Long before I’d ever seen an Oh, Hello sketch, I’d heard people talking about how funny they were. But none of the descriptions really seemed to make sense or add up to much: despite apparently sort-of being about a type of New Yorker (specifically: Upper West Sider) that you sort-of recognize, it’s really hard trying to classify either Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland as any exact parodic stock character, because they’re just so specific and weird. And so, when my friends tried to explain them, the conversation would go something like this:
“Are they Upper West Side gentry?” “No.” “Are they Upper West Side intellectuals or academics?” “Absolutely not.” “Wait, are they old New York Jews?” “Sort of. They really like tuna and talking about theater.” “What? Why is this a thing?” “Oh, but it is. And it is spectacular.” “Um, OK.”
And now it’s my turn to try to sum up these two bizarre septuagenarian curmudgeons/potential sex offenders/potential murderers/casual racist/sexist wannabe playwrights and voiceover artists to the unconverted, and to emphasize: go watch Oh, Hello on Broadway on Netflix immediately.
The crazy thing about it is once you’ve watched even five minutes of this taping of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Broadway series based on characters they’d developed over the last decade (and who’ve appeared on various late night shows, The Kroll Show, and Comedy Bang! Bang!), you get who they are. Because of the meticulousness of their attention to character, even if you’ve never seen a 70-something New Yorker like Gil or George in your life, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an almost primal familiarity about them. Which is particularly funny because Kroll’s character Faizon’s own way of summarizing himself is, “Whether I live in your building or not, I am somehow on your co-op board.” Most audience members, likely, have never had a co-op board, and yet one still feels compelled to think, “OMG YES, that is exactly who you are!”
So here’s how I’d describe the oddly familiar uniqueness of these characters: a sort of liver-spotted pastiche of old, white/vaguely Jewish middle brow New York signifiers. They’re crusty, obsolete manifestations of old TV series’ imaginaries of New York, like personifications of, say, a sidewalk on a Seinfeld set. Mulaney and Kroll have spoken of being inspired by two men they once saw strolling through the Strand bookstore, only to leave with Alan Alda’s biography — and their weathered, leathered characters certainly evoke old NYC institutions — from the Strand, to the diner, to Broadway.
It actually ends up being at once comically fond of this old vision of the city, while also being trenchant about the negative social implications of nostalgia. The humor is something along the lines of a string of dad-jokes…. if your dad never had kids and instead lived, festering, with another non-dad while they perpetually tried to pursue careers in show business, became addicted to cocaine and heroin, and maybe killed a few people along the way. (“All three of my wives died in the same way on the same staircase,” St. Geegland casually mentions.)
What’s particularly amusing is the cultural multilayered-ness of it — Mulaney and Kroll are obviously much younger men, much hipper to the zeitgeist than the characters they’re portraying. And so what we see is the type of referencing a show like Broad City might invoke, refracted through the tarnished lens of these two elderly non-gentlemen. For instance, when describing a play he and St. Geegland are collaborating on, Faizon remarks that it’s like Sam Shepard’s True West. “But ours was called True Upper West — that was the big M. Night Sham-a-lam [sic] twist at the end.” Their references to sexual exploration come in the form of, say, St. Geegland mentioning a Bye Bye Birdie adaptation he wrote called Bye Bi-Curious. But through the history lessons that are these characters’ lives, Mulaney and Kroll also get to subtly indict figures like conservative mayors Koch and Giuliani, emphasizing how its men like them who’ve slowly rid Manhattan of its eccentricity and made it an incubator for the world’s Trumps.
Theater itself is central to what they’re doing onstage — beyond this show being a play based on a comedy routine, the “plot” of it is that Gil and George are presenting parts of a play they’ve written about two older New York non-gentlemen named Gil and George. Prior to this presentation, the two give a bit of a theatrical master class to the audience — with a hilarious routine about exposition via one-way phone calls, and critical histories of their past work on plays like their “existential dramer [sic], Waiting for God-Oh, Hello.” They also take us on a tour of their set, which itself is just a composite of other defunct Broadway sets — including a pillow with googly eyes from Martin McDonagh’s horror play, The Pillowman, and a wall with family photos from a play by August Wilson, the “acclaimed African American playwright; I could name so many of his plays, but instead I’m gonna walk over here.”
Because of the theatrical discussion of theater, it’s obvious in some parts that seeing it live would’ve been ideal. Standup specials often translate well to the screen, and for the most part this lands far more immediately and enjoyably than your usual taped Broadway experience, because it’s more about jokes and less about spectacle. But watching nearly two hours of the recording, directed by Michael John Warren, brought me somewhat close to declaring that there’s “too much tuna.” But they end up ultimately mixing up the format enough — with their dives into meta-theater (where they get to be more surreal: one of them begins a relationship with a raccoon!), their vacillation between talking to one another and addressing the audience, and ultimately, their impressively improvised interview with celebrity guest Steve Martin — to make quite fleeting any feeling that the show might be outstaying its welcome. In fact, by the time it’s over, you might find yourself looking for the next round of episodes to binge… only to disappointedly realize that this isn’t a series. (For the record, there should be an Oh, Hello series.)
In their weird, syllable-skipping, “r”-adding old New York brogues, Mulaney and Kroll speak of “facebook-dit-com,” “cucaine,” and the delights of “tunar” sandwiches, both in the play, and in the play-within-a-play. One of the biggest feats of the whole thing is, simply, Kroll and Mulaney’s comfort with one another — knowing each other’s tics so well as to often seem like their characters are warping into each other. (Mulaney at one point draws attention to a single line that explicitly differentiates their characters.) Mulaney’s George is bossy and far meaner/more homicidal than Kroll’s pip-squeaky, mischievous Gil, but the beauty of this is the way they match up, making, with just two characters, a chorus of all the aging New Yorkers you’ve heard grumbling in the background of every sitcom about younger New Yorkers. Imagine all of those characters being given nearly two hours onstage to completely unwind, to be as kvetch-y and despicable as they wanted. It’s wild.