will watch these movies over and over to this day in the hopes that, through mere exposure to them, I will become a better writer and storyteller.
One song that never gets old:
As someone who works in rock radio, a LOT of songs have gotten old for me. But I’m a Van Halen nut, and, with the recent passing of the brilliant Eddie Van Halen, I’ve been diving into their catalog again a lot, and can always still find something or many things to enjoy in their music. I can’t point to one particular song of theirs as a favorite. There are too many bona fide hits from their career.
Where can our readers find you? (Website, social media, etc.)
Facebook: Cody the Cloud Children’s Book